PhillyInc: Philadelphia-area company seeking to find new homes for foam

The word innovation gets tossed around a lot as the thing that will propel the United States forward.

I'd dare say most people would interpret that to mean developing alternative energy sources or inventing lifesaving medical treatments.

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John Cowles, chief executiveof FXI, wants more consumer, in addition to business, focus.

But John Cowles sees innovation as crucial to his company, which turns polyurethane foam into all sorts of products.

Six weeks into his tenure as chief executive officer of Upper Providence-based FXI, Cowles explained how the company was exploring the use of foam in construction products, health care, and other areas beyond its major markets - bedding and autos.

FXI, which emerged from bankruptcy two years ago, is building a research- and-development center in Aston, he said. The current R&D operation employs about 30 people in Eddystone and is scheduled to move later in the year.

Outside of a product introduced for rain gutters last fall, Cowles didn't want to get too specific about where the company's foam may show up next.

One-third of FXI's $750 million in annual revenue comes from the auto industry, with foam going into door panels, under carpets, and inside dashboards. Another third depends on the mattress business, which seems intent on baffling consumers with "sleep systems" and "space-age materials."

The rest of FXI's energy is directed toward myriad applications, including footwear, medical devices, electronic equipment, and personal-care products. You may have used a foam sponge to mop your kitchen floor, or an eye-shadow brush or lip-gloss applicator made with FXI-supplied foam. Carpet cushioning, ink-jet cartridges, exercise mats, and handle grips for some baseball bats all incorporate foam.

Cowles, whose background includes stints at several consumer-products companies such as George Weston Bakeries, Kraft Foods, and Campbell Soup, is also trying to nudge the company to become more consumer-focused. That would seem to be quite a shift for FXI, which is primarily a business-to-business company.

But Cowles, 48, said he believed companies that were focused on making products used in other companies' products needed to understand what the ultimate consumer wanted.

Along with a recovering U.S. economy, that type of innovation is what would help FXI attain its goal of doubling revenue to $1.5 billion in five years, according to Cowles.

Such growth would be welcomed by longtime employees, who endured two trips through bankruptcy court by FXI's predecessor company, Foamex International Inc., in the last decade. Today, FXI has about 2,000 employees, of whom 130 work in Delaware County.

The privately held manufacturer has 11 foam-pouring factories and seven fabrication/warehouse operations across the United States. It also has a factory in Mexico.

The price of crude oil weighs heavily on FXI. After all, polyurethane is derived from petroleum. Closing at $97.44 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange Thursday, the price of oil isn't playing havoc with FXI's cost structure, but Cowles would be the first to applaud should the price fall for this major input of production.


Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980, marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz