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June 26, 2017 On the record

Yale Cordage stretches rope to the limit

Photo / Lori Valigra Bill Putnam, president of Yale Cordage, oversees a manufacturing company with 124 employees, including 100 in its 54,000-square-foot site in Saco.

Bill Putnam, president of Saco-based rope maker Yale Cordage, points to a large reel spinning what looks like dental floss. All rope, no matter how thick it ends up, starts as a thin thread that is built up by twisting and braiding it with other threads and then coating it for various applications.

The manufacturer, founded in 1953, makes thousands of different ropes with more than 15,000 SKUs. It has 100 employees in its Saco plant and 24 in its Salisbury, N.C., specialty rope operation.

Yale Cordage initially focused on the recreational marine industry, which Putnam says is now less than 2% of its synthetic rope business. Most of its products go into commercial applications like slings that lift heavy beams for bridges and bulky equipment. But Yale Cordage ropes still can be seen around Casco Bay in the hundreds of mooring lines holding boats in place.

They're also used in high-tension applications, a newer area for the company, which aims to replace steel lines. Synthetic rope doesn't corrode, is lighter and absorbs shock, Putnam says, citing its use in security barriers to keep trucks from driving through. The ropes are used in scientific buoys around the world, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis system, where Yale Cordage's ropes run from a buoy down through 15,000 feet of water to a sensor that can detect the deep ocean movements that signal a tsunami.

Putnam recently gave Mainebiz a tour of the company's 54,000-square-foot operation. He pointed to rolls and rolls of different colored ropes, including orange and red rope used by arborists along with other colors of rope so they know whether it's a climbing line or a line that is holding a cut limb. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: You recently won the Maine International Trade Center's exporter of the year award. Tell us about your business growth.

Bill Putnam: Our sales are $25 million to $50 million. I don't want to give an exact number. We grew 10% to 12% for 10 years, but as we caught up on projects the past two to three years, growth slowed to 2% to 3%. We expect to get back to 10% to 12% within the next five years. About 20% of sales are international. We only have U.S. offices now.

MB: You said 'rope isn't just rope,' that people don't realize all the things made with rope. Can you elaborate?

BP: Rope is used in power utility construction for winching and hoisting equipment. It's used by the oil and gas industry in heavy slings to lift things. The military also uses it and security services. We're trying to replace as much metal as possible with synthetic rope.

MB: How do you compete with steel?

BP: We use mainly nylons and polyesters, but some polypropylene. Rope's strength is comparable to steel but at one-tenth the weight. The cost of synthetic rope is three to five times higher than steel but its service life can be longer. If we as an industry took just 10% of the steel industry's market share we'd be wildly successful. Some steel companies are even acquiring rope companies.

MB: Are there any projects where Mainers can see your ropes at work?

BP: Our slings are being used on the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge rebuilding project between Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H., and for New York's Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. Our slings are being used to hoist beams made by Casco Bay Steel on that project and Cianbro is working on construction. Three Maine companies are on that project.

MB: Anything exciting coming down the road?

BP: We'll be getting a new tensile test machine from Sahm Splice GmbH of Bremerhaven, Germany, in November. It has a 1.3-million-pound tensile capacity for pull tests, which is in excess of anything available anywhere east of the Mississippi. We'll test things for other people so that will bring in new income. And we're hoping to work with Eimskip to ship it for us from its port in Bremerhaven to Reykjavik and on to Portland.

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