The market for tarp products takes on new shapes and a growing emphasis on environmental applications.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
The 2011 People’s Choice Awards nominations for Favorite Viral Video Star featured California surfers riding through a blue curl. What made the YouTube video so popular was the fact that these “dudes” were simulating an ocean wave with a blue tarp. (With the fabric spread over concrete, one person pulled up a corner of the tarp while another rode a skateboard through the resulting curl.)
Though the last half of 2010 saw a surge in tarp surfing, that market is admittedly a limited one. But tarp makers are creating plenty of other innovative applications and expanding designs for a product whose core appeal has traditionally been in covering loads on trucks (or roofs during construction, or hay bales during the winter).
Far north of surf culture in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, BWI Enterprises Ltd. found success in designing a fabric-based snow removal product. A Bobcat® dumps buckets of snow on the tarp and then the four corners are gathered; a crane lifts the tarp, swings it over a dump area and releases it. “These tarps are used on larger construction sites when they need to move snow quickly, and especially in tight areas,” explains BWI owner Brian Cook.
Other BWI tarp-based products include bags for hanging below helicopters—to carry water for fire fighting or to move equipment and supplies in the seismic industry.
“Most of our business is done in bulk bags for packing dry products such as fertilizer, feed, cement, etc.,” Cook says. “We do a lot of custom tarp covers for anything from welding equipment to water tanks [an “upside-down” cover to protect large, plastic tanks during transportation]. We also make insulated covers of different sizes, woven polyethylene with closed-cell polyethylene foam, which is sometimes used to protect poured concrete while it cures.”
Truck tarps are 60 percent of Edwards Canvas Inc.’s business, but the company based in Pauls Valley, Okla., also makes a diverse selection of products such as feedlot shades, barn curtains, boat and swimming pool covers, dock seals—and a product that president Clayton Edwards didn’t even know was needed until his company was approached by a major air carrier.
“We make plugs for jet engines to keep birds and the elements out of the engines when the jets are parked,” Edwards says. “They are foam plugs, 5 to 6 feet around, covered with PVC. We sell them to commercial airlines and the military.
“We are doing a lot more with the government, as far as the defense department and U.S. military—odds and ends covers for machinery,” he adds.
One of the company’s largest custom applications is making shelters and wind walls for oil rig workers. “That’s been a real hot, high-volume item, and it’s usually in the thousands of dollars for each project,” says Edwards, noting that each rig has different measurements, doorways and windows.
Carolina CoverTech of North Augusta, S.C., started business as a furniture company in the mid-1800s. After expanding into window coverings, it metamorphosed into an awning company. Its first non-awning products were truck tarps for local companies to cover equipment such as welders. These days, its primary business is in environmental spill protection and cleanup products, as well as covers for moving and storage needs. A golf and recreation component of the business makes products such as seat and bag covers for golf cars.
The latter business came about when a nearby golf car manufacturer came to Carolina CoverTech and asked for one-offs of different covers. “Finally, I said, ‘What are you doing with these things?’” recalls company president Rian True. It turned out that the manufacturer was taking the one-offs to a mass production facility in Florida, “so we started talking to them about having us make them here, and we gained some of that business,” True says.
Another opportunity arose when a contact in a similar business read about portable storage being “the new thing” and sent his salesman to Carolina CoverTech. “He didn’t want to do anything worth less than a half-million in business,” True says. “We started producing samples, and his salesman did a good job of learning the market for us. It became over a million-dollar business.”
Meeting market needs
True is a proponent of using existing equipment and talented employees to expand into new territory. “You can’t own a traditional tarp company and do well on that alone,” he says. “I suggested [to a friend who makes only tarps] hose-bed covers for the fire department and other applications. You can usually work with your local roads and bridges people. I do believe our local governments try to deal locally, but primarily when they have specific needs, it’s just something they can’t go online and order. They’re driving a dump truck to our shop and saying, ‘Hey, we need to replace this part.’”
Similarly, Norseman Inc. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has expanded its product lines after receiving requests for custom applications. “Over time, [those products] have become a market segment we have been able to compete in more actively,” says Mark Mascotto, vice president of marketing.
Norseman began operations in 1921 making canvas outfitter camping tents. The company still makes tents for outdoor outfitters, but has diversified to include a range of products that demonstrates the versatility of tarps: everything from curtains for separating courts in gymnasiums, car wash curtains and welding barriers, oil rig enclosures and wrapping entire buildings to protect construction workers from cold and inclement weather. Scaffolding enclosure systems are especially warranted in the Canadian climates where Norseman is based. The company even uses tarp materials for ducts leading from diesel-fueled heaters into the building wraps. They also use insulated polyethylene to wrap tanker trucks to protect products, especially oil, from Canada’s frigid winter temperatures.
Norseman also manufactures steel-framed, specialty polyethylene fabric-covered buildings that range from 18 to 300 feet wide and any length. “The buildings are our biggest market as measured by the sheer volume of fabric we go through,” Mascotto says. “They allow natural daylight in, saving money while creating a wide open, bright atmosphere. You can also reuse the same building over and over again in different locations, saving more money and reducing construction waste.”
Other large markets for Norseman’s specialty fabric products are agriculture and liners for shipping containers that prevent bulk products from flowing out through gaps. The company also has a specialty foam division that, among other things, makes vinyl-covered crash pads that have been used for speed and figure skating at the Winter Olympics and other events.
With its tested ability to handle specialty customer projects, Norseman has also made “retro versions” of tents for historical films. “You can’t just buy those at REI,” Mascotto notes.
Solving customer problems
When Deano Perlatti joined Seattle Tarp Company in 1980, the Tukwila, Wash.-based company only made truck tarps. “Now that’s just 9 percent of our business,” says the current vice president. “Somewhere in the mid-1980s, we became heavily involved in secondary containment liners. Most went to the North Slope for the Alaska pipeline to store contaminated soil. That’s when we really became entrenched in environmental aspects and portable containment berms. Now the military buys a lot of our products to store chemicals.”
One of Seattle Tarp’s newest products is an isolation chamber with a filtration system for moving patients from one location to another without contamination. The company’s proximity to Puget Sound drives most of its customization business: building containment systems for dock settings. “They can reuse some panels,” Perlatti says, “but each ship has its own particular shape and form.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the company began making swimming pool covers just because someone came in and asked for one. “Typically, product development is based on a need that’s out there—something I see in the news or directly requested from a customer,” Perlatti says, adding that the company is becoming more proactive in generating new products.
Carolina CoverTech’s True believes the market for standard tarps is fully commoditized. “There’s very little profit to be made unless you are one of the experts with large volume. I think imports are taking that from us,” he says.
“We see ourselves as looking at all other industries that we don’t service right now and asking what can our skill sets and familiarity with these products lead us into—the ability to cut and heat seal roll goods of any kind. The key is just to be very efficient and customer-service oriented, to solve problems,” says True. “If a customer comes to us and we don’t have the specific product they want, we try to suggest variations that would be most effective cost-wise, appearance-wise, if appearance is important, and then in durability.”
“It’s interesting to watch the evolution of markets,” Perlatti says. “Deregulation ran small trucking operations out of business. What that did for us as a tarp builder was reduce by 90 percent how many tarps were being used. The thing that saved us was our involvement in the environmental upswing at the same time period.”
“We now have two markets that are down of the five to six we are in,” True says. “The environmental market will continue to grow with the emphasis on protecting waterways, storing chemicals properly and the green economy. You have to keep rolling with the changes.”