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Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
June 17, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Johnson City company benefits from state’s JOBS4TN program

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was provided by Jeff Keeling, Director of Marketing and Community Relations for the Washington County Economic Development Council –

The team at Fiber Innovation Technology in Johnson City is dealing with a problem many businesses would like to have – how to satisfy increasing product demand – thanks to the company’s growing reputation in the specialty synthetic fibers market.

With highly versatile fiber products like “4DG,” which transports moisture, retains heat and is used in everything from athletic clothing to road underlayment – it even proved the best in a NASA study looking at prospective spacesuit materials for a Mars mission – the company is on the rise. Despite adding customers and seeing increased demand for its products, though, FIT faces a familiar dilemma – overcoming rising input costs for raw materials and energy at a time when access to capital is limited.

“We use our profit margins to reinvest in the business, and those margins are getting smaller, making it harder for us to do the innovations and development we need to do,” FIT President and CFO Michael Holt said.

FIT’s management team was considering its growth options when they heard Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty outline Gov. Bill Haslam’s JOBS4TN program. Realizing that the economic development approach being promoted by Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development might help FIT meet some of its needs, they contacted regional ECD representative Alicia Summers and the Washington County Economic Development Council’s Mitch Miller.

Miller and Summers visited Fiber Innovation Technology in October 2011, where they informed FIT’s leadership about the specific opportunities available. Within a matter of days, FIT had firmed up plans for a $1.8 million expansion at its facility in the shadow of Buffalo Mountain, and the ECD had come through with a package from state resources specifically designed to help existing businesses grow and provide jobs.

“Fiber Innovation Technology is a perfect fit for our programs to help existing businesses,” Summers said. “They’re well established, with a good track record in the community and a promising model for growth, so in Governor Haslam’s and Commissioner Hagerty’s minds providing them help truly represents an investment in Tennessee’s citizens and economy.”

FIT’s expansion, full completion of which will depend on continued increasing demand from customers, already has added nearly 30 new jobs at the company, which now employs almost 80 people. FIT Human Resources Manager/Safety Coordinator Scott Hammitt said if positive trends continue, the company could eventually find itself needing to expand even further.

“By doing this, we have definitely enhanced our strength in the specialty synthetic fibers market,” Hammitt said.

FIT’s products wind up in some interesting places, and with the company’s emphasis on research and development, the practical applications are increasing all the time.

Take hard-top surfaces such as roads or airport tarmac. Fiber Innovation Technology researchers have discovered that 4DG, that NASA-studied, oddly shaped fiber mentioned above, can absorb and disperse moisture when deployed as underlayment in road or pavement design. Airport owners and governments that build roads where repeated freezing and thawing hasten the cracking of pavement are eagerly testing the fiber’s promise as a preventive technique.

“Mother Nature has made expensive repairs pretty much of an inevitability in these types of situations,” FIT Controller Eddie Shankle said. “This use of 4DG provides a ‘pay me now or pay me later’ alternative, with an upfront investment in our product definitely the wiser financial choice in the long run.”

That scenario is playing itself out in more and more markets as FIT’s research and development team – which in turn is part of the much larger multinational Cha Technologies Group – presses ahead with development of fibers that find their way into products ranging from baby wipes and car parts to construction and home furnishings.

When demand for one of those products really takes off, as it often has, production often shifts from FIT to larger manufacturers – making the “I” in the company’s initials a crucial component of its success.

“We invent products that people need,” vice president of sales Mike Hodge said. “We’re constantly replenishing our product list. We realize that the products we have today, if we count on those for our success five years from now, we’re dead.”

Company President Holt said it’s all about maintaining a balance between scale and flexibility.

“We don’t want to get so big we can’t be flexible for our customers. That’s the advantage we have, and we also have a huge advantage in innovation. We have a pilot line that most people don’t have to run new products and new developments on. We’re working with some of the biggest companies in the world on a daily basis, and that really helps.”

The company’s Scott Hammitt said the experience with WCEDC and the state confirms to FIT’s management team that Washington County is a smart place to do business.

“We want to continue to grow in Washington County,” Hammitt said. “When your business is successful and the state recognizes that with help from its end, it makes the decision about whether to invest capital a lot easier.”

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