A Giorgio Armani it isn't, but then a suit by the famous Italian designer retails for about $500, tailoring not included. A suit by George Kappler, on the other hand, retails for $2 to $12, looks sharp, feels great, resists wrinkles (not to mention industrial toxins) -- and ends its day in a trashcan. That's because Kappler Disposables Inc., of Guntersville, Ala., competes with fewer than 15 other companies in an unusual sector of the garment industry: manufacturers of disposable protective industrial clothing.
What comes between you and your Kapplers? Absolutely nothing. Made of Du Pont Tyvek, a lightweight, nonwoven polyethelene fabric that creates a barrier impervious to even the most microscopic of particles, Kappler's coveralls (and accessories) are cheap enough to send to the dump, not the dry cleaner, after a single wearing. Traditionally used to protect workers from a laundry-list of contaminants ranging from auto grease and industrial soot to asbestos, PCB to dioxin, Kappler's duds have found new applications in the burgeoning high-technology environment. "Before, the emphasis was on keeping the worker safe from the product," Kappler explains. "Now, there's a lot of thought being given to keeping the product -- delicate microcircuitry, for example -- safe from the worker. Well, we can do that, too."
The company itself started out as something of a throwaway. Kappler, 38, a onetime Monsanto Corp. process-control engineer, was heading up a contract sewing operation for one of his present competitors when the contracts abruptly started going elsewhere. "I didn't jump, I was pushed," he admits. "I had 35 employees depending on me and no work to give them. The only thing we knew how to do was make these garments. The trick was to find somebody to buy them." He did -- in the Yellow Pages. Safety equipment distributors throughout the Southeast started hearing from Kappler regularly, followed by product samples in the mail. "I can't tell you what did it for us, other than good service," he says. "Obviously, if my competitors were doing their job, I wouldn't be in business today."
Kappler's goal is to double current annual revenues of $5.8 million over the next three years. But he intends to get there without bargaining away any control via venture capital or a public offering. A sizable portion of the proposed growth, says Kappler, will be backed by company profits. He rests this expectation on a stable customer base, high volume of repeat business, low inventory costs, and receivables averaging 35 days (thanks in part to a 2% discount offered to anyone who pays within 10 days). Otherwise, says Kappler, "my people and I are confident that we can do what we have to the ordinary way: by going to the bank."
The "interesting" part of the future, Kappler muses, will be his transition from hands-on participation to full-time administration. "In the early days, survival was a driving force. Now, the wolf may be hanging around the house, but he isn't at the back door. I guess the question is, Will success take the keenness off for me?"
That probably depends on what the wolf is wearing, and how he feels about dry cleaning.