ACTON VALE, Quebec-For Acton International Inc., the emphasis on research and development demonstrates the firm's focus on the future. After all, the maker of rubber protective footwear and industrial products has been around since 1928 and it plans to move into the next century stressing R&D in all three parts of its business.
``R&D takes time and effort, but it pays off,'' said General Manager Francois Soucy. ``You're looking for the long term when you invest in R&D. If you're only looking at the short term, you don't invest in R&D.''
But not too long ago, R&D wasn't getting the recognition it deserved, Soucy said.
The Acton Vale-based company had one group that worked on research and also served as the quality assurance team supporting production.
Working out bugs on the production line got first priority while R&D waited its turn, Soucy said. Consequently, research didn't get the attention Acton officials knew it needed.
The solution-put in place four years ago-was simple, according to Soucy, an eight-year veteran of the company. Create a quality assurance group for production separate from the R&D group.
Acton now has four full-time chemists working on compounds, with techni-cians to aid in the process, according to Soucy. ``We split it to make sure R&D gets done according to plan.''
Although the commercial footwear and industrial product lines get ample R&D support, it probably is the specialized footwear line that gets the most scrutiny. These products mainly are chemical protective footwear, dubbed NCB for nuclear, chemical and biological protection.
The military looks for these boots to provide resistance to chemicals such as mustard gases, with a 24-hour guarantee against penetration, he said.
``Armies take these products very seriously,'' Soucy said. ``There is no compromise. It looks like a regular boot, but there's a lot of work behind it.''
The requirements mandated by this type of footwear make development even more difficult, he said. ``It's pretty hard to develop lines. You have to work with very toxic elements that are difficult to find.''
Acton started working on these boots in 1980 for the Canadian military.
The firm started exporting that type of technology in 1988, with its first NCB contract outside of Canada with the U.S. Navy. After that followed pacts with the Norwegian army, the German army and elsewhere, with sales agents in England, Denmark and Kuwait representing the lines.
A recent contract with the Swedish army calls for $10 million in business over a four-year period-one of the biggest Canadian footwear contracts of that type, Soucy said.
During the past five years, Acton developed a boot based on the requirements of all the military contracts received by the firm over the years. The United Kingdom has approved the boot Continued on page 18
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for military use and that could lead to business with other nations as well.
``A lot of countries look to the U.K. to see what they're doing,'' Soucy said. ``NCB departments all over the world communicate with each other. It's a lot smaller (sector) than even the rubber industry.''
That means if you're good, you can develop a good reputation, as Soucy said Acton has.
Conversely, once a mistake is made, word will travel fast.
Acton expects to grow in this arena, which accounts for 10 percent of its overall sales, but the segment has a definite ceiling, the firm's GM said.
``Growth can't depend on the military because of (budget) cuts,'' Soucy said. ``You can't rely on winning a contract or losing a contract.''
The industrial products unit accounts for about half of Acton's overall sales, with such capabilities as molded and calendered products, extrusions and hose.
Some of the targeted markets include items for specialized markets such as snowmobiles, jet skis and water cycles.
Acton makes a small amount of tread rubber but is phasing out that business, Soucy said, because its share of the business is so small it can't compete with the larger players.
``We prefer to be a good supplier and fight in areas where we can help and grow with the customer,'' Soucy said.
The commercial footwear line, which covers the remaining 40 percent or so of revenue, is one area Acton definitely expects to grow. Historically, this has included such industrial products as overboots for workers, boots for lumbermen and mining footwear.
Over the past four years, though, Acton has developed a more fashion-oriented, ``weather boot'' line.
``We're working very hard to be called `The Ultimate Footwear Protection,'*'' Soucy said.
Focus on rubber
A big part of this marketing push was the consolidation earlier this year of Acton with its parent company, formerly called A. Lambert International Inc.
The firms now operate simply under the Acton International moniker, Soucy said, and will concentrate exclusively on the items made at Acton's manufacturing facility.
Previously, A. Lambert imported leather footwear and athletic shoes and distributed those as well.
But the consolidation into Acton International marks the completion of a restructuring several years in the making.
At one time, Acton made ice skates at its Acton Vale factory, but sold the business in 1992.
``Ice skating took as much energy to support as the entire business,'' Soucy said.
``When we quit the ice skating line, we started developing the fashion line,'' he said. ``That was the first step into focusing on rubber. The last step was selling only the product we manufacture here.''
Much of the competition comes from plastic boot manufacturing, which Soucy describes as ``cheaper, but a lot less quality.''
The general manager said his firm's flexibility to produce about 3,000 pairs of boots a day in 60 different styles and the whole range of sizes gives Acton International an advantage.
``This is something that's hard to achieve in plastic,'' he said. ``There's a lot of hand labor involved.''
Nuclear, chemical and biological departments all over the world communicate with each other. The protective military footwear market's a lot smaller than even the rubber industry.