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Company prospers with good technology, market

In the 1890s, the Carborundum Co. was one of the first major companies to sign up as a customer of electricity generated by the Niagara Falls Power Company.

As is the case with many of the giants from the Cataract City's industrial heyday, the Carborundum name has faded into memory.

But Carborundum's ceramics fibers business, spun off following the company's sale in 1996, has thrived as an independent company and remains a vibrant part of the regional economy.

Unifrax Corp., a descendant of Carborundum now owned by a private equity firm, has grown in recent years by acquiring companies and expanding its line of high-temperature insulation products.

The company has survived the recession, rebounded and is on pace for its best sales year ever, said David E. Brooks, Unifrax's president and CEO.

"If I were to say, well, what's the secret sauce, or what's the secret to the success? It's having a good technology, in an attractive market, and then investing in it in the plants, and the technology and product development," Brooks said at Unifrax's Whirlpool Street facility.

The company has outgrown its Niagara Falls building, where it has been located since at least the mid-1970s, when it was still Carborundum.

Unifrax is moving to a new building in the Town of Tonawanda, near one of its large processing facilities, a move that has been delayed from this year to 2013.

"We're committed to the Tonawanda location. The workforce there is outstanding. The productivity of the plant is very good, and we're able to serve our worldwide customers effectively," Brooks said.

Edward G. Acheson, a former assistant to Thomas Edison, formed the Carborundum Co. in 1891 after producing silicon carbide, one of the first synthetic abrasives, by accident in his Pittsburgh laboratory, according to an industrial history of Niagara Falls produced in 2007 by Francis R. Kowsky and Martin Wachadlo.

Acheson opened a network of brick buildings on eight acres at Niagara Falls in 1896.

One hundred years later, Unifrax was formed after British Petroleum sold the rest of Carborundum to St. Gobain SA. BP gave the North American ceramics fibers division a new name and sold Unifrax to the first of a series of private equity firms. Its current owner is American Securities.

Unifrax was required, as a condition of Carborundum's sale to St. Gobain, to limit its sales to the North American market for the first five years after the sale.

As those restrictions expired, Unifrax began to expand into the international market, said Brooks, who took over from Unifrax's first president and CEO, William P. Kelly, in 2006.

Brooks, a Cincinnati native, has been with the company since 1980, when he joined Carborundum's marketing department before taking on various management positions within the firm.

Unifrax's main Fiberfrax products provide insulation from extremely high temperatures -- up to 3,000 degrees, far above the melting point for regular fiberglass.

They are used primarily in industrial processes, to insulate furnaces and reactors inside steel mills, oil refineries and similar facilities.

Unifrax products also are used in the exhaust systems of automotive engines and in the fireproofing of airplanes, railroad cars and kitchens of public buildings.

"We have customers all over the world," Brooks said.

Unifrax's largest competitor in this industry is Morgan Thermal Ceramics, part of the Morgan Crucible Co.

In 1996, at the time Unifrax was formed, the company had 350 employees, all in North America, and about $70 million in annual sales, Brooks said.

The company's sales have grown about 12 percent per year since then. Unifrax expects to hit $500 million in sales in 2012, with 2,000 worldwide employees, including about 320 in Western New York.

"It's been growing steadily over the years," Brooks said.

About half of this growth has come through Unifrax acquisitions, and the company now has facilities in 10 countries.

But Unifrax also sets a goal of having at least 25 percent of its sales come from products that are less than five years old, Brooks said.

The company recently has begun making products for the automotive emission-control market, for example.

"We have a big focus on product development and trying to constantly innovate and replace our product portfolio," he said.

The company's research and development work is done on Whirlpool Street in Niagara Falls, in its headquarters building.

Brooks said Unifrax is running out of space at this facility. The company considered, but rejected as impractical, the option of expanding at its current site.

Brooks said company officials wanted to move R&D operations closer to one of the main American facilities -- either an Indiana plant or its plant on Fire Tower Drive in the Town of Tonawanda, which primarily makes products for the automotive industry.

Representatives of TM Montante Development contacted Unifrax officials about a year or so ago and pitched the idea of moving the company's operations from Niagara Falls to an existing building in Montante's Riverview Solar Technology Park in Tonawanda.

The industrial park is about three miles from Unifrax's Tonawanda facility, a proximity that appealed to company officials. To sweeten the deal, Montante agreed to buy Unifrax's Niagara Falls building, while Unifrax will lease space in the industrial park, Brooks said.

To help with the cost of the move, Unifrax is receiving a $700,000 capital grant from the Empire State Development Corp., and promised to add 15 jobs to the 96 people who worked on Whirlpool Street.

Niagara County officials have objected to the state providing assistance to a company relocating from Niagara to Erie counties.

"It created a lot of heartburn in Niagara Falls," said Brooks, who added the company felt caught in the middle of a political fight.

Unifrax still is going ahead with the move to Tonawanda, but has delayed it from the first quarter of this year to the first half of 2013, because the company has been investing so much money in other facilities around the world, Brooks said.

Unifrax likes Western New York and wants to stay in this area because of the quality of the workforce and because of its strong local connections to the engineering programs at Alfred University, Clarkson University and the University at Buffalo.

The company was hit hard by the recession, particularly in 2009 as its industrial customers cut back on their production, and Unifrax did lay people off, Brooks said.

But the company survived, hiring back all of its laid-off workers and adding new positions, and avoided joining the long list of Niagara Falls companies that have closed their doors.

"You look at all of those names that were up on Buffalo Avenue, and it's a tough story. Smarter men than me can tell you why it ended up that way," Brooks said. "We feel very fortunate that our business has prospered and we're growing employment in Western New York."

email: swatson@buffnews.com