How did the creators of GORE-TEX® products—worn by outdoor enthusiasts and people with active lifestyles all over the world—invent material that protects firefighters from heat, flames, and hazardous chemicals?
Imagine a job where you can immerse yourself in a highly specialized field to change an industry—and improve the protection and comfort of those who save lives.
Gore makes a line of protective fabrics based on its patented membrane technologies. These fabrics are used by Gore's customers—garment manufacturers—as one layer of protective clothing for military and law enforcement uniforms, medical protective wear, workwear, and turnout gear for fire and safety personnel.
Firefighters rely on protective gear—including boots, pants, jackets, gloves, and headgear—to keep them safe. While already incorporating waterproof and breathable GORE-TEX® fabric to improve the comfort and quality of their gear, the fire fighting industry identified a need for barrier fabrics that also protected firefighters against bloodborne pathogens and common fire ground chemicals. Dave, Henri, and Ron were part of a cross-functional team that set out to engineer high-performance CROSSTECH® protective barrier fabric to meet this need.
By building relationships with firefighters, suppliers, and industry experts, the global Gore team came to understand the extreme conditions that firefighters are exposed to. Harnessing deep knowledge of Gore’s membrane technologies and their passion for making a difference, they developed Gore protective barrier fabrics that change the way firefighters respond to emergencies. And their fire service experience and the challenges they overcame have changed their lives, too. Here are their stories.
A scientist by training, Dave came to Gore with experience in pharmaceutical sales. Dave now leads product strategy for Gore's technical-oriented fabrics business units in Europe.
Dave describes his first encounter with the Gore culture. "You know when you walk into a building for the first time and you get a feel for the atmosphere? When I interviewed with Gore, I walked in, and the people I met made me feel very welcome. I decided I wanted to work here right away—it was just the atmosphere."
After accepting a position in product management, he says, "I fell into the culture very quickly. Almost from the first day, the team would ask me for my opinion," he explains. They didn't say, 'This is how you do it.' They said, 'Here's the product. This is how it works. Now how do you want to approach companies about this?'"
According to Dave, it's the company's personality as much as anything else that keeps him at Gore. "I still meet new people who energize me and give me a different perspective. Why would I want to work any other way?"
Dave's career evolved as he took on more responsibility for Gore's protective barrier fabrics, learning quickly how critical the products were to firefighters and other emergency personnel. Product quality—"fitness for use"—is one of our core values. It's Gore's promise to customers that our products will do what we say they will do. In order to back that up, we require our product teams to have a comprehensive understanding of how our products will be used in the field.
One of the ways he involves firefighters is to meet with fire brigades where he can talk directly with firefighters. Dave explains, "A big part of my role is to understand the user's environment, the user's world, and to see if we can come up with something to help them do their jobs better. So I'm keen to develop as many relationships with firefighters as I can. We involve them in product development because usability is key. Find out what they are facing, what are their risks. That's what gets me up in the morning."
Having worked at Gore in the fire service industry, built relationships with end users, and developed products that met their needs, Dave has learned that firefighters "literally depend on you. You may not always realize how important your role is. But if you don't honor that trust, you really shouldn't be doing this." Dave says he feels he is making a difference when he learns of cases where the gear saved a life or performed beyond expectations. "It's all about integrity and your products. You're actually saving people's lives."
With a degree in marketing, Henri came to Gore with experience in product development. She now works on marketing communications for Gore technical fabrics in the UK.
According to Henri, "Gore has definitely changed the fire service landscape in terms of protective gear. We have great products. The firefighters know the products perform; they know that when it’s made of CROSSTECH® protective barrier fabric, it works. They don’t even need to think about it."
"And if they do have any sort of garment issues," she explains, "they just pick up the phone and say, 'Guys, we've got a problem here. This chap seems to have a bit of excessive heat stress when he’s fighting a fire. Can you come down and check that out?' And we’ll say, 'Yep, absolutely.'”
According to Henri, Gore's ability to change the industry through its product quality and integrity, "is all possible because of our culture. Here at Gore, we all want to make money for this organization because we have a stake in it in terms of our salary, our shares, our product integrity, you name it. And we're proud because we know our product delivers; we know we are credible."
