Bullets of water pelt down, gusts of wind whip and tear from all sides. This is a gale in the open ocean, a monsoon, a raging hurricane the likes of which are seen, well, several times a day.

This is the rain room at the W. L. Gore & Associates facility near Elkton in Cecil County, where Gore-Tex parkas and pants earn their labels and super-serious product testing meets marketing genius, head on.

"If it doesn't say Gore-Tex, it's not," the company's recent advertising campaign proclaims.

Behind that slogan are rigorous standards and years of product development, as well as the tacit acknowledgment that even as Gore commands 90 percent of the market for waterproof, breathable fabrics, competitors are appearing on the horizon.

"There are up-and-coming companies who are going to go head-to-head with Gore-Tex," says Amy Holmes, a merchandising manager for Hudson Trail Outfitters. "But the hardest thing will be getting the customer to understand that there is something else out there. People ask for the label and they don't even know what Gore-Tex is. They just know they want it."

The Gore-Tex label, affixed to high-end outdoor clothing from North Face, Timberland and L. L. Bean -- long-respected by serious sporting enthusiasts -- has become so hip on the streets of urban America as to rate mention in a rap song.

"It's one thing to be used in an Antarctic expedition, and it's another thing to be popular in the 'hood," says Arthur "Burt" Chase, a senior Gore associate. "There is a performance side to Gore-Tex and a fashion side, and both are great."

How polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, the same substance used to coat military bombs and frying pans, was transformed into a top-selling fabric laminate for pricey outdoor clothing is not just the story of the ingenuity and persistence of a former DuPont scientist and his family. It is also a study in marketing and merchandising genius and uncompromising product control.

The year was 1969 and the small, family-owned W. L. Gore & Associates was looking for ways to expand its business of making a Teflon-coated electrical wire.

Robert Gore, son of the company's founder and now president, was trying to stretch Teflon rods to create a thinner plumbers' tape to mold around pipe joints. Each time he pulled the material, however, it broke.

Frustrated, Gore donned mits, plunged his hands directly into an oven where the stuff was baking, grasped a piping-hot rod and gave it a mighty yank.

Eureka! It stretched, and in that instant, Gore-Tex was born.

Wide-ranging uses

From the effort to make an ordinary plumbing supply ultimately had come one of the glamour materials of modern time -- a waterproof, breathable film that is used in everything from space suits and parkas to vascular grafts and computer circuit boards.

The morning after Robert Gore discovered that PTFE would stretch, Sally Gore, his wife and a senior company associate, recalls, "everybody was reaching into the ovens and trying it for themselves."

Today, few of the company's associates are allowed to see Gore-Tex being made in the company's plants near Elkton.

"That's super- secret," says Lisa Wyre, a former 16-year associate who now represents the company with a public relations firm. "It's on a strictly need-to-know basis."

The Newark, Del.-based company is almost obsessively guarded, giving outsiders only brief glimpses of what by all accounts is a unique -- and apparently successful -- corporate culture. Robert Gore rarely talks to the press and was unavailable for an interview.

Despite annual revenues of more than $1 billion, the privately held W. L. Gore is off Wall Street's radar screens. Even investment analysts who follow E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, which discovered the PTFE on which Gore's business is built, seem unaware of the company. In Maryland, Gore is a major employer in Cecil County, where it operates 12 facilities (a 13th is soon to open) and provides at least 1,000 of the area's estimated 1,900 manufacturing jobs.

Gore-Tex and its newer fabric laminates, Activent and Windstopper, are the best-known of the company's products and the greatest revenue generators. However, the company also makes a variety of electrical, industrial and medical products, ranging from insulators for computer circuit boards to medical vascular grafts. A few years ago, Gore introduced Glide dental floss and recently began test-marketing guitar strings.

Private, forever

The company employs 6,000 at plants in the United States and abroad. Nevertheless, the company, owned by members of the Gore family and its employees or "associates," will never go public, senior associates say.

Gore has also maintained rigid control over the use of its products. That control, merchandisers and retailers say, has propelled Gore fabrics to best-selling status.

In 1989, after 13 years of making waterproof, breathable fabrics for a smallish market of serious outdoor enthusiasts, Gore began licensing manufacturers to use the Gore-Tex material and label. This move not only gave Gore-Tex name-brand recognition in a much broader consumer market -- even as outdoor clothing was gaining fashion cachet -- it also gave the company greater control over the use of its product.

Gore sells only to select manufacturers and then approves every design to prevent poor construction from sabotaging its lifetime guarantee.

If a jacket can't survive the company's rain room, high-tech abrasion tests or thousands of hours in its washing machines, it can't be a Gore-Tex jacket.

Manufacturers and retailers are invited to visit the rain room and Gore's testing labs where they can see for themselves -- and describe for their customers -- the abuse the material takes and survives. Additionally, Gore regularly teams with its manufacturing partners in glossy, high-dollar product promotions, blitzing the consumer with full-color ads and dressing sales forces in its clothing.

