New products keep Cooley step ahead

The latest over-the-top billboard in New York City’s Times Square stretches several stories high, covers several sides of a high rise on 42nd Street and touts the national retailer Target. More

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New products keep Cooley step ahead

KEEPING COOL: Cooley Group Chairman Robert Siener Jr., right, and President Jeffrey Flath in the firm’s plant, located in Pawtucket. Despite recent layoffs, the company says it is weathering the economic downturn.
Posted 10/5/09

The latest over-the-top billboard in New York City’s Times Square stretches several stories high, covers several sides of a high rise on 42nd Street and touts the national retailer Target.

But, in a way, the high-profile sign serves as an advertisement for a Pawtucket manufacturer, too.

The Cooley Group churned out the material on which the billboard is printed – a membrane that the company calls Enviroflex that’s nearly as thin as paper, and almost as light. But it doesn’t rip easily, allowing the billboard to reach its massive scale undamaged.

And the attribute that Cooley’s customers like the best: It’s relatively inexpensive.

“This is what our industry demands,” said P. Robert Siener Jr., chairman of the Cooley Group, who has been running things at the privately held company since before he bought out its shareholders in 1960. “The customers want lighter [material] and low cost.”

Cooley, which employs about 150 workers at its Esten Avenue headquarters and Cranston factory and another 50 at a plant in South Carolina, is relatively unknown outside the industry, but it has been producing various types of polymer membranes for decades.

And the products are used by its customers for much more than just billboards.

One customer fashions a thicker membrane produced by Cooley into portable fuel tanks that hold as much as 200,000 gallons of gas but can be folded into car-sized boxes when empty. The enormous pillow-like tanks have proved popular with the military in operations overseas.

Other uses for Cooley-formulated membranes: tents, oil booms, loading dock shelters, reservoir liners and roofing materials, among other things.

And the product line is ever-changing as the company continues its relentless development of new polymer formulas.

Jeffrey C. Flath, Cooley president and chief operating officer, says that drive has allowed Cooley to survive despite crushing competition, particularly from companies in China, where some membranes can be mass-produced cheaply.

Flath says Cooley has stayed ahead of competitors by consistently developing lighter, stronger materials and seeking out smaller, higher-margin contracts that other companies can’t handle.

Once a formula is imitated and mass produced by other companies, Cooley often moves on to other products. David A. Pettey, vice president of operations and production innovation, says 25 percent of Cooley’s sales come from products that are less than a year old.

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