Given the thin presence of U.S. companies at the world's largest industrial textile fair earlier this month, it's no surprise this industry is struggling to expand beyond the U.S. border.
"Techtextil/Compositex," a huge international fair of synthetic fiber and materials manufacturers, attracted well over 400 exhibitors, almost half of them German, but only 21 U.S. entities, including a trade group.The United States' sparse showing here reflects the U.S. textile industry's longtime reliance on the domestic market, which, until recently, was so lucrative and expansive that many companies didn't need to build a customer base overseas.
Industry sources estimate that 14 percent of U.S.-made textiles and 2 percent-3 percent of U.S.-made apparel are exported each year.
But relying exclusively on domestic buyers will no longer provide most U.S. textile companies the growth they need to prosper into the next century, industry analysts say. That message, they say, is getting through to only a minority of the industry.
"There could and should be more companies today committed to exporting," said Monica Montavon, an international trade specialist with the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Textiles and Apparel (Otexa), who arranged exhibit space for six U.S. companies here.
The trade show, held at the giant Messe Frankfurt exhibition facility, put on display the basic fabrics and materials used to make products ranging from rubber rafts to car seats to sophisticated field coverings for irrigation.
An air bag for motorcyclists developed in the Netherlands was debuted at the show, which ran from June 7-9. More than 90 percent of textiles used for technical purposes is made from man-made fiber.
The U.S. companies here disagreed about how best to approach the European textile market, described by one participant as "much more competitive than in the United States."
According to executives from Bruin Plastics Co., a Glendale, R.I., maker of coated cloth for display banners, the European market demands general-use textiles, to be customized by the buyer for resale to end users.
"The demand is for more general products; that's the sense we get," said Steve M. Angelone, the company's vice president for marketing and sales.
Others saw things differently.
"Europe is a differentiated market, with different requirements for different regions and buyers," said John Leary, who oversees international sales for Archer Rubber Co., a Millford, Mass., maker of rubber-coated fabric for rafts, tents and raincoats.
That approach led Seaman's Corp. of Wooster, Ohio, to avoid a common U.S. strategy of selling in Europe through independent distributors and sales agents. Instead, Seaman's uses a company salesperson to call on European accounts.
Asked whether his company is making any money in Europe, a Seaman's representative responded: "Don't ask that question."
Most of the U.S.-based companies came here primarily to sign up independent agents, Ms. Montavon said.
Most companies interviewed here hoped exports would reach 25 percent of sales in a few years, though almost all are still struggling to break out of the 5 percent to 10 percent range.
Archer Rubber currently exports 10 percent of its output and is trying to expand that to 20 percent to 30 percent, Mr. Leary said. For a fee of $5,500, Commerce provides companies with prearranged exhibition space clustered with other U.S. companies, and an office area to conduct meetings. All each company has to do is bring samples, literature and foldout displays.
Commerce will only work with companies that manufacture exclusively in the United States or agree not to display their non-U.S. made products. Several U.S. companies exhibited on their own.
Otexa will arrange exhibit space for U.S. companies at several other overseas textile trade shows this year, including shows focusing on home furnishings and apparel.