Recently, in one such promotion, Gore gave Mountain Hardwear Windstopper jackets to each of the 50 full-time employees of Hudson Trail Outfitters, which has stores in the Baltimore-Washington area. Gore-Tex, not coincidentally, remains the "No. 1 fabric for outerwear" and the greatest revenue generator for Hudson Trail Outfitters, Holmes says.

Product is expensive

Such testing and promotion, though, don't come cheap. Gore-Tex can add more than $100 to the cost of a jacket. Increasingly, retailers and manufacturers are questioning whether Gore can continue to thrive at such rarefied levels. At the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Utah last year, at least three major manufacturers and Gore-Tex stalwarts introduced their own breathable, waterproof fabrics, in part to counter retailers' complaints that Gore-Tex jackets priced at $350 and more are becoming harder to sell. North Face plans to introduce a jacket containing its Hydroseal this fall, priced at $260, or about $100 less than its model containing Gore-Tex, according to Dana Donley, a company spokeswoman.

"We don't compare it to Gore-Tex," Donley is quick to note. "Gore-Tex is very important to us and we'll continue to use it in our high-end products, but Hydroseal offers a lower-priced opportunity for consumers."

Leigh Gallagher, managing editor of Sporting Goods Business magazine, says that it is still too early to know how much competition the other companies will give Gore. Their biggest hurdle, she notes, will be Gore's formidable advertising.

"Their marketing has been unbeatable," says Gallagher.

Gore representatives, meanwhile, profess not to consider the competition. (Several associates said they did not even know the names of competitors.)

"We're not concerned about price point," says Sally Gore. "If it's a life-and-death issue, you'll take Gore-Tex because you can rely on it."

Outgrowth of Teflon

Gore-Tex is produced scant miles from the home built into a hillside near Newark, Del., where the late Wilbert "Bill" Gore and his wife, Genevieve "Vieve" Gore, began their business. As a chemist at DuPont, Bill Gore, who died hiking in Wyoming in 1986, had worked to find other uses for Teflon. When DuPont rejected his idea to make insulation for copper wiring, he struck out on his own in 1958, with the company's permission.

The couple took "all the money that they had in the bank," sold their car, gave their five children duties around the house and prepared to live as frugally as backwoods hikers, said Vieve Gore, who at 84 is still active in the company as secretary-treasurer.

"We knew if we did all that, we could last two years from the time Bill left DuPont until we had to be earning money to survive," she said. "We just knew that we had to get going and once we did, we became very focused and really eager to move ahead."

In the early days, 13 of the 16 people working for the company lived in the Gore home, sleeping on the floor and experimenting until all hours of the night. (Of the original 16, 11 people are still with the company.)

For the first two years, the fledgling company made the PTFE-coated wire in the Gores' basement and twisted the long cables by hand on the lawn outside.

"One of our customers wrote back, 'We've tested your cable and it works fine and we want to buy some, but how in the dickens did the grass get in it?' " Vieve Gore recalls.

As a scientist, Bill Gore understood the necessity of combining freedom with discipline -- the freedom to explore, to create and even to fail and the discipline to persevere and to meet exacting standards. His approach to running a company sprang from such understandings and his desire to give workers the power to create.

No bosses, no titles

At Gore there are no employees or bosses, no titles -- except for President Robert Gore and Secretary-Treasurer Vieve Gore, who are titled for purposes of corporate registration. Instead, workers are called "associates," and company stock makes up their retirement fund. People who in other companies might be mistaken for bosses are called "sponsors."

The company likes to operate small plants -- not more than 200 workers -- and would rather open a new plant than operate a larger one.

The company, whose marketing and advertising is praised by retailers as among the best, has no official marketing department.

There also is no formal chain of command, and associates are free to discuss their ideas or concerns with anyone in the company. Gore also has no clear second-in-command or named successor to Robert Gore, who has been chief executive officer for 20 years -- a practice anathema to most large companies.

"Gore's unique system has gotten the job done over the years," wrote Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz, who included the Gore company in "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America."

The Gore culture is not, however, for everyone. Senior associates acknowledge that the organization must have self-motivated people to thrive. Those who don't exert initiative and work well within the loose structure don't last.

"People sometimes get concerned and worried that there is no structure and no organization, and I don't think that is true at all," says Chase, the senior associate who joined the company in 1961. "We have team leaders, and we put the emphasis upon having the associate make his or her own commitment and then live up to it."

Associates rate each other and those ratings determine pay. And because associates own part of the company through stock deposited in their retirement trust funds, they are more likely to be tough on unproductive fellow workers, company leaders say.

"Our culture allows people to kind of do their own innovations, to work on their own things," says Vieve Gore. "That was Bill's dream. We believe it works."

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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