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Strong brands key for Microflex

John Seelmeyer

Nothing is more prosaic than a disposable glove, right? Not to Lloyd Roberts and his team at Microflex.

From its office in northwest Reno, Microflex runs hard to make sure that its disposable gloves and the margins they generate are anything but prosaic.

That’s not easy in a business that’s seen an end to the explosive growth that accompanied fears of AIDS and hepatitis in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Slower growth demands even more vigilance to creation of strong brands, says Roberts, the company’s president and chief executive.

“Any business, if left untended, will turn into a commodity,” he said over a cup of coffee one recent morning.

“There is always room for a brand.”

Microflex disposable gloves dominate numerous segments of the market: No.

1 among dentists.

No.

1 among emergency medical personnel.

No.

1 among automotive technicians.

But Roberts is aware that strong brands and the margins they generate are fragile creatures.

“If we went to sleep, we could give that away in two or three years,” he said.

Here’s how Microflex makes sure its brands stay strong: * Regular product development, with real innovations.

Its Reno researchers, for instance, recently rolled out a synthetic product called “FreeForm” after some users of traditional gloves developed reactions to latex.

So far, FreeForm products have been a hit.

* Support the new products with highly professional marketing and advertising.

The materials produced in-house by Microflex look like advertising for consumer products rather than merchandise sold into business-tobusiness channels.

* Provide consistent quality, so the brand never is threatened by a user’s bad experience.

A lab at the Reno office draws samples from each batch of gloves produced by offshore contractors and tests them for everything from stretchability to the way they react with various chemicals.

As FDA requirements for protective gloves have become stringent, Microflex seeks to stay ahead of the requirements.

* And provide customer service that leaves the customer feeling good about the brand.

Notice, however, that the Microflex strategy doesn’t involve building the biggest possible sales volumes by chasing large customers.

So far, the company hasn’t pursued the hospital market a market driven by price and dominated by giant suppliers of medical supplies.

But that leaves plenty of other market segments such as the fast-growing business of selling gloves to automotive technicians Peter Peckham, vice president for marketing, said the automotive segment is growing as mechanics and auto-body specialists increasingly worry about health risks posed by solvents and grease on their skin.

Another emerging market, Peckham said, is gloves for use in clean rooms.

Although most of the company’s sales are handled by distributors, Microflex tries to stay close to its customers.

The company, for instance, has a presence at numerous trade shows and professional events that draw the people who use its gloves, and it listens carefully to their comments.

From the observations of its customers, Microflex develops the new products that keep its brands strong.

“A glove is not a glove,” observes Peckham.

Emergency medical technicians, for instance, put a premium on strength and thickness in the fingertips of their gloves.

Dentists, meanwhile, want a glove that provides a great deal of flexibility.

The success of marketing programs as well as a multitude of other information is widely shared by Microflex with its 115 employees, including the 75 who work in northern Nevada.

The information, Robert said, helps business units establish goals for themselves that often are far higher than anything the company’s management team would set.

The privately held company was founded in San Francisco by Nathan Saks in 1987.

He sold it to Riverside Partners of Boston in the early 1990s, although he remains on the board of the privately held company.

Microflex moved to Reno in 1995, attracted by the state’s tax structure and business climate.


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