Interview with Unifrax's David Brooks
Unifrax entered into an agreement in late July to acquire Super Saffil Limited and Saffil America, Inc. (Saffil) from Dyson Group plc. Saffil develops, manufactures and sells innovative, high-temperature polycrystalline wool materials to a global customer base. It has two main business units: Saffil Automotive and Saffil Fiber. Saffil is headquartered in Widnes in the U.K. and has manufacturing operations in the U.K. and South Africa.
IH: Why did Unifrax decide to make these acquisitions now?
DB: We’ve had a strategy of growing the company, and our primary priority is organic growth initiatives. When there are products and/or service capabilities that we don’t have internally that our key customers would like to buy, then we look at acquisitions that will expand our product offering.
In regard to the Saffil acquisition, we have a range of products (e.g., fibrous-based mounting mats) that we sell successfully to our customers. However, a fair number of applications have been moving toward materials that are based on polycrystalline wool fibers. We do not manufacture that type of fiber and haven’t been able to offer that to our customers. Unifrax wants to have any product that our customer wants to purchase. When the Saffil business came to market, we were interested in buying it. Fortunately, we were the successful bidder.
IH: Will Unifrax make an investment in Saffil to add capacity?
DB: The Saffil business needs investment in capacity both for primary fiber manufacturing and, secondarily, for capacity to be able to convert that fiber into a mat or a felt, which is subsequently fabricated into a shape that the customer can use. There will be investments in both processes, but the big investment that needs to be made right away is in fiber manufacturing. The forecast for Saffil’s fiber-manufacturing business going forward shows that requirements will outstrip capacity unless investments are made in a timely fashion.
IH: How will Saffil (Super Saffil Limited and Saffil America) fit into Unifrax’s company structure?
DB: We will operate it as one business, and it will be a wholly owned subsidiary inside of Unifrax. Essentially, it can stand on its own inside the company. The senior management of Saffil is going to continue on with Unifrax. They’ve committed to staying, and we’re excited about that. The business will form part of our overall activities in the emission-control field.
IH: Does acquiring a U.K.-based company indicate a desire to grow Unifrax internationally?
DB: There are really only two companies in the world that manufacture this kind of product – Saffil and a company in Japan. If we wanted to be a primary producer of the fibers that go into these mats, which we did, we didn’t have a lot of choices. But it is a priority to expand our sales presence in global markets, and this acquisition will help that. There are regulations coming in developing countries that will require more of these kinds of products, so that is a part of our strategy.
A week after the Saffil announcement, Unifrax acquired three U.S.-based vacuum-forming businesses: Refractory Specialties Incorporated (RSI), Specialty Ceramics Incorporated (SCI) and VacuForm Incorporated (VFI). The three businesses specialize in the development, manufacture and sale of fiber-based, value-add shapes used in a wide variety of applications in both the industrial and hearth-products markets. RSI and VFI are located in Sebring, Ohio, and SCI is based Columbiana, Ohio.
IH: How did the acquisition of these companies (RSI, SCI and VFI) come about?
DB: Unifrax makes the basic fiber materials that are a precursor to a lot of product forms that get used by customers in the industry. Some of those products we make internally, but other parts have been made by independent firms. We’ve never been a vacuum-formed parts producer in the U.S. We know the business we’re acquiring – they’ve been longtime customers. We’ve talked in the past about acquiring the businesses, and they felt now was an appropriate time for them to sell. It fits with our strategy. If there’s an industrial customer that buys heat-containment materials, we’d like to be able to sell them products in every category that they need.
We’re pleased that the business owners will continue with Unifrax. That’s important because they have significant customer relationships and understand the products and the technology. They are essential to the performance of the business moving forward. We will operate the companies essentially as one group. They will be a wholly owned subsidiary of Unifrax managed by their existing management.
IH: What do these vacuum-forming businesses mean for Unifrax?
DB: They give us some value-added products that we haven’t been able to offer in North America, and that’s the big plus for Unifrax. Also, they’re profitable firms that operate in good spaces, which is attractive as well.
IH: In the press release announcing these acquisitions, you said that they “represent another positive step in the continued implementation of the Unifrax long-term growth strategy.” What exactly is that strategy?
DB: If you look at our heat-containment customers, they might buy our insulation as a lining material for a furnace in their plant. But they’re going to be buying other products from the types of firms we’re acquiring for other applications in the same shop. We have salespeople that call on those accounts and service their needs, and we’d like to be able to provide all the products of that type. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll buy from us, but at least we have an offering to sell to them.
For us, these acquisitions are a way to get growth out of what are relatively slow-growing market conditions.
IH: What are your thoughts on the economy, and what is the outlook for Unifrax?
DB: I think things are a bit uncertain now. Having said that, our business is performing very well. Our short-term prospects are good. We’re seeing record sales and earnings in the company. Contrary to what you might read, we don’t think this is a terrible market. But the longer that the consumer-related industries (retail, home-building) are underperforming, the harder it is for manufacturing, which is who we service, to continue to be buoyant.
But manufacturing – at least for the industries we serve – is actually in pretty good shape. I don’t know what’s going to happen six months from now, but all we can do is respond to the markets as they exist.
David Brooks joined the Insulation Division of The Carborundum Company in 1980. He was named manager of marketing for the company’s Fibers Division in 1988. In 1993, Mr. Brooks was appointed general manager of the Monofrax Refractories Division of the Carborundum Company. Upon the sale of the Carborundum Company in 1996, the unit was renamed GRP Inc., and Mr. Brooks was named president. Upon resale to the Cookson Group, the unit was named Monofrax Inc. and Mr. Brooks remained president until his appointment to Unifrax Corporation in 1998 as vice president, sales and marketing. In 2006, Mr. Brooks was named president and CEO of Unifrax.
He holds a BS in Ceramic Engineering from The Ohio State University.