W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc.
W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc.
Sales: $800 million (est.)
SICs: 3089 Plastic Products Not Elsewhere Classified; 3643
Current-Carrying Wiring Devices
W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., is a high-technology company that develops and manufactures, among other products, advanced synthetic fabrics used for aerospace, clothing, medical, automotive, chemical, electronic, and other applications. With operations spanning the globe, Gore’s chief product in the mid-1990s was Gore-Tex, a patented high-performance fabric. Among other distinctions, W. L. Gore repeatedly has been cited as one of the best 100 companies to work for in America.
W. L. Gore & Associates is the progeny of renowned American entrepreneur, scientist, and inventor Wilbert L. (Bill) Gore. Gore began working for DuPont in 1941 when he was 29 years old. He helped to advance that company’s research into polymers, resins, and plastics. On the advice of his wife, Vieve, Gore left his research job in 1958 to start his own company. Before his departure, Gore had been working on new DuPont-developed synthetic material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, or teflon). He hoped to build a company that developed and marketed new uses for the material. Gore and Vieve started the enterprise on a shoestring budget in the basement of their home.
Gore’s first commercially viable products were wire and cable products insulated with teflon. Bill’s son, Bob, was integral to those innovations. Bob, who was a chemical engineering student at the time, is credited with coming up with the concept that resulted in Gore’s first patent for teflon-insulated wire and cable. For ten years, in fact, such products were the core of the Gore enterprise. The high-tech cables were respected in their industry niche and were even used in the Apollo space program for the first moon landing.
From their basement office, the Gores expanded into a separate production facility in their hometown of Newark, Delaware. Sales were brisk after initial product introductions. By 1965, just seven years after the business had started, Gore & Associates was employing about 200 people. It was about that time that Gore began to develop and implement the unique management system and philosophy for which his company would become recognized. Gore noticed that as his company had grown, efficiency and productivity had started to decline. He needed a new management structure, but he feared that the popular pyramid management structure that was in vogue at the time suppressed the creativity and innovation that he valued so greatly. Instead of adopting the pyramid structure, Gore decided to create his own system.
During World War II, while on a task force at DuPont, Gore had learned of another type of organizational structured called the lattice system, which was developed to enhance the ingenuity and overall performance of a group working toward a goal. It emphasized communication and cooperation rather than hierarchy of authority. Under the system that Gore developed, any person was allowed to make a decision as long as it was fair, encouraged others, and made a commitment to the company. Consultation was required only for decisions that could potentially cause serious damage to the enterprise. Furthermore, new associates joined the company on the same effective authority level as all the other workers, including Bill and Vieve. There were no titles or bosses, with only a few exceptions, and commands were replaced by personal commitments.
New employees started out working in an area best suited to their talents, under the guidance of a sponsor. As the employee progressed there came more responsibility, and workers were paid according to their individual contribution. “Team members know who is producing,” Bill explained in a February 1986 issue of the Phoenix Business Journal. “They won’t put up with poor performance. There is tremendous peer pressure. You promote yourself by gaining knowledge and working hard, everyday. There is no competition, except with yourself.” The effect of the system was to encourage workers to be creative, take risks, and perform at their highest level. One of the key people to help the company succeed in the Apollo moon landing project, for example, came to Gore with only a 6th-grade education.
Gore reasoned that even under his management system organizations would begin to decline in effectiveness after reaching about 200 members. That was partly because too many people in a group caused a reduction in trust and cooperation. For that reason, he and Vieve decided to build a second manufacturing facility. In 1967 the company opened a new plant in Flagstaff, Arizona. The selection of Flagstaff reflected Gore’s love of the outdoors, particularly for the western United States. The new plant helped the company to regain its productivity and creativity, and from that point forward Gore built a new facility each time the magic number of 200 was breached. Gore’s unique and successful management system and philosophies proved valuable over time and became lauded as a model for management during the 1980s and 1990s.
The immense success of Gore’s teflon-insulated wire and cable products, combined with savvy management during the middle and late 1960s, resulted in explosive growth at Gore. Indeed, during the late 1960s Gore established manufacturing and sales operations in Arizona, Scotland, and Germany and even launched a venture partnership in Japan. The company continued to post big gains during the 1970s as well. Perhaps more important to Gore’s success during the 1970s and 1980s than the company’s management system, however, was a pivotal product innovation that would help to make Gore one of the most successful private companies in the United States. That innovation came in 1969, about the time that Bill’s son Bob became president of the company (Bob and his mother, the secretary and treasurer of the company, were the only two employees in the company with job titles).
Bob, who had gone to work at Gore after receiving his Ph.D. in chemistry, discovered that teflon could be quickly stretched to produce a material with many of the properties that scientists had been trying for years to create. Under the right conditions, the product could be stretched to form a material that was as strong as the original teflon and laced with microscopic holes, the size of which could be adjusted in the manufacturing process. The breakthrough was momentous because of the numerous properties exhibited by the material. For example, it shed water droplets like other synthetic materials but was also breathable and would allow small airborne moisture particles and body heat to move through the fabric. The obvious advantage: stretched teflon could be used to make waterproof clothing that was also breathable.
W. L. Gore & Associates applied for a patent for their invention in May 1970. The Gores dubbed the new material Gore-Tex. The patent was granted in 1976, by which time Gore was already marketing a number of products made with Gore-Tex. Among other advantages, Gore-Tex was chemically inert and resistant to infection. That made it an excellent material for dozens of medical applications—artificial arteries made with Gore-Tex, for example, eventually accounted for about 85 percent of all artificial arteries produced in the world. It was also beneficial for various uses ranging from household items to defense-industry goods. Gore-Tex was used to manufacture space suits and sporting apparel, for example, as well as dental floss and telecommunications gear. By the late 1980s, filters made with Gore-Tex were being used in virtually every intravenous bag in the world. In fact, Gore-Tex became the fabric of choice in most applications that necessitated a high flow rate along with maximum particle retention in both air and liquid filtration.
