Business View Magazine interviews Bill Higman, President of Fiberglass Coatings Inc. (FGCI), as part of our series on growth in the American composites industry.
FiberGlass Coatings Inc. (FGCI) had its beginnings in 1961, with a man named John Hicks who owned a chemical packaging company in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hicks saw a need in the industry and developed a distribution side to the business, selling fiberglass and resin solutions, which achieved great success. In 1980, the company was sold, and then sold again in January 1990 to Current FGCI President, Bill Higman.
“I’ve got 28 years into it at this point,” says Higman, speaking with great pride and knowledge about the business he has grown to be the largest independently-owned composites distributor in Florida. “Our headquarters is still here in St. Petersburg, along with a manufacturing plant, and we have another location in Ft. Lauderdale – but they are all separate entities. Our product line features a complete inventory of polyester and epoxy resins, gelcoats, fiberglass fabrics, and coring materials, as well as all the equipment and supplies necessary for large OEMs and DIY consumers to achieve their goals.”
FGCI has a multi-faceted business model. It has an online retail presence, selling to consumers through its website. Its impressive showroom is a huge draw for walk-in traffic – DIY customers and hobbyists who buy the products onsite. The company also sells to tradespeople, who purchase products to repair or build items for their own customers. FGCI does big business with the entertainment sector – a lot of façade work in Florida for restaurants and theme parks in the amusement industry. That’s the composite manufacturing side of the business.
In addition, it offers private label brands for resellers who want to sell FGCI products under their own branding. It does specialty development work that provides customers with specific components they require to make a product, whether it’s included in the manufacturing or as an add-on to complete the product they’re selling. And it sells to OEMs in the trucking and boating sectors. Composite materials are used to make parts in a wide variety of industries, and they are all part of the FGCI customer base.
Geographically, the company uses its own trucks to supply material for customers in Georgia, and the entire state of Florida. It also ships to the Caribbean, South America, and across the U.S. and Canada, and does a fair amount of exports. Success is credited in part to pricing the product appropriately for the user. Higman explains, “A lot of hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers need to be walked through what they’re doing; we provide that support and offer a product that’s still competitively priced. And we also do some things that the industry doesn’t typically do, as a whole, such as incoming quality control (QC) on all our products to make sure they’re within manufacturer specs before we send them out.”
It’s a problem in the industry – products that don’t meet specifications, and no one knows until they reach the end user. It can be very expensive for the customer and the supplier if the product is returned or causes problems during application. Implementing stringent quality control measures puts FGIC in a stronger position to head off any issues before they occur. The company employs 85 skilled workers, including chemists. Part of the QC center’s development work includes modifications to products for customers to meet special performance needs.
Carrying an immense inventory of over 30,000 items for distribution requires massive warehousing facilities. For FGCI that amounts to more than 120,000 square feet of total space, with a larger selection of products than any of the regular composite distributors. According to Higman, “We look at each segment of our business as a specialty business and have appropriate people available to support customers in each area. The walk-in showrooms and internet sales are the busiest for transactions. But volume-wise, our most sales are to OEMs and custom builders of products.”
FGIC has been an innovator in the sewer pipe infrastructure market for many years and holds several patents for pipe repair products. It sells to its sister company Infrastructure Repair Systems Inc. which, in turns, sells into the marketplace. Another of Higman’s companies is called Clear Coat. Products are supplied through that company to people using clear table top epoxies and other coatings of that type. Clear Coat is also a private label it sells to resellers to give them a brand option different than FiberGlass Coatings.
The importance of vendor relationships can’t be understated. Higman gives a shout out to Interplastics Corporation, headquartered in St. Paul Minnesota – FGCI’s largest vendor. “They’ve been a very good partner. We’ve helped them grow their business down here, and they’ve helped us. We typically deal with national manufacturers; we buy material in bulk and sell those products in smaller quantities, that’s our distribution function. In addition, we have the ability to modify products to meet other people’s needs with items specific to them.”
FGCI actively networks with the industry through memberships and trade shows, including ACMA (American Composites Manufacturers Association), CAMX (Composites and Advanced Materials Expo), and IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions). “Theme parks is a market we’ve worked with for years – venues such as Disneyworld and the rides that go with them. We deal with the problems, so I don’t know how much fun it is,” Higman quips, “but it is rewarding. A lot of popular restaurants also use our composite materials. We have an excellent tabletop epoxy that can be made in thick pours, which is important. We probably have one of the clearest products in the market today.”
Higman believes the composites industry will continue to grow. “They’re working hard to get into the transportation industry. We’re seeing a lot of composites going into automobiles. It’s a different performing product than we typically sell but, in the future, we’ll be able to sell what people need for repairs. Because they are lightweight and continue to grow in strength, you’re going to see composites used in buildings. Many of our customers down here use them on the decks in high-rises where the wood has a tendency to spall. That’s a good solution to the problem. Composites show up in so many places that people don’t realize how important it is to their daily life.”
One of the biggest challenges for FGIC is having an IT system to facilitate its plethora of customers, orders, and enormous amount of inventory. Upgrades are ongoing; at this point it has the ability to track previous sales, batches, and any issues that occurred. The system allows the company to personalize sales, which increases efficiency and builds good customer relationships. Ten outside salespeople call on the larger customers, in person, as well. FGIC even sells to its competitors which, apparently, is common in the industry. They support each other. The tightening of environmental regulations on coatings is another challenge. The entire composites materials industry continues to work hard to comply; some products FGIC used to sell are no longer available because they don’t meet the current standards.
As for future objectives, Higman says, “We’d like to accelerate the penetration in our markets and continue to meet our customers’ needs. We’ll keep an eye out to see if the internet opens up a new avenue. Export is certainly an area we continue to look at as a growth factor, as well as trends in the technology sector, and we’ll participate in those. There are also some interesting consolidation opportunities going on in the industry that we might be part of. The most important thing to know about FGIC is we’re a unique company that covers local, national, and international markets. We deal with the trades, hobbyists, maintenance, and resellers. The industry is evolving but the biggest change is that more and more composites are being used in our society. Meeting EPA requirements that go with the products is challenging because they are chemicals. So, the industry is working to develop products that are more environmentally friendly. And we want to make them available to every customer from the largest to the smallest.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: FiberGlass Coatings Inc (FGCI)
WHAT: Independently-owned composites distributor
WHERE: Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida