How to foster customer satisfaction

DN Staff

July 22, 1996

6 Min Read
How to foster customer satisfaction

Dayville, CT--Hidden away in a small industrial park in the scenic northeast corner of Connecticut is Foster Corp. However, the specialty polymers compounder did not escape Inc. magazine's list of "hot" companies. And for good reason.

President Larry A. Acquarulo founded the privately owned firm in a 2,500- square-foot building in Putnam, CT, in January 1989. Following a slow first year in which Acquarulo and one other employee built a business base, sales have leapfrogged at a pace of 20% or more ever since. His success, as he puts it, is built on "value-added" customer satisfaction.

"At Foster, we harness innovation to develop creative solutions to design en-gineering problems based on a thorough knowledge of base resins and fillers and advanced compounding technology," Ac-quarulo explains. "When a standard material won't meet our customers' needs, we help develop custom formulations of thermoplastics, elastomers, and blends balanced to obtain the required properties."

Experience counts. A lot of that knowledge comes from Acquarulo's background. He received a degree in plastics engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in 1981. While at the university, Acquarulo worked for a couple of wire and cable companies, which gave him "some experience in development, extrusion, manufacturing, and quality control of materials."

After graduation, he went to work for Farrel Corp., a rubber and plastics compounding machinery maker, located in Ansonia, CT. There, Acquarulo trained in the process lab, which involved "running everybody's different formulations." This exposed him to a variety of assignments, including development of automated process control systems for which the company received several patents.

While at Farrel, Acquarulo attended the University of Connecticut, where he re-ceived a masters degree in material science. "It was a good balance of training between the practical side of the industry at Lowell and the theoretical side at Connecticut," he adds.

Acquarulo's next step up the professional ladder included a stint at American Cyanamid in Stamford, CT, starting off in the chemical re-search labs. The work involved the development of a new metal-coated fiber. Once the product was ready for commercial use, Acqua-rulo moved into marketing and technical sales.

With this experience behind him, Acquarulo joined LNP En-gineering Plastics, Exton, PA,beginning in the technical sales area, then branching out into the high-temperature materials group. Here, he developed markets for LNP's polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and polyethersulfone (PES) materials. However, this tour of duty revealed to Acquarulo a need for a specialty compounder, especially when it came to medical materials. Hence, the formation of Foster Corp.

"LNP was getting away from the medical market, particularly the very-high-performance tubing used in catheters," Acquarulo notes. "I had been working with a number of customers that required good quality and technical support, and it just wasn't there. The medical market is very fragmented, low volume, and somewhat difficult to service, which is not practical for the bread-and-butter runs of large compounders."

Quality first. At Foster, the focus was quality. "We did a lot of compounding that other people said can't be done," Acquarulo explains. "We tackled these problems first."

With this philosophy, it took a year or two to win some good accounts. In the meantime, Foster did a lot of research and development work. But growth spiraled upward when customers learned that Foster would settle for nothing less than 100% customer satisfaction. "If a customer called and had a problem with the material, we would rework it to specifications or replace it," says Acquarulo.

"The customer may come back to you and say that this lot just doesn't extrude the same way and we can't hold the size that we did or the surface is not quite smooth enough," Acquarulo continues. "The material may be fine, but what the customer is saying is that he can't make his product. So we go back to the drawing board and modify the material or come up with another compound that will do the job."

As a result of this attitude, many customers enlist Foster's services for both development and manufacturing. Foster offers twin-screw extrusion compounding for both small lots and small production runs or prototyping. This provides direct scale-up options from small to large twin-screw systems. It also enables customers to go directly and rapidly from development into production.

Springing forth from this endeavor have come such compounding formulations as:

- Radiopaque compounds for thin-wall catheter tubing, multilumen tubing, and implantable devices, plus fully dispersed R/O fillers of various loadings in a wide range of thermoplastics and elastomers.

- Custom colors and blends for applications requiring critical color matching that also maintain optimum physical properties and processibility. The automated color matching is based on a proprietary database of medical/FDA-approved pigments, fillers, and resins.

- Electrically conductive/static dissipative compounds for protecting electronic components from damage associated with electrostatic build-up and EMI/RFI, including clean-room applications.

- Reinforced thermoplastics for mechanical components, instrument housings, connectors, electrical components, fittings, and valve housings that offer increased strength, stiffness, and heat deflection temperature, as well as improved dimensional stability when compared with their unreinforced counterparts. Among them: moldable glass and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and elastomers.

- Lubricated compounds for sliding mechanisms, push-pull lines, fiber-optic sheathing, bearings, and components that require longer life, smoother surfaces, and freer movement.

Foster also offers customers the services of a dedicated testing and development lab. They include provisions for monitoring filler content and dispersion, resin melt indexes, physical properties, and processibility. Computerized color analysis promotes repeatable color matching.

And, as an added convenience to its customers, Foster opened a 4,000-square-foot facility in North Las Vegas, NV, last year. It includes two twin-screw extruders, one dedicated to R&D and small runs. Now, West Coast customers can get compounds in three days, instead of the normal eight-day trip it takes from the East Coast. With this expansion, the firm presently employs 23 people, four of them located in Nevada.

This customer-comes-first approach has paid off handsomely. Components made from Foster's compounds appear in products made by such familiar names as Johnson & Johnson, Bard, Pfizer, Xerox, and Harley-Davidson. But Acquarulo is not about to rest on his laurels. The company obtained ISO 9001 approval last year.

Such dedication also has enabled the company to experiment with the formulation of some special compounds. Emistat, a conductive-fiber concentrate, is one recent result. The process takes the nickel-plated carbon fibers continuously off a spool and coats them with a polymeric binder to provide EMI shielding and static dissipation. Not only does this eliminate some of the processing cost for the user, but it improves the properties, since they are not broken down in the compounding stage. Sample quantities are available.

Not only has Foster been able to keep key clients that helped build the business, but "we now add another two or three new customers a month. If we can't fill your particular need, we will let you know up front," says Acquarulo. "Chances are, however, we can come up with a solution." It's this attitude that should keep Foster growing at a steady pace.

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