For Manny Vickers, time is money.
As the president and chief operating officer of Fiber-Shield Industries Inc., a 48-year-old Yaphank firm that makes products that protect fabric, wood, carpeting, leather, glass, metal, masonry and vehicles, Vickers increasingly hears from customers seeking custom-made treatments. They want these products not only to be multi-purpose — as in offering stain protection and resistance to ultraviolet rays, abrasion, soil, fire or water and oil — but less expensive and better-performing than competitive products on the market.
These requests generally come from firms that have been his customers for 30 to 40 years but whose owners have sold their operations to other businesses, including Fortune 500 companies. As a result, Vickers, 66, is dealing with new managers, often between 35 and 40 years old, who seek these less costly yet versatile offerings to offset some of their business acquisition expenses and distinguish their operations from competitors, he said.
His solution? Rather than just investing his time, effort and money in developing the requested products, in hopes the customer will eventually buy them, he requires customers to share the R&D expense and to commit to purchasing the custom treatment for a set period.
A minor product modification can mean 40 hours of R&D, while a major reformulation involves as many as 1,000 hours, he said.
“We can’t afford to do research for two years without compensation,” Vickers said.
Custom products aren’t just niceties but necessities, said Pierre Lespinasse, business adviser at the Stony Brook Small Business Development Center. Companies in the food, fashion and IT industries routinely want custom products to score a competitive edge, he said. But today, with “demographic generational changes” fueling demand for such choices in many areas, companies must give customers what they want in order to retain them.
As a longtime business owner, Vickers is no stranger to challenges. Most notably, about seven years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said some waterproof aerosol sprays put the public at risk of lung injuries.
Vickers said such developments can stain an entire industry’s reputation, but toxicity tests by independent product safety labs and Duke University have all given Fiber-Shield’s products “a clean bill of health,” he said.
Yet Vickers said he still has to remind people that “we’ve never had a claim against us.”
Vickers, who earned his undergraduate chemistry degree from Queens College, entered the chemical industry in the mid-1970s. A consulting gig with Polyglycoat — then a ubiquitous but now long-gone protective sealant for cars — opened his eyes to the sales-generating opportunities in after-market products. In 1979, Vickers and his wife, Constance, Fiber-Shield’s CEO and vice president, started their company to market his invention — a stain repellent and fabric protectant — to furniture retailers. Their customers included Macy’s, Huffman-Koos and Castro Convertibles.
Today, Fiber-Shield’s national and international customers include furniture, shoe, fabric and big-box stores, construction companies and car dealers. The company also sells to formulators, who repackage and sell the products to other firms, such as furniture shops and repair services. From its 22-year-old, 15,000-square-foot plant, the 21-employee business generated more than $20 million in annual sales last year.
Fiber-Shield fabricates its offerings as liquids, thick fluids, powders and pastes and ships them in containers as large as 30 gallons. Retail outlets typically sell Fiber-Shield’s products under their own name and apply its treatments onsite or market them on their shelves.
For custom-made products, Fiber-Shield contractually retains all formula rights while requiring customers to foot 50 percent or more of their item’s development costs, particularly if their request is significant — as in a substance to protect masonry from sunlight and other elements. Fiber-Shield provides customers with R&D progress reports, anticipated costs at various stages of a mixture’s development, and an option for customers to cancel the R&D before completion.
If Fiber-Shield achieves its customers’ objectives, they must buy the formulation for at least five years but are granted the exclusive right to purchase it for that time period. And if they buy $3 million to $5 million worth of any group of products, they can also get exclusive buying rights to their custom-made treatment for as long as they continue purchasing such quantities.
“We want to get compensated for big jobs,” said Vickers, whose internal lab bills its R&D at $300 an hour.
Vickers could further protect his bottom line, said Lespinasse, with patents to prevent others from copying his formulations and selling them at a lower cost.
Vickers disagreed. The patent process requires inventors to reveal all of a product’s ingredients and chemical reactions, he said, and “the moment you file, [that information] becomes public record.” And since it can take two to three years to get a patent, “anyone can copy your information and make the product during that time,” Vickers said, adding that he doesn’t have the deep pockets of major companies, with their in-house teams of attorneys, to fight knockoffs.
Terry Stratoudakis, a principal in ALE Consultants, which has a Huntington office, suggested maximizing revenues from made-to-order protectants by marketing them to other companies but giving a portion of these products’ profits to the customers who first requested the items.
Vickers said that approach isn’t possible. His customers are “very protective” of their products, requiring him to sign an extensive non-disclosure agreement that prevents other firms from even knowing the source of the raw materials.
“Do I want to risk a $5 million-a-year relationship for something I don’t know what I’m getting in return?” he asked.
At a glance
Company: Fiber-Shield Industries Inc., Yaphank
President and COO: Manny Vickers
CEO and vice president: Constance Vickers
2016 revenues: $20 million-plus