Focus On Leadership: Franco Rossi drives Aquafil’s growth in the U.S. market - Dec 2018

Interview by Kemp Harr

Franco Rossi, president of Aquafil USA, was tasked with establishing the U.S. arm of an Italian fiber production company two decades ago. In spite of the trend toward vertical integration in full swing among the large U.S. mills at the time, Aquafil was able to not only gain footing but also offer innovative products that bring differentiation in the flooring industry and beyond.

On the market for about eight years, Aquafil’s Econyl nylon 6 is arguably the greenest carpet fiber in the industry. It’s 100% recycled, with half of that content coming from post-consumer material depolymerized at the firm’s Slovenian facility and turned into new nylon 6. Econyl, which is also used in apparel, has helped establish Aquafil as an environmental steward.

In addition, under Rossi’s guidance, the company has further elevated that profile with the establishment of two new U.S.-based nylon 6 recycling operations that not only accept waste product collected from job sites but also discarded nylon 6-based waste from our oceans.

Q: Tell us how you ended up working for Aquafil and leading its U.S. operations.
This story is actually pretty funny. My previous job was with a manufacturer of polypropylene continuous filaments. I resigned from this company because their lack of financial support was putting the safety of the employees at risk. I agreed to stay on board until a replacement was found. When they finally found him, I was asked to facilitate the transition by spending a month together with this gentleman. During that time, I found out he had resigned from the Aquafil group in order to take my job. I called the switchboard at Aquafil and asked to speak with its CEO. Incredibly, they gave me Carlo Bonazzi’s cell phone number. I called that number and left a voicemail with little hope of receiving a call back. To my surprise, Carlo actually called back, and I told him my story. The next morning, which was Christmas Eve 1997, I was sitting in his office, and by early February, I started to work for Aquafil.

My initial assignment was to study the U.S. market, which Aquafil had only briefly touched in the years before, and then suggest the best strategy to gain a significant presence. In early 1999, I concluded my analysis by saying the only way to become a real player in the U.S. carpet fiber market was to establish a local facility and possibly local manufacturing. Aquafil USA was incorporated in February 1999, and I moved to the U.S. in July that same year.

Q: How has Aquafil been able to continue to grow even though demand for carpet continues to lose share to hard surface flooring?
Carpet is a mature market. The only way we can grow our business is to capture the largest marketshare. I believe the key word is commitment. We are committed to make fibers for our customers; we are committed not to invade our customers’ businesses by making carpets ourselves; we are committed to be as sustainable as possible; and we are committed to prove that carpet mills must not necessarily be vertically integrated to thrive and succeed.

Q: Why do the bigger carpet mills buy from you even though they have their own yarn making capability?
They buy Econyl because it is unique. They also buy items that are too inconvenient to be produced internally.

Q: Aquafil makes solution dyed nylon 6 carpet fiber in Europe, China and the U.S. Which market is growing the fastest?
Our company has seen most of the growth happening in the Far East and in the U.S. Europe is still our largest market, but it is hard to grow in a mature market starting from a dominant position.

Q: What makes Aquafil different from the other fiber producers?
Aquafil went public last December, but the company is still controlled and run by Giulio Bonazzi, our main shareholder and member of the family who started Aquafil more than 50 years ago. That makes Aquafil unique, as all our competitors have seen dramatic changes in their ownership in the last few years. We still have our original DNA, and we are driven by a purpose rather than simply short-term profit maximization.

Q: Tell us why Econyl has been a successful product category for you.
Econyl has been a huge bet made by Aquafil, but it has paid out sweetly. Econyl today is very different from the way we imagined it eight years ago. By trial and error, we have reinvented the way post-consumer and post-industrial nylon waste can be transformed back into “like virgin” material. The core technology remains depolymerization, but everything else from procurement to pre-cleaning and from material feeding to purification have been drastically re-engineered. There are not many materials out there that can be economically transformed back into themselves without losing any of the original properties. With Econyl we have proven that nylon 6 is one of them.

Q: What is the Econyl Regeneration System?
The Econyl Regeneration System starts with rescuing waste, like fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet and industrial plastic, from landfills and oceans all over the world. That waste is then sorted and cleaned to recover all of the possible nylon. Through a radical regeneration and purification process, the nylon is recycled right back to its original purity and then processed into carpet yarn and textile yarn. Fashion brands and carpet producers use Econyl regenerated nylon to create new products. And that nylon can be recycled infinitely, without ever losing its quality.

Q: Tell us about your new recycling facility in Arizona. Why did you choose that location?
We actually have two new facilities called Aquafil Carpet Recycling #1 and #2. Number 1 is in Phoenix, Arizona, and #2 is in Woodland, California, close to Sacramento. They are twins, and they are conceived to deconstruct used carpet and liberate the main ingredients. Our main target is to harvest all the nylon 6 and ship it to Slovenia. By doing that, we’ll also generate by-product streams of polypropylene and calcium carbonate, which are locally sold and repurposed. The recycling operations are both built in California or close by, as the legislation in California provides financial incentives for carpet recycling.

Q: What do you miss most about Italy as a U.S. resident?
I could make you a long list, but I could also make an equally long list of things that I miss of the U.S. when I am in Italy. I try to focus on things that I enjoy from each country more than things I miss. As a Georgia resident, I definitely miss being in close proximity to mountains and snow.

Q: What challenges did you face when you moved your young family here to the States? Has it been a good experience?
It has been challenging but extremely positive. My older daughter suffered the most when we moved. She was 11, and she was forced to follow her parents against her will. She had to endure a few months of hardship. The four of us-I have two daughters-are now dual citizens of Italy and the U.S. This removes a lot of obstacles to mobility and opportunities to build your life wherever convenient or desirable.

Q: Tell us about your focus on fitness and some of the achievements you are proudest of.
I like to be active and regularly play some sports. The love of my life is skiing, but I also ride bikes and play racquetball. Training is not always fun, so I find that a way to keep my motivation up is to participate in competitive races. I have completed the Maratona delle Dolomiti-a bike ride with over 10,000 athletes from all over the world, who ride up and down the gaps of the Italian Alps-12 times, and seven times I have completed the Six Gap Century/Three Gap Fifty on the Georgia mountains.

As a teenager, I had some chances to become a professional ski racer, but my parents rightly “suggested” to focus on a college education and keep skiing as a hobby. Because I grew up in Italy, soccer is also part of my DNA. I loved to play, but the coaches never liked the fact that, come winter, I would skip practices and games to go ski.

Q: How do you balance your professional and personal life?
I am not sure I do. I need to start working on my life after retirement. We all spend decades getting ready to go to work, but not many of us seriously plan and build our lives for once we retire-and I am not talking financially.

Q: Who do you consider to be your mentors, and what did they teach you?
I could mention at least five people for whom I’ve worked that taught me something valuable for my career. I was told to be practical, creative, persistent, and to give people a second chance.

Q: What is your proudest achievement?
Twenty years ago, not even in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that in 2019 I would have 500 associates working for Aquafil USA in four plants across three states and counting on more to come.

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