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1995 | 08 | 12 | Articles | The News & Observer | Features | Business
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The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
August 12, 1995
Page D1
Foam in the shape of things to come
Funnoodle: profitable, fun, local Zebulon factory turns out the hot toy
By Stewart Ugelow

ZEBULON - A 6-foot foam cylinder called the Funnoodle could be the Hula-Hoop of the 1990s. Or so its makers hope.

The packaging of the buoyant water toy says it’s from Tennessee, but the Funnoodle is really made right here in the Triangle.

So are Nerf arrows, parts of Seeley mattresses, and even the protective padding at those playgrounds McDonald’s provides for french fry-fueled youngsters.

"Those are applications that many consumers in the Triangle use and don’t know that it’s made here," said Marc Noel, the president of Nomaco Inc., a low-profile, privately held company that makes thermoplastic foam products.

With 460 employees and annual revenue approaching $55 million, Nomaco has quietly carved out a specialty niche as a leader in the "foam profile" industry.

At its plants in Zebulon and Youngsville, Nomaco melts plastic pellets, mixes in additives and coloring, and forces the concoction through a shaping device called an extruder.

What emerges are foam gardening pads, stadium cushion seats, hair curlers, race car roll-cage pads, pipe insulation, tree wraps and packing materials.

And, of course, the Funnoodle.

For those of you without young, aquatic-minded kids, the Funnoodle is a foam cylinder six feet in length and three inches in diameter that can support up to 200 pounds in water.

Typically selling for $2.99, the Funnoodle is the top-ranked non-video toy this summer, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., market-research firm. And toy stores across the country are having trouble keeping it in stock.

"It’s one of those items that just took off," said Pam Kelly, a buyer for Toys ‘R’ Us. "It’s kind of like the pet rock thing. It’s a phenomenon."

But for all the hoopla surrounding the Funnoodle, none of it has filtered down to Nomaco.

In large part, that’s by choice. Nomaco’s name never appears on its products.

The company made a strategic decision in 1987 to stop selling products directly to the public. Instead, it concentrates on its technological advantages. So it signed alliances with companies like toy maker Kid Power in Brentwood, Tenn., to market and distribute products that Nomaco makes.

"When you’re so diversified, you cannot, or we cannot, distribute directly," Noel said. "That’s why our name does not appear on the product."

Unlike many distribution agreements, there’s also a fair amount of collaboration on product development between Nomaco and its partners.

"For a manufacturer, they are very market-oriented," Kid Power President Jamie O’Rourke said.

So far, the strategy seems to be working.

When Nomaco was wooed away from Ansonia, Conn., six years ago, the company started its North Carolina operations with 30 employees in Zebulon.

Since then, it has built its Youngsville plant and now employs 350 people in the Triangle. The company has another 110 employees and two plants in an Atlanta-based decorative products division.

Nomaco’s foam sells so fast that the inventory of its 85,000-square-foot warehouse in Zebulon turns over every two weeks.

And there aren’t many competitors on the horizon.

"We find ourselves more and more in a specialty niche," Noel said.

When Kid Power approached Nomaco about manufacturing the Funnoodle, the company had first researched the different foam producers.

"In North America, there are only 10 companies that could make one of them or a number of them," O’Rourke said. "But, in my opinion, Nomaco is the only one that could make them in the volume we needed."

Still, Kid Power originally split the order between Nomaco and Toronto-based Industrial Thermo Polymer Ltd.

But once production started, the company changed its mind.

"The difference between them was night and day," O’Rourke said. "We put all our eggs in Nomaco’s basket."

Not that Noel expected any less.

"Extrusion is our forte," he said.