"Working at Gore," says Henri, "you very quickly learn that everyone has a say." For example, Henri explains that although she is in marketing, she has been given the freedom to work closely with the product and technical specialists on the team and feels empowered to challenge product assumptions. She has even participated in a simulation fire exercise and believes that having had the opportunity to experience the product has given her more credibility with the customers and firefighters she serves, as well as with her own team. She says, "You can’t do that in a hierarchical organization. You do that in a different organization, and people might tell you that you don't have the right to ask questions."
Similarly, she relates, "There are times when I put a campaign together, and manufacturing associates will ask why we’re not advertising in such-and-such a place because, although they're not in a marketing role, they're passionate about the company. I always explain the reason because they have the right to ask the questions. They have a stake in the success of the organization."
"The key thing is we need to make sure that our products actually work, that the firefighters, when they go in a situation, will come out alive. There’s no compromising here."
As a result of working at Gore, Henri says, "I've learned a lot about myself under pressure. I’ve become a lot more balanced over the last 18 years and have mellowed slightly." She adds, "One of the things I've also learned is that I don’t need to be driving all the time; sometimes I can sit back and let things happen."
A chemical engineer by training, Ron is the business leader for Gore's fire and public safety products team.
"The culture at Gore was what drew me in," says Ron. "I worked at Gore as I was putting myself through college. I came here after graduating, and I’ve been here ever since. My first full-time commitment was as a process engineer in manufacturing, which eventually led to leading a team in the development of an entirely new process technology for the Fabrics division. Later, switching to a product focus, I began working on quality issues for all of our flame-resistant products, and then I worked specifically on the quality and development of our products in the fire service business. I was responsible for all aspects of the products for many years, which evolved into the role of business unit leader and business leader."
According to Ron, "Of course, you can’t do it all by yourself; you have to have a strong team to make sure all the right things are being done." One of Gore's core beliefs is in the power of small teams. By operating in small teams, which are organized around our strengths, we can collaborate to make knowledge-based decisions and as a result, feel a strong sense of ownership for achieving business success.
The cross-functional fire service team has been working closely with garment manufacturers, firefighters, and a range of customers and distributors across the supply chain for many years. Team members, including people from sales, marketing, and engineering, "were chosen for their technical knowledge, knowledge of the products, the industry, and of firefighters and what they needed." Ron adds, "At Gore, it's always about who has the knowledge and who can get the job done, never who has rank or how long they've been here. That is the culture."
"Clearly," Ron emphasizes, "Gore has a leadership position in fire and safety service, and our whole team feels that a certain amount of responsibility comes with that position." Demonstrating its commitment to the industry, the team has participated in technical developments and overcome challenges by working directly with customers and the industry's standards-writing committees to improve minimum performance standards for firefighting gear. For example, says Ron, "We worked with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) in physiological studies to determine how best to measure the benefits of moisture vapor breathability of a firefighter's turnout suit—designing the study and getting it accepted as an industry standard test method. As a result, the whole industry moved a gigantic step forward in heat stress reduction."
"Our team is recognized for our technical credibility and depth. Everyone knows that we dig deeper than all but a few companies—it's in our nature. We're also recognized for our 'fitness for use' principle—our products do what we say they’ll do—and because we've brought innovation and advanced technology to the industry."
At Gore, we put a high value on building strong relationships with each other, with customers, and with industry partners. And it pays off. "We stand out in the industry," says Ron, "and our voice is heard. I think it speaks for our integrity and our attitude toward our customers. We have a stable team with deep relationships with our customers and so much shared history and knowledge—this is rare in our industry."
As a result of his career with Gore, says Ron, "I've rounded out as a person. What excites me is being constantly challenged to learn and do new things. Now I have process experience, product performance experience, and multiple years of business experience. My relationships with people in the industry just keep getting deeper."
"Working in the fire service industry has been a rewarding aspect of my career," says Ron. Working for Gore in this industry, he explains, gives him "the things that drive me and the things that I need to be satisfied and to know that I’m contributing to a purpose, not necessarily just to the company. It's about having a passion for doing it right, doing it well, and doing it for a good reason."