Energy efficiency drives reinvention of Bay State company

The roots of East Walpole-headquartered Hollings­worth & Vose Co. extend back to the 18th century and to a product as basic as rag paper. But today, this old-line manufacturing firm is going through another reinvention of itself as it taps into the growing global demand for more energy-efficient products. H&V has become one of the world’s leading producers of specialized filtered media papers, which, despite their dull label, improve the efficiency of products as diverse as batteries in hybrid cars and the ventilation systems that help keep laboratory “clean” rooms clean.

“My family has been involved with this company since the 1790s,” says Val Hollingsworth, president and CEO of the firm, which employs about 250 people at operations in East Walpole and West Groton. The company also has manufacturing plants and research centers in Mexico, Europe, and Asia. “We have survived because we continually bring out new products. Energy efficiency and environmental factors are going to be two of the biggest drivers of our business going forward because the products we develop and manufacture can serve a range of customers looking to filter air and liquid in ways that use less energy.”

One thing this old company no longer really produces is, well, basic paper. “That paper filter in your coffee maker doesn’t look anything like what we’re talking about here,” says H&V Vice President and General Manager John Madej. Take, for instance, the company’s “battery separator” products. While the firm has been making materials that separate the cells in car batteries since 1980, its R&D efforts have led to a new product and a potentially major market.

With the European Economic Union requiring reduced carbon dioxide output beginning in 2012, car makers are seeking ways to cut exhaust emissions without harming energy efficiency. Because many hybrid cars use “start-stop” technology—to reduce idling, the engine turns itself off when the vehicle is in neutral and turns it back on when driving resumes—their batteries face heavy stress and wear. H&V’s battery separators allow the battery’s electrical chemistry to function more efficiently, thus enhancing performance.

BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and other car makers have already adopted this technology in their Euro­pean fleets. And if the United States gets more serious about requirements to reduce car emissions here, demand for H&V battery separators could jump, which would keep this old Massachusetts manufacturer working through another century. “We’ve been trying hard to keep jobs in Massachusetts mills that have been running for more than a 100 years,” says Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth’s family ties to the firm go back to a Quaker ancestor, an apprentice paper maker from Dela­ware, who found work in a mill in Neponset near Quincy that dated back to 1728 and which made rag paper. “He had the wisdom to marry the boss’s daughter,” says Hollings­worth. “To help find work for two of his sons, he bought the Revere copper works in Braintree and converted it to a paper mill. In 1843, those two brothers ran out of money and could no longer buy rags from which to make paper.” They turned to other products, and the company was born.

Over the decades, the firm developed different paper products, such as the paper-like material used to wrap wiring in old houses. In the 1940s, wartime demand moved the company into filtration products, setting the course for the battery separators and other product lines being developed and sold today.

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H&V is not the only old-line Massachusetts manufacturer responding to new energy markets. Madico Inc. began in 1903 by manufacturing leather postcards. The company later developed and made products such as tinsel and wrapping paper and, in the late 1960s, began producing the window film treatments used to reduce energy consumption in hot climates. Today, Madico manufactures film materials and advanced laminates used in a variety of safety and energy products, including the solar panels that power the firm’s manufacturing and distribution headquarters in Woburn. Madico now has the world’s largest market share of the protective sheets used to help protect solar panels and other photovoltaic products against weather and other conditions.

Such adaptations have helped companies such as H&V and Madico get through a very hard recession. As Madico President and CEO John Connelly put it, such firms must “select products that are technologically advanced and offer higher returns than those built by competitors.” Bay State manufacturers have always faced such economic Dar­winism, surviving through product and technology evolution, constantly identifying and adapting to new markets. Once, that meant producing rag paper for a burgeoning printing industry and tinsel to meet a fresh consumer demand. Today, an energy-conscious era is creating new opportunity to sustain not just the environment, but an old industrial sector.