September 3, 2012

Small innovators tap trends with uniquely Maine goods

Neil Hanley, co-owner of Falcon Performance Footwear in Auburn, is pursuing niche markets for firefighting and military boots
Aron Buterbaugh, owner of Beachstone Sustainable Surfaces in South Portland, sits at a table made from recycled glass and seashells at Coffee By Design on Washington Avenue in Portland

Falcon Performance Footwear

27 Wrights Landing, Auburn

Owners: Neil Hanley, Roland Landry, Carl Spang, Globe Firefighter Suits

Founded: 1963

Employees: 55

Products: Boots for firefighters, miners

Annual revenue, 2011: $7 million

Projected revenue, 2014-15: $10 million

MTI funding: $45,210 (four grants)

Contact: 784-9186

Beachstone Sustainable Surfaces

192 Mussey St., South Portland

Owner: Aron Buterbaugh

Founded: 2010

Employees: 1

Product: Bathroom countertops made of cement, recycled glass

Annual revenue, 2011: Less than $100,000

Projected revenue, 2014: $1 million

MTI funding: $12,500

Contact: 899-8109

LooHoo Wool Dryer Balls


Owner: Cyndi Prince

Founded: 2010

Employees: 1

Product: Woolen dryer balls

Annual revenue, 2011: $25,000

Projected revenue, 2012: $75,000

MTI funding: $4,687

Contact: 542-3833

In a back room at Falcon Performance Footwear in Auburn, clamps squeeze just-made boots, weights drop on their toes, and scorching heat bakes them to ensure they won't crack, leak or otherwise fail their ultimate wearers — firefighters and miners. The grueling tests, befitting a medieval torture chamber, back up the image of quality that the Maine company purveys.

Falcon, which once made sports boots for L.L.Bean and Timberland, has leveraged the footwear tradition of Lewiston-Auburn and added cutting-edge materials to its specialty boots, says co-owner and manufacturing head Neil Hanley. Firefighters who come to tour the factory start at a Western steer hide hanging across from a machine stamping out thick, finished leather pieces.

"They want to see how their boots are made, from start to finish," says Hanley, who is the third generation of his family in the footwear business. "There's always demand for 'Made in the USA' products. We were able to bring local machinery and the old local infrastructure into use."

Falcon is not alone in drawing far-flung customers to locally made goods. Other small Maine companies, many with investors, including the state of Maine, are carving a niche with novel products that reflect Mainers' hardy work ethic, creativity, bond to the environment and ability to bootstrap and collaborate to make the most of limited resources.

"Maine seems to breed small, creative, cooperative businesses," says Aron Buterbaugh, owner of Beachstone Sustainable Surfaces in South Portland, a maker of bathroom countertops composed of cement and recycled glass. "Most Mainers don't ascribe to the Kool-Aid of the rest of the country, so we come up with our own way. That comes a bit from having a tougher economic environment in general. It may be part of the survival instinct."

He says because there's not a large market for anything in Maine, entrepreneurs are willing to take risks. And when their idea flies, he says, "the market finds you." Case in point: the recent swell of Massachusetts customers desiring his countertops.

Cyndi Prince, owner of LooHoo Wool Dryer Balls (formerly Wooly Rounds), found Maine to be a land of many small entrepreneurs when she moved to Camden from Canada in 2004. The former geologist was bitten by the innovation bug and started her own company to make environmentally healthy, chemical-free, woolen balls to separate clothes in the dryer, remove static and speed up drying.

"There's a lot of help for small businesses and entrepreneurs in this state, which is a key factor," she says. "And local communities are supportive of creative businesses. I think this is a characteristic of Mainers."

Seed funding

All three companies had novel enough ideas to receive seed grants from the Maine Technology Institute, which is the only steady source of funds in Maine for early-stage projects. Falcon received two grants in 2009, one for $6,495 to develop a composite safety shoe component, and another for $10,000 to develop mining boots with RFID circuits that could help locate missing workers during a catastrophe. In 2010, Falcon pulled in another $10,010 (with a $10,845 match) to design a composite safety toe cap production system in collaboration with the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center. And this year it got $18,705 ($18,800 match) to work with the University of Maine's Advanced Manufacturing Center and TexTech of North Monmouth to develop a puncture- resistant footwear component and the production system for it.

The goal of the current grant is to soon replace two components that Falcon now buys outside the United States: the bi-fit and the puncture-resistant Lenzi (Italy) board. A bi-fit is an insole board whose front portion is flexible when the foot flexes during walking and whose back part is rigid to stabilize the heel.

"A lot of what's driven us is the desire to bring things back to the U.S. for more autonomy," says Hanley. "I like to have better control of purchasing."

The company learned its lesson earlier with lasting boards, which it used to buy from China.

"We needed to buy them six months in advance and hope we got the sizes right. It took eight weeks for shipping by boat," he remembers. "If we sold out of size 13s, we had to wait a long time for more."

Beachstone's Buterbaugh echoes the desire to keep supplies local. The company uses clear, recycled glass in its cement countertops, which are colored with inorganic pigments to show the glass and then sealed. It has been sourcing the glass from eastern Pennsylvania. But Buterbaugh recently got glass samples from a town in northern Maine, and hopes to create a prototype countertop to see if that town could become a new glass source for him. He declined to name the town, for competitive reasons.

