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Covering the world Rockland makes mark exporting drapery liners.


Alexander J. Leaderman looks you straight in the eye, and with a deadpan expression, says: "Now I'm going tell you something that will shock you." He pauses a second or two for effect. "I want to get into every bedroom in America. Actually, I want to get into every bedroom in the world."

Mr. Leaderman, a bespectacled 74-year-old with thinning gray hair and sense of humor, is quick to laugh at his play on words, which sums up the goal he has set for his East Baltimore company, Rockland Industries Inc.

He is chairman of Rockland, which makes Roc-Lon brand drapery liner fabrics, including a Lights Out line that blocks sunlight and keeps bedrooms dark. "We don't make the pretty materials that you see," says Stanley Fradin, president of the company's Rockland Mills division. "We make the stuff that goes behind it."

And that "stuff" is making its way into a growing number of bedrooms in dozens of countries, including Argentina, France, Japan and the Fiji Islands.

Rockland's move into bedrooms around the world has not gone unnoticed by the federal government.

Today, the textile company's Rockland Mills division will be given the Commerce Department's prestigious President's "E" award, a symbol of excellence bestowed on people, companies or organizations that contribute significantly to boosting U.S. exports.

Rockland is one of two Maryland companies to be honored this year. The other is RTKL Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based architectural and engineering firm whose international business increased from one percent to 14 percent of total sales in the past four years.

RTKL, which plans and designs large-scale retail developments, hotels, resorts and corporate offices, has more projects under way in Japan than any other U.S. architecture firm. And RTKL, one of only eight U.S. architectural firms with established offices in Japan, has working relationships with more than three dozen architectural firms around the world.

Rockland is no newcomer to the Baltimore business scene. It was founded along the Jones Falls in Brooklandville more than 30 years before the start of the Civil War.

It moved to its present site on Edison Highway ten years ago after suffering its second major flood at the Falls Road location.

No one knows how much of its bleached and dyed fabrics were loaded aboard sailing ships and sent back to the old country in those early days. But exports have been on Mr. Leaderman's mind since he acquired the company in 1944, after returning home from World War II.

As a member of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff, Captain Leaderman saw a lot of Europe during the war. "I made up my mind back then that the market was a whole lot bigger than the U.S."

His dream was to load a ship with American-made goods, set sail for ports around the world and sell the products. "That's how I was going to make my fortune."

Things didn't turn out quite that way, but he never abandoned his concept of a world market. And in 1963, Rockland's patent for a drapery lining that blocked sunlight created a profitable market niche. Rockland also makes bedspread liners and pillow case prints, but the drapery liners account for about 70 percent of its business.

Drapery materials had long been given what Mr. Leaderman calls the "garbage pail treatment." They were treated with waxes and tallows, a grease-like product that made the cloth shine. But they didn't stand up against the harsh rays of the sun.

Mr. Leaderman saw the problem firsthand at what he calls his "solar home" on Old Court Road. "I wanted to live outside," he says, "so the whole back of the house was windows." The problem he had -- one shared by countless other homeowners around the world -- was that drapery lining would "rot in about two or three months, leaving the material in shreds. There was a need for a new product."

That product was Roc-Lon, a fabric that can stand up to ultraviolet radiation, is water and oil resistant, fire resistant and doesn't shrink when washed. And it dramatically changed Rockland's operations.

Such claims were viewed with skepticism by New York textile merchants. Mr. Leaderman still remembers their initial response: " 'What in the hell is it? It's just a sheet,' customers up and down 5th Avenue said. We eventually made believers out of them. We made believers out of the whole world."

Before the development of Roc-Lon, Rockland took other companies' raw fabrics -- known in the trade as greige, a French word for the fabric's grayish-beige color -- and dyed, bleached or treated them to make them soft, stiff or shiny. Rockland then returned the fabric to the companies.

With the new product, Rockland expanded into a vertical operation, finishing its own fabrics and taking them to market. "We started exporting as soon as we went vertical," Mr. Leaderman says, holding a sample of Roc-Lon toward the ceiling to show that light can't come through.

"We decided we wanted to have as broad a base as we could get," he says. "That's the commitment you have to make. If you want to be in the export business, you have to make that commitment."

The Roc-Lon logo has become a symbol of quality within the drapery industry and it has made the Baltimore company the world's largest manufacturer of drapery liners.

"It is like the stamp of approval," says Mr. Leaderman as he sorts through a pile of clippings showing the logo prominently featured in ads from Bloomingdale's, Sears, J. C. Penney, Kirsch and Robert Allen. The logo even shows up on the inside cover of an architect magazine printed in Taiwan.

Although the company's patent has expired, Rockland officials say brand name identification still gives it a big advantage over competitors in other parts of the world where labor and production costs are lower.

Rockland's strategies paid off. Rockland's exports have grown from 8.5 percent to 22 percent of sales since 1985. The company sells its products in about 60 countries.

And today, Rockland ranks among the largest privately owned companies in Maryland, with sales of "just a little bit under $100 million," according to Mr. Leaderman.

Exports have been a real blessing during the current recession, Mr. Leaderman says. The giant Edison Highway plant, which employs about 200 workers, has maintained a steady three-shifts-a-day operation without laying off any workers.

Much of Rockland's success can be attributed to its approach to foreign markets. Mr. Leaderman says the company looks to forge long-term relationships among its export customers. And it does not make the common mistake of pulling back on exports when the U.S. market is strong and pushing them when the domestic market is soft.

A big part of Rockland's success is due to establishing sales agents in each country where it does business. Such agents can smooth over the differences in language and culture, Mr. Fradin says.

"You can lose a sale in the first two minutes by stepping on someone's foot without even knowing it," he says, noting the danger of having inexperienced outsiders in such jobs.

Rockland also keeps in touch with its international customers.

Mr. Fradin, who was in Mexico City last week drumming up new business, will visit a half-dozen other countries in the next few weeks.

"We're always on the move," he says. "You can't find any grass growing under us."

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