Alcantara is a soft-to-the-touch upscale synthetic material that’s finding its way into more and more car interiors.
It looks and feels like suede leather, but it is a proprietary mixture of polyurethane, polyester and microfibers.
“Why is it unique? Because of its technological process and yet it is very emotional,” says Alcantara CEO and Chairman Andrea Boragno, who gets spirited talking about his company and its future.
“Alcantara is Alcantara, period,” he says. “We don’t need to imitate anyone.”
The company is based in Milan, Italy, and does about $250 million in business annually. It has tripled sales since 2009, while refuting the claim that a polymer looks and feels artificial.
Alcantara employs 600 people, but that will increase to 800 within three or four years because of the company’s growth spurt, says Boragno, in Detroit for a media luncheon.
Part of the company’s marketing is to tout its Italian roots, even though the technical production process was developed in Japan.
More than 75% of Alcantara sales by material volume are auto-related. The company currently produces about 8 million meters (8.7 million yards) of its material a year.
Boragno has been CEO since 2004. He holds a degree in chemical engineering but never has been a practicing chemical engineer. Still, that learning “helps me understand our process,” he says.
He sat down with WardsAuto for a Q&A. Here’s an edited version.
WardsAuto: What exactly is Alcantara?
Boragno: It is the result of a unique and proprietary technology. It was a breakthrough that took place in the 1970s. The first use was in the fashion industry. Then we moved into interior applications. And in the 1990s, we got into automotive, first with the Fiat Group (precursor to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), then German and French automakers. In 2000, we expanded worldwide.
Very recently, we have been experiencing a lot of growth in consumer electronics. Alcantara is used on laptops and iPhone covers and headphones. Those devices are technological, but now they make a fashion statement too.
WardsAuto: Alcantara’s primary competition is leather. Both cost about the same. What’s Alcantara’s advantage over leather?
Boragno: There are a number of advantages. First, Alcantara is 50% of the weight of leather. Alcantara is warm in winter and cold in summer. It’s durable. The process for making it is environmentally sustainable.
These are important. But we can’t only stick to technical properties, because Alcantara is beautiful and emotional. You want to touch it as soon as you see it. We can customize it in a thousand different ways and patterns. And the automotive market is going more into the direction of customization.
WardsAuto: What are Alcantara’s main automotive interior applications?
Boragno: Seats, ceilings, headliner, pillars, gear shifter, along the door panels and the steering wheel. The steering wheel application is growing and growing. The percent of Alcantara used inside the car is increasing, including the trunk.
WardsAuto: Is there any place it can’t go for, practical reasons or otherwise?
Boragno: It can go anywhere.
WardsAuto: Any chance of Alcantara going into mainstream cars, or is it strictly for luxury cars?
Boragno: We already are in mid-market cars, where upgraded (trim levels) include Alcantara. We have a high penetration in the upper segment of the market, with Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche. But we are in the middle market, too. OK, the use of Alcantara there is less intense, maybe one or two meters (1.09 or 2.18 yds.) vs. 15 meters (16.4 yds) per car.
WardsAuto: With success comes competition, a form of flattery. What’s your strategy in facing heightened competition from other material makers?
Boragno: Our strength is our uniqueness. We must reinforce our brand value. And obviously, in product development we must work with our customers in a timely and efficient way.
We leverage “Made in Italy.” In Asia, if you say made in Italy, it resonates more than made in China, Japan or Korea. This is a value we stress.
WardsAuto: Talk about sustainability. You are committed to it. Why do it? What’s the business case?
Boragno: We are the first Italian company to become carbon-neutral. Sustainability is becoming more important. If you embrace it, your reputation goes up.
We don’t do it just to make ourselves feel good. It fits into our business model. You have to have sustainability, especially when you approach major automakers, because they make decisions on which products to go with based on sustainability. The extra cost of sustainability is paying off for us.
WardsAuto: A material expert said at an industry conference last year that leather’s automotive days are numbered for a couple of reasons, one of them related to sustainability. Yet, a Genesis interior designer told me leather isn’t going away anytime soon. Do you foresee a day when Alcantara puts leather out of business?
Boragno: Leather has an important number of supporters. But our growth rate has been much faster than leather’s. I know for sure that Alcantara will continue to grow faster than leather.
There will be a growing demand for a sustainable product that doesn’t call for the killing of animals and then (an environmentally unfriendly) process to create a product. The production process for natural leather is very dirty.
We are the ultimate material of the future because we have functionality, emotion and sustainability.