Custom fabricologist

Filtration might be his core business, but it’s hard to get American Fabric Filter Co. (AFF) CEO Derek Williams to “filter” his enthusiasm about the successful Florida-based business that has been growing almost annually for nearly two decades. Based in Wesley Chapel, Fla., about 25 miles northeast of Tampa, AFF has paralleled—if not exactly shepherded—the region’s growth.

“When we first moved down here, we could look out and watch the cows,” the affable Williams laughed. The family moved to Florida from Buffalo, N.Y., in the mid-1980s, and in 2000, his father spun off the company from another family-owned business, Sifter Parts & Service. (Williams has been in charge since 2003.) In the subsequent two decades, AFF has been a leading provider of custom-made filter bags and transfer sleeves for the food, wood, chemical and mineral industries.

Diverse products and clients

AFF emerged from Sifter Parts by designing and fabricating unique cloth “breather socks” and sleeves to connect its sifters to the diverse assortment of equipment found across the United States and overseas. It now serves such diverse clients as Dow Chemical, Fabric Farms, Kraft Foods, Kellogg’s, Frito-Lay and Cargill, not to mention “real small one-offs” among others, or as Williams says, “… all the big cement plants, bakeries and power plants”—an impressive client list for a company that employs only 15 people.

“Filtration is a pretty big business,” the 31-year-old CEO says, “but there aren’t that many people who are part of something like this. We’re a one-stop shop for our customers.”

AFF specializes in custom-designed, high-quality dust bags, filter bags, sleeves and other one-of-a-kind products by using and repurposing a variety of fabrics from heavy awning canvases to narrow webbing. At any given time, Williams says, there are 150-plus rolls of different kinds of fabric in the warehouse, ready to create products ranging in size from three inches long to three stories high. It was through the company’s contacts with various fabric suppliers, Williams says, that AFF became affiliated with the Industrial Fabrics Association International. He admits “we’re on the fringe” of the overall fabrics industry, but his business does use a lot of the same equipment and machinery other fabricators use, so it seemed a natural fit to go to those companies for supplies.

On-the-job training

If it seems that a highly disciplined engineering background might go into the making of such a skilled custom “fabricologist,” Williams demurs when talking about his academic credentials.

“Well, I made it all the way through high school,” he chuckles. Then he notes that he’s been working for the family business since he was 5 years old, and he chose work over going to college. “And I haven’t started back since,” he says.

And you might guess that no small amount of working time goes into building a family business that has seen a 10 to 15 percent annual growth rate over the past decade. So when he’s not working? “I work,” he laughed. “I do try to get out and play some golf whenever I can, and I try to get in some family time. And I do a lot of work during my ‘free’ time!”

That’s clearly the reason that, for Williams and American Fabric Filters “… the future looks good for this business.” And there’s doesn’t appear to be any kind of filter for that kind of enthusiasm.

By Jim Tarbox, editor of Marine Fabricator