Massachusetts firm a world leader in convertible top materials

Christian Schiavone

A shiny new BMW convertible heading down Route 2 is likely to catch anyone’s attention. But Eric Haartz has extra reason to pause and take notice.

Chances are, the material for the convertible’s soft-top was manufactured in Haartz’s factory in Acton.

Over the company’s 85 years, Haartz has become a world leader in soft-top material manufacturing. In fact, Haartz tops have become so commonplace on American and European cars that the name has almost become a generic term. Today, they are featured on car models ranging from a Toyota Celica to an $85,000 Dodge Viper.

“There’s some prestige to the name and we’re happy about that,” said Haartz, 53, during a recent interview at his company’s Hayward Road headquarters. “It’s good to see the product out there.”

But aside from an ego boost, seeing his material in action also gives Haartz a chance to see how his business can improve.

“When I see the product, if I see something that’s not a desirable aspect, it keeps it fresh in my mind,” said Haartz, who took over as CEO of the company in 1984 from his father, John Haartz Jr.

Recently, for example, Haartz noticed that some lighter colored tops begin to look soiled, and he is looking for ways to make his material look cleaner longer.

Haartz’s family has been in the business since his grandfather, John Haartz Sr., started making convertible top materials in 1907. He was soon forced out of the company in a hostile take-over, but rebounded and started the Auto Fabric and Specialty Company in Cambridge in 1922. The company was renamed the Haartz Corporation three years later.

The company suffered along with the rest of the automobile industry in the depression that followed World War I, but was able to survive and by the late ’30s, Haatz tops were featured on many of the best-selling cars in the United States.

“We came within a short breath of expiring during the depression, but we managed to squeak through,” said Haartz, sitting in his office, several rolls of top material standing against the wall.

By the late ’50s, Haartz, now under the leadership of John Haartz Jr., was working with both Ford and General Motors at a time when Detroit was the car manufacturing capital of the world.

Having outgrown its headquarters, then located in Newton, Haartz moved to its present headquarters on Hayward Road in 1967 because the property already had several existing factory buildings and space to expand. The property is now one of the largest buildings in town, covering about 330,000 square feet. The company also has an additional 66,000 square foot facility on Craig Road.

The company again faced hardship when the market for convertibles dried up from the mid-1970s to the early ’80s. But American buyers tastes also revitalized the company when manufacturers started offering hardtop sedans with vinyl roof covers.

“We laugh at it now, but American car buyers loved that in the second half of the ’60s and ’70s,” said Haartz.

The company, which now has offices in Detroit, Germany and China, has also expanded into other areas as well, including moldable foam used for interior door panels, cloth tops for pleasure boats and sewer pipe liners. Haartz is also one of the premier manufacturers of replacement tops for older model convertibles. The ’90s also saw the company’s expansion into the European and, to a lesser extent, Asian markets.

While a mammoth manufacturing plant may seem out of place in a suburban community like Acton, Haartz has placed an emphasis on keeping a friendly relationship with the town. Each year, fifth-graders from the Douglas and McCarthy Towne elementary schools tour the Acton plant in conjunction with their science curriculum. The company is also an active member of the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce’s school-business partnership program, which involves bringing employees to speak to local students about their jobs.

“They give so much back to the community,” said Sarah Fletcher, the chamber’s executive director. “They’re a wonderful community member.”

Fletcher added that the company is one of the few manufacturing operations in the area and that she has drawn on Haartz’s business experience several times for her work with the chamber.

Many other manufacturers have left the Northeast region in recent decades because of factors like high energy costs and property taxes, heading to more favorable business climates in the sunbelt region.

Still, Haartz says he has no plans to move the company headquarters and that energy costs are balanced by the skilled workforce the company has cultivated over the years.

“It’s not easy to take an operation of this nature and transport it,” said Haartz. “And we do still manage to attract an excellent workforce.”

Haartz said the company also has a policy of having all delivery trucks come in and out of the property during daylight hours to ease the strain on the plant’s neighbors.

Selectman Lauren Rosenzweig said Haartz has been open to working with the town and has participated in community outreach forums such as a forum on the possibility of starting a shuttle bus in Acton.

“I know if we ask for any assistance, he’d do whatever he could to help us out,” she said.

Rosenzweig’s younger son toured the facility on a field trip and her older son participated in a job-shadowing program at the company.

Haartz also works to create a comfortable work environment for the Acton facility’s more than 330 employees.

“I’ve seen other operations that were not nearly as clean as this one,” said Joe Bolduc, the facility’s topcoat application department supervisor and a 19-year Haartz employee, as a machine resembling a series of giant paint rollers coated fabric behind him. “The ownership has a lot to do with it. We have a great owner who takes a real hands-on approach to ownership. We’re all part of a big Haartz family.”

Christian Schiavone of The Beacon (Acton, Mass.) can be reached at 978-371-5743 or at cschiavo@cnc.com.