Gore experienced explosive growth during the 1970s and early 1980s, mostly as a result of the breakthrough success of Gore-Tex. The still-private company remained tight-lipped as always about its financial performance. Its success, though, was clearly evidenced by the rapid expansion of production facilities and sales and marketing offices. Gore was soon peddling its products throughout the world. Besides pushing Gore-Tex, the company continued to expand its other product lines and to develop new ideas. For example, Gore was called in to custom-manufacture teflon-insulated cable to help in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. It also broadened its teflon-coated cable products to meet new needs in computer, telecommunications, aerospace, and medical industries. Still, Gore-Tex became the company’s cash cow and eventually grew to represent more than 80 percent of the organization’s revenues.
By the mid-1980s Gore was churning out an estimated $200 million to $300 million in annual revenues and supporting a whopping 29 plants throughout the world; its workforce ballooned to 4,200 worldwide. In addition to his inventions, Bill Gore was being lauded as a leading contributor to the art and science of management. Bill Gore died on July 26, 1986, at the age of 74, of a heart attack suffered while hiking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Gore had been known for taking extended treks in the outdoors. On this particular occasion, he had been hiking with his wife and several grandchildren. “If a man could flow with the stream, grow with the way of nature, he’d accomplish more and he’d be happier doing it than bucking the flow of the water,” Vieve Gore recalled of her husband’s business philosophy.
W. L. Gore & Associates continued to thrive following the death of its founder, despite ongoing disputes over its patent to Gore-Tex. Indeed, the company had been battling claims against its rights to the invention since the early 1970s. In 1982, in fact, a federal lawsuit in Cleveland resulted in the removal of Gore’s patent rights, but the decision was soon overturned and the rights were restored. In 1984 Gore filed suit against a Tempe, Arizona, company called IMPRA Inc., claiming that IMPRA had violated Gore’s patent in the manufacture of its artificial arteries. The judge’s research showed that a Japanese company had tried to patent a material identical to Gore-Tex in 1963 and had gotten the patent in 1967. After several years of weighing the evidence, the judge decided in 1990 to terminate Gore’s patent rights. Gore managed to keep patents for individual Gore-Tex products and manufacturing processes, however. At the time the decision was handed down, Gore was capturing an estimated $700 million annually from sales of Gore-Tex-related products.
The loss of the Gore-Tex patent predated the scheduled termination of patent rights by about three years. Thus, it opened the door for other companies to begin manufacturing Gore-Tex products earlier than they might have otherwise. Gore’s product-development arm was healthy, though, and the company sustained its growth. In 1991 Gore announced plans to build two new 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facilities in Arizona at a cost of about $10 million. By the end of 1993 Gore was operating more than 40 facilities and employing about 6,000 workers. Interestingly, the plants were all located in nonmetro-politan areas because the Gores believed that such locations offered a higher quality of life for their employees. Evidencing the success of Gore’s overall management philosophy, the company was named as one of the 100 best companies to work for two years in a row—a feat accomplished by only 29 other companies at the time.
Going into the mid-1990s W. L. Gore & Associates was operating 45 manufacturing and sales offices throughout the United States and in Germany, Scotland, and Japan. Gore-Tex products still accounted for the bulk of its sales. New Gore-Tex products being developed and introduced in 1994 and 1995 included Intervent, an allergen exclusion technology used, for example, in bedding; various surgical sutures used in vascular, cardiac, and general surgical procedures; and protective gear designed to reduce the spread of diseases like AIDS. The company was also developing and manufacturing various teflon-related electronics goods for industrial, defense, computer, telecommunication, and medical industries. Its four operating divisions in 1995 were Electronic Products; Fabrics; Industrial Products; and Medical Products. The still-private company did not release financial information but claimed to have achieved compound sales and profit growth rates exceeding 20 percent annually between 1975 and 1995.
Day, Kathleen, “A Clothes Call with Danger: Microbe, Chemical Phobias Drive Up Demand for Protective Gear,” Washington Post, March 11, 1995, p. 1C.
Fiscus, Chris, “Flagstaff Approves Gore Plan,” Arizona Business Gazette, March 22, 1991, p. 1.
Jaffe, Susan Biddle, “Employee Freedom Is Gore Family Tradition,” Philadelphia Business Journal, May 1, 1989, section 2, p. 6B.
Morrell, Lisa, “Tempe Medical-Products Firm Wins Round in Patent Lawsuit,” Arizona Republic, May 15, 1990, p. 13C.
Nelton, Sharon, “In Appreciation of Innovators,” Nation’s Business, December 1986, p. 64.
Norris, Scott, “PDL&C Markets Gore-Tex Fabric to Military for Soldiers’ Outerwear,” Rochester Business Journal, September 24, 1990, p. 4.
Rhodes, Lucien, “William Gore 1912-1986,” Inc., November 1986, p. 22.
Sommer, Anthony, “Gore-Tex Patent Held as Invalid,” Phoenix Gazette, May 15, 1990, p. 1C.
Stern, Jonathan, “Workers Manage Themselves Under Inventive Philosophy,” Phoenix Business Journal, February 3, 1986, p. 11.
Wilke, Paul W., “Newark Root of W. L. Gore’s Success,” Delaware Business Review, January 31, 1994, p. 13.