Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pillow maker and bed bugs

When most Americans first learned of bed-bug outbreaks this summer, American Textile Co. was already on top of it.

The pillow maker, based in Duquesne, began churning out protective covers for pillows and mattresses in 2009. They are designed so the tiny insects can not bite through the fabric or sneak through the zippers.

"We started responding to bed bugs when there were just a few isolated reports every couple of months a year and a half ago. We developed a bed-bug barricade," said CEO Jack Ouellette.

"Our sales went up dramatically this summer," in response to media reports of the bed-bug breakout, said Ouelette, declining to provide figures.

Until this year, pest control companies got only one or two calls a year about bed-bugs, according to the National Pest Management Association. Now, companies are getting one or two calls a week.

Many reports have surfaced in the Northeast, especially in New York, the most bed-bugged city, according to a survey by Terminix International Co. Among the 15 most-plagued cities are Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland and Columbus, but not Pittsburgh.

"We haven't seen anything much in the way of bed bugs around Pittsburgh," said Rod Altmeyer Sr., president of Altmeyer Home Stores Inc., which sells American Textile pillow and mattress protectors at its 12 area stores.

"But if this keeps going the way it is, sales may increase," said Altmeyer, whose company based in Delmont, Westmoreland County, has bought from American Textile for more than 60 years.

"More retailers are carrying protective covers because of bed bugs," said Karin Mahoney, spokeswoman for the International Sleep Products Association. But the Alexandria, Va.-based trade group had no specific data.

American Textile's bed-bug bump in sales occurs as the company -- whose motto is "Sound science, sound sleep" -- marks its 85th anniversary. It was founded in 1925 by the Ruttenberg family, which still owns the company.

American Textile's Aller-Ease pillows and protectors employ a cotton allergen fabric that protects the nearly one-third of Americans who suffer from allergies related to dust mites, Ouellette said.

Another line, Derma Therapy, is designed for people with chronic skin problems and is registered with the Food and Drug Administration as a medical device.

"There's a science to this industry," said Ouellette, who has worked at American Textile for 34 years.

The company's three pillow-making plants -- in Duquesne, Dallas and Salt Lake City -- produce a total of about 30 million pillows a year. That makes American Textile one of the five-largest such manufacturers in the country, Ouellette said.

The pillow and mattress protectors to ward off bed bugs are made by contract workers in El Salvador and China.

About 40 percent of the company's products are sold to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Most of the rest goes to Macy's Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Target Corp., Kohl's Corp. and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., as well as to Altmeyer.

American Textile is in its third generation. The chairman is Reid Ruttenberg, while son Lance Ruttenberg is chief operating officer, and son Blake Ruttenberg is executive vice president of sales and marketing.

"We've seen a world war, the Depression, recessions, stock market crashes and retailers that have come and gone," said Ouellette of the company's long legacy.

A big break came in 1995, when 3M Co. approached American Textile to incorporate a synthetic fabric into its pillow and mattress protectors to ward off dust mites. The new line increased American Textile's sales by "double-digit" percentages from 1995 to 2009, Ouelette said.

The increase led the company to relocate from smaller quarters in Lawrenceville in 2003. It moved to a much-larger, 193,000-square-foot headquarters and plant in Duquesne.

The current headquarters has a history, too. The 11-acre site was the location of U.S. Steel Corp.'s former Duquesne Works plant along the Monongahela River.

About 340 American Textile workers and family members attended an 85th anniversary celebration Saturday at the company's headquarters, Ouelette said.

By: Thomas Olson

By: Bradley Skierkowski