Local firm hopes to sell nation on a kinder, gentler toilet paper

Backed by $3 million in new venture capital, Seattle start-up Linters Inc. has begun the rollout of a new toilet paper.

The company's fledgling brand, called Purely Cotton, is touted by co-founder Willy Paterson-Brown as "the first innovation in the category in 50 years."

"Purely Cotton is made from cotton and water rather than wood and chemicals," Paterson-Brown explained. "It's not entirely chemical-free but it has the lowest residual toxicity since we don't need to put in any softening agents."

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He calls it medically friendly bathroom tissue, and claims it's ideal for people with conditions that make them sensitive to conventional toilet paper. Indeed, Paterson-Brown is waiting for the nod from the Food and Drug Administration to make the advertising claim that Purely Cotton can reduce a woman's chance of developing a yeast infection.

In the meantime, Linters is broadcasting a simpler, less controversial message in its $2 million advertising campaign. EvansGroup in Seattle is handling the account.

As competitors, the nascent label has well-established brands such as Charmin, Cottonelle and Scott. Those household names form part of $6.5 billion business ruled by colossal corporations in the paper and household products industry, Kimberly-Clark Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and other giants with giant marketing budgets.

Paterson-Brown doesn't pretend that Purely Cotton will flush out those rivals. Instead, he aims to wrest a mere silver of the multibillion-dollar toilet-paper market, $10 million to $15 million in sales this year. He hopes to increase revenues to $50 million in 1998.

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Purely Cotton launched last month at food and drug stores throughout Washington and Oregon and has found some shelf space in other Western states, too. Linters secured distribution at 1,150 Thrifty Payless pharmacies west of the Rockies.

Linters began in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1994. Paterson-Brown formed the company with his brother Tim and quickly established a West Coast office in Seattle. The brothers subsequently consolidated the small eight-person operation in Seattle, home to some of its 400 shareholders, including Broadmark Capital.

Linters recently raised $3 million in venture capital from Walnut Capital Corp. of Vienna, Va., and other investors.

"The field of business is somewhat secondary to what we invest in. We look at the management team's track record," said Bob Mauