Smaller players have come and gone, but with deep-pocketed wood-plastic lumber makers getting into the mix, it seems that composite fencing's time has finally come.
Several composite lumber makers have hung back, watching some of the little guys fold, and taking note of what the competition was doing. Most already extrude composite deck board, so it seems a natural extension to their business. But with vastly different distribution channels to pursue, and engineering challenges regarding weight and structural support, many deck makers needed time to get comfortable with the new market.
A stroll around the exhibit hall at Fencetech, held Jan. 31-Feb. 2 in Orlando, provided sufficient evidence that composite lumber makers have taken the plunge into fencing. As in decking, consumers and fence dealers ultimately will separate the players from the pretenders.
It seems clear that fence professionals have grown familiar with composite materials and that in itself is a battle won.
The past year or so has seen companies like Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co. Inc.; Santa Ana, Calif.-based FiberTech Polymers Inc.; Toronto-based Composatron Composites Technology; and Houston-based Gulf Coast Composites LLC launch composite fencing.
Trex was the first among the market-leading deck makers to jump into the mix with its Seclusions fencing system. Little-known FiberTech is supplying Lowe's home-improvement stores with its TimberWolf fence boards. Composatron is readying a new plant in Toronto to extrude its new fence products. And Gulf Coast Composites is working with Merchants Metals, one of the nation's largest fence distributors and a maker of chain-link fencing.
Gulf Coast Composites uses polypropylene and foaming technology to differentiate its products from the rest of the field.
``Our boards are 30 percent lighter than most boards,'' said President Loren Hill.
Composatron chooses the more commonly used PP, but combines that with foaming technology to lighten its boards.
``It's the next generation'' and the future of composite fencing, said Drex Knox, Composatron's vice president of business development. ``It's lighter, faster and easier for the contractor.''
Several other composite lumber extruders launched their new products at Fencetech. Among them were Wilmington, Ohio-based TimberTech LLC; Springdale, Ark.-based Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc.; and New London, N.C.-based Fiber Composites LLC, which also showcased a coextruded composite privacy fence with a vinyl capstock - similar to the coextruded railing systems that have proved popular for deck makers.
Trex Seclusions is a heavy, durable fence system, using steel reinforcement to provide strength. However, the trend from those that have followed Trex into the marketplace seems to be toward lighter and more flexible, and using thinner profiles.
That trend includes distributing fence systems in more of a picket format that allows people to fiddle with fence design, rather than providing a standard system.
Like Composatron and Gulf Coast Composites, TimberTech's FenceScapes features light, thinner fence profiles. ``It's 40 percent lighter than a solid composite,'' said fencing manager Tony Groh.
TimberTech plans to deliver its first fence orders in March, with a regional rollout throughout 2007 and a nationwide rollout in 2008. The company added two new extrusion lines at its Wilmington plant to boost its fence-making capacity, Groh said. There are no immediate plans to add more capacity, but Groh said TimberTech officials certainly hope growing demand will require it eventually.
Fiber Composites' Fencetech display was a prototype, but sales manager Bill Ross confirmed that the company plans to introduce its Fiberon fence products by the end of August with a full rollout in 2008.
``What the world screams for is a low-maintenance, warm-color-palette fence that can be installed by both vinyl and wood installers,'' Ross said. ``We'll be that manufacturer.''
Principia Partners' Steve Van Kouteren and John Pruett co-authored a presentation on composite fencing growth projections, which Van Kouteren presented at Fencetech. Pruett, a principal with the Exton, Pa.-based consulting firm, said in a follow-up interview that success for individual composite fence makers hinges on whether they can find effective distribution channels.
``They have to create new paths to market,'' Pruett said.
Unlike decking, fencing has been slower to hit its inevitable growth spurt, but Pruett said it's definitely coming.
There are several different varieties of fence - from ornamental, stockade, agricultural post and rail to privacy. It's noteworthy, Pruett said, that composite fence makers have focused almost exclusively on residential privacy fence.
It's an entirely different audience for building-products makers that have ventured into fence, in some cases moving into a product category that is outside their core.
Some in the fencing sales and installation business believe many consumers have settled for vinyl because of its performance as a low-maintenance material, even though most prefer the look of wood. For that reason, optimism remains high that composite fence will prosper once consumers familiarize themselves with it.
Fencetech is an annual trade show held by the Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based American Fence Association.