Beachstone, an S Corp, started as a product line of Meeting House Designs Inc., Buterbaugh's company that received $12,500 ($12,500 match) from MTI to develop a low-cost, pre-sealed, environmentally friendly countertop for LEED-certified projects. Buterbaugh says his business is focused more on recycling glass in a sustainable way than merely using it for aesthetics or novelty.

"I use it because of sustainability, and it helps qualify for six LEED points, which is a lot," he says of the scoring process for LEED-certified projects.

He is now doing exploratory work with the University of Southern Maine's Campus Ventures commercial accelerator program and ecomaine to come up with a better system to separate clear glass from other materials in the recycling stream. He says that clear, amber and green glasses typically are mixed. Amber and green glass need to be separated from the clear glass he uses for his countertops. He plans to sell to hotels, households and others who want to promote a green image or use recycled goods.

LooHoo plans to use its $4,700 MTI grant ($4,687 match) to work with the University of Southern Maine's Manufacturing Applications Center in Gorham to develop a machine that could partially or completely mechanize part of the production as it scales up manufacturing.

A helping hand

LooHoo's founder Prince used local programs to explore how to start a business. She took the New Ventures course through Maine Centers for Women, Work & Community, and learned how to make a business plan. The course, which she says met for a full day once a week for nine weeks, also provided feedback from her classmates, three of whom have since launched businesses.

She figured out production through trial and error as she tried to improve on existing dryer wool balls that tended to unravel and not last long.

"I put the balls through the washing machine to felt them," she says, explaining that wetting causes the fibers to line up differently and become tight, matted and dense so the ball is more durable.

The balls are handmade, with help from a small contract manufacturing company called Pieceworks Inc. in Montville, about half an hour from Camden. Pieceworks produces the core of the wool ball using a ball winder. Prince then wraps lengths of wool around that ball and felts it. It's a time-consuming process, which is why she says she looked to USM students and faculty for ideas to make a machine or device to automate the process as her business grows. Currently, she can make 250 balls a week, but with a machine she could make 1,000. Prince says she is always in contact with other small businesses to share ideas.

"I help others, and they help me," she says. The yarn comes from Bartlett Yarns in Harmony.

Prince, who pulled in $25,000 during her first year of sales last year, expects to triple that amount this year as she branches into more retailers, changes branding and logos, and introduces a new package that is shaped like a dryer with a see-through window that shows the woolen balls. A set of three balls sells for about $27. Around 70% of sales are through 35 retail locations nationwide, and 30% are through her website. She hopes to boost the number of retailers to 50 by the end of this year, including in environmentally focused markets like California, which she says is a big market for her product.

Like Beachstone's Buterbaugh, she is focusing on green customers.

"The green cleaning industry is just beginning," says Prince. "It has a lot of potential growth, but it's an education process."

A lot of her demand now comes from environmentally conscious young mothers who want to keep chemicals out of the house. She says dryer sheets and fabric softeners contain dangerous and toxic petrochemicals linked to respiratory and other health issues. And it can take years for a dryer sheet to break down in a landfill.

Apart from having what she says is a safer product, the balls weather economic peaks and valleys.

"People need my product regardless of a recession," she says.

She is looking to add businesses, such as hospitals and nursing homes, to her customer list. Right now she is not seeking additional funding. She is now the only full-time employee, but that may change if a successful machine is developed. At that point, she says, the company might be able to expand to 20 people.

Beachstone's Buterbaugh plans to use an evolving source of funding — crowdsourcing — to raise another $10,000 to $20,000 for a new project that aims to replace the ordinary portland cement in the countertops with a greener alternative, geopolymer cement. He says he passed the idea by MTI, but it was rejected because it is not widely used. Crowdsourcing, he says, spreads the risk among hundreds rather than a handful of people. The company has revenues of less than $100,000, but Buterbaugh has ambitious plans to pull in more dealers and distributors in the residential and hospitality markets, which could boost revenue to $1 million in the next two years. He is the only employee now, but plans to add staff next year.

A new market

For Falcon, growth is expected in its expansion into mining boots. The company, which started manufacturing footwear in 1963, originally made children's shoes. When overseas competition made its shoes too pricey, it shifted focus to work boots in 1990. In 2007, the company formed a strategic alliance with Globe Firefighter Suits, one of its owners, to concentrate on the design and production of premium protective footwear for firefighters. It expanded into mining boots in 2009, and Hanley says he expects that product line to grow the company in the coming years. Right now, that business is 5% of the total company, but he hopes to expand that to 20%-25%. The remaining business is sales to Globe. Sales are about $7 million, and Hanley expects that to grow to $10 million by 2014 or 2015.

The average boot, which has upwards of 75 components, lasts about three years for a career firefighter, and likely less for a miner who will wear the boot all day at work. The company has sold about 200,000 boots in the United States, out of a total potential market of 1 million or so career firefighters, Hanley says. It is just starting to see repeat business for its boots, which cost $250-300. Competitors are Pro Warrington and Haix, a German company.

Falcon sells about 40,000 pairs of firefighting and mining boots annually, and Hanley says he'd like to boost that to 50,000 by 2014. The company has streamlined manufacturing and instituted a lean training initiative led by the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which involved the company's 55 employees identifying ways to improve production efficiency. The initiative cut production time by 40%.

The company also looks continually to bring in new technology in its boots and on its production line. After seeing an Oriso sewing machine at New Balance in Skowhegan, Hanley wanted one for Falcon. "It replaced four pieces of equipment," he marvels. "It can sew 10 pieces in one part of the boot instead of using four machines to do that."

Read more

Globe Manufacturing buys Falcon Footwear


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