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Maine company makes rope used by everybody from Navy SEALs to yachtsmen

Posted Aug. 31, 2012, at 2:35 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 04, 2012, at 5:36 p.m.
Tom Yale, owner of Yale Cordage, checks up on the machines weaving synthetic line in his Saco factory.
Tom Yale, owner of Yale Cordage, checks up on the machines weaving synthetic line in his Saco factory. Buy Photo
Yale Cordage President William Putnam holds a length of nylon braid, which his Saco company produces.
Yale Cordage President William Putnam holds a length of nylon braid, which his Saco company produces. Buy Photo
Machines whir and spin, weaving synthetic rope at Yale Cordage in Saco on Wednesday.
Machines whir and spin, weaving synthetic rope at Yale Cordage in Saco on Wednesday. Buy Photo

SACO, Maine — As Hurricane Isaac barreled toward New Orleans this week, a series of weather buoys sprinkled throughout the Gulf of Mexico tracked the storm while moored securely to the ocean floor by synthetic rope manufactured in Maine.

Between 85 and 90 percent of the weather buoys managed by the National Data Buoy Center are moored with rope manufactured by Yale Cordage at its facility in Saco, according to Tom Yale, the company’s owner.

The National Data Buoy Center buys roughly 300,000 feet of rope from Yale Cordage each year, estimates Stephen Cucullu, program manager at the center. Before Yale Cordage helped design new rope for its buoys, which was about 10 years ago, the agency often lost buoys because sharks would bite through the rope or rough oceans would stretch it to the point it needed replacing.

Since it began using Yale’s rope, including an anti-shark product called Fish Bite rope, the center has seen a 50 percent reduction in “mooring failures,” Cucullu says. “The bottom line is the Fish Bite line has proved excellent in upper moorings and we’ve had a lot of success from a reliability standpoint.”

Yale Cordage was founded in 1950 by O. Sherman Yale, Tom Yale’s father. In the early days, the company had a facility in Yarmouth and primarily provided rope for the commercial fishing industry, but that all changed when Tom joined the company in 1970. Tom, a sailor, saw opportunity in the pleasure marine marketplace and began expanding the company’s product line to provide synthetic rope that could replace steel wires on sailing vessels.

“We did a fair amount of outfitting of high-visibility yachts, including Americas Cup boats,” Yale said on a recent afternoon in his facility’s conference room. “We were sort of the unofficial sponsors of the Americas Cup, because we couldn’t afford the price tag to be official sponsors.”

The year before Tom Yale joined the company, 1969, sales were around $17,000, he says. Today, Yale Cordage is a $20 million company that employs 75 people at its Saco facility, along with another 25 at a facility the company purchased in North Carolina six years ago. It has posted double-digit growth each year on average for the past decade. This past year, the company experienced a 20 percent jump in revenue, Yale says.

The company’s steady growth has been fueled by a constant pursuit of diversification and new markets, along with a committed income reinvestment strategy.

The pleasure marine market was the company’s bread and butter for several decades, but it’s seasonal and vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy, Yale says. So about 10 years ago, the company began a concerted effort to find new applications for its products and focus on markets that were “predictable, forecastable and more reliable,” Yale says.

Today, Yale Cordage is primary supplier into the power utility marketplace, producing winch lines found on Central Maine Power’s utility trucks and those used to string new power lines, including as part of the Maine Power Reliability Project. The U.S. Army uses Yale Cordage’s rope to extract tanks from ditches in Afghanistan. Navy SEALs slide down Yale Cordage rope when they descend from hovering helicopters. You can find Yale Cordage rope on Bath Iron Works’ destroyers and the Hood blimp. It’s used at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Ontario, which is buried 17,000 feet below the Earth’s surface; on offshore oil rigs, at the South Pole and even on software magnate Larry Ellison’s yacht.

Where pleasure marine used to consist of 95 percent of the company’s sales, it’s now 5 percent, Yale says. “It’s not that it has shrunk as much as other markets have grown,” he says.

“One thing we do really, really well here is look at our equipment and try to figure out where we can utilize it and what we have to do to modify it to bring a new, better product to the market and in a different application,” says Bill Putnam, Yale’s executive vice president.

On the manufacturing floor, Putnam stands in front of a machine braiding 12 strands of rope. Each strand is only one-eighth of an inch in diameter, but can carry a 1,200-pound load. “I have shoelaces that are bigger than that,” Putnam says. Those 12 ropes braided together will result in a rope able to carry 14,400 pounds. Another machine will then take 12 of those ropes and braid a larger rope that ultimately will be able to carry nearly 173,000 pounds.

People may think rope is rope, a commodity, something you buy at the hardware store and use to tie down a tarp, but Tom Yale would tell you differently. “It is high-tech stuff,” he says. “We can make a synthetic rope that is twice the strength of a steel rod of the same diameter. When you’re talking about that, rope isn’t rope anymore.”

Yale estimates that only about 1 percent of his product is sold in Maine, which means the company operates out of the public eye. But 75 employees makes Yale Cordage a “very sizable manufacturer” in the state, according to Lisa G. Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine.

Though Yale Cordage isn’t a member of the association, Martin said the company is an example of a manufacturer finding success in the state through exporting. “From my perspective, any company that is manufacturing anything in Maine is good for Maine and good for the economy,” she says. “When people think of manufacturers, they think of the large ones like Bath Iron Works, but it’s important for people to know we have companies like Yale.”

As for the future, Yale Cordage continues to invest in plenty of research and development, Yale says. In a back room at its Saco manufacturing facility, a thick, colorful, braided rope is stretched taut along a counter between two anchors. Yale and Putnam wouldn’t go into detail on the project or allow photographs because of intellectual property concerns. Putnam would only offer: “We’re working on what we think is the next step in synthetic lifting technology.”

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