ffinia, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a new name in the global automotive aftermarket for under hood and under vehicle applications such as filters, chassis, and brakes. In December 2004, Wix Filters joined the Affinia Group to blend decades of filter technology with a forward-focused strategic business plan. Affinia operates in 17 countries and represents a collection of superior brands of top quality automotive components. (In addition to Wix Filters, the Affinia family includes Raybestos, Aimco, Spicer, McQuay-Norris, Nakata, Urba and Quinton Hazell.)
“As part of Affinia, we feel like a purpose-driven company,” says Keith Wilson, vice president and general manager of the under hood division. “We are a new company in many respects. We have a new owner, new debt structure, and a sole purpose for our core aftermarket business.”
In a sense, it’s back to the future for Wix Filters, a company whose rich past has formed its performance today. Wix Filters was founded in 1939 by Jack Wicks and Paul G. Crawshaw who saw the business opportunity in making filter replacements.
“Who knew you needed an oil change after every 3,000 miles back then? They were well ahead of their time,” Wilson says. “Since filters were made of cotton, they decided to locate in the South where cotton was in abundant supply. Instead of buying raw materials, they picked up scraps from textile mills and got those almost free.” (Filters are made of paper media today and Wix Filters’ main office and plants are in Gastonia, N.C.)
A milestone for the company came in 1954 when it patented the revolutionary “spin on” filter, a design used in most oil filters today. Before the spin on filter, the automobile oil filter was housed in a compartment mounted on the engine block.
Production of the filter compartment was costly and replacing the filter cartridge inconvenient. The spin on filter is today’s can-shaped replaceable oil filter that simply twists into place. “It was much easier for the car or truck manufacturer to build some threads into the oil area versus put on a big base unit that would contain the filter,” Wilson explains. “So the spin on design resulted in savings to the engine manufacturer. There has been good standardization over time with spin-ons which helped with economies of scale.”
A red-letter date for Wix Filters came in 1966 when the company began to manufacture filters for NAPA, which is its largest customer today. In 1979, Wix Filters was merged with Dana, a public company. Other historical highlights include the 1982 purchase of its plant in Venezuela and the opening of a plant in China in 1991. In 1996 Wix Filters established a successful joint venture with Helsa-Werke of Germany, a company that pioneered cabin air filters for vehicles. In the same year, Wix Filters become the officially licensed filter of NASCAR and is found on the vast majority of cars in competition. Another joint venture soon followed in 1997 with Filtron in Gostyn, Poland.
In the new century, from 2000-2002, the company strategically restructured operations and closed and consolidated some plants. Last year’s addition to the Affinia Group returns the company to private ownership.
In terms of marketing focus, under the new ownership Wix Filters reemphasizes its aftermarket auto parts with OEM production as a complementary business. Its founders would be proud and shareholders stand to benefit. “Under Affinia, we are more in charge of our own destiny and have a willingness and commitment to the after market,” Wilson says. “With filters, the replacement market is 10 times bigger than the OE market.”
Wix Filters’ main office and plants are located in Gastonia, N.C. The company’s Allen plant has about 500,000 square feet of production devoted to light and heavy-duty oil filters, heavy-duty air filters, heavy-duty fuel filters, transmission filters, and hydraulic filters. The nearby Dixon plant adds 150,000 square feet for light duty panel air filters, conical air filters for cars and light trucks, and radial (round) air filters for cars and heavy-duty vehicles. Also in Gastonia is the company’s 550,000-square-foot master distribution center.
In addition to Venezuela, China, and Poland, international production takes place in Southampton, England, a small Brazilian operation, and a plant in Cambridge, Ontario where light duty oil filters are made. Another small operation is located in Brazil and a distribution center in Ayr, Ontario.
“The main part of our globalization is into those regions of the world where we have market share,” Wilson observes. “But secondarily we import quite a bit from lower-cost countries to complement our lines. On the heavy duty side, we also make product that they’re not tooled up for overseas to supply those global markets.”
Wix Filters makes more than 4,000 SKUs of oil, engine air, cabin interior air, fuel, coolant, transmission, and hydraulic filters. “Our complete line saves customers time on purchasing and acquisition of product by getting it all from one source,” Wilson says. “They can combine truckload shipments instead of ordering from five different suppliers and consolidate incoming freight.”
WIX Filters stays at the forefront of oil filter technology and performance for passenger cars, light trucks, heavy trucks and buses, and off-highway vehicles. WIX oil filters hold 45 percent more dirt than the leading national brand, a significant measure of performance and the filter’s ability to protect the engine from premature wear. One of the company’s advancements here is called spin flow technology. “We put little fins on the filters to channel the oil and create more turbulence. This collects the large particles away from the filter media to improve efficiency and flow,” Wilson says.
Air filters are also inexpensive but vital components. They remove soot, carbon, abrasives and other contaminants from the air before the air mixes with fuel in the engine induction system. Wix Filters is a recognized leader in air filter performance and efficiency. Its products are the only air filters officially licensed by NASCAR. The company has developed a line of high performance filters specifically designed for racing applications. Its PowerTrap(r) technology for air filters adds to performance, as does a high capacity, multi-sided air filter design that fits into tight, under-hood compartments.
Ready to Wear
Some automotive industry trends pose challenges to the demand for filters. Today’s light vehicles are designed for extended oil drain intervals and don’t need oil changes as often. “The industry standard used to be around 3,000 miles, but now with components lasting longer, they’re able to withstand more heat,” Wilson explains. The average car or light vehicle might need an oil change every 4,800 miles, depending on driving conditions. New vehicles might extend oil changes to 7,000-mile intervals or longer. Fortunately, the performance of Wix Filters is keeping pace. New filter components contribute to performance improvement allowing filters to hold up longer. Innovations include silicone anti-drainback valves. These keep the oil in the filter when the engine is shut down to prevent dry starts. In addition, high-quality blended synthetic media is now used to filter the oil better and keep fine particles out.
Other industry trends are directly favorable including the popularity of diesel vehicles like pick-ups for which the company supplies a full line of filters. Wix Filters also supplies high-end, environmentally friendly, all-plastic filters found in top European autos.
All things considered, the company is well positioned for the future.
“We have been growing organically and through acquisitions and we are growing faster than the industry growth rate of about 2-3 percent per year. We plan to continue growing our global business rough acquisition in other parts of the world including Asia, India, Eastern Europe and Mexico,” Wilson predicts. “Our focus is our people, our customers, and our performance. Everything we do is targeted to try to improve those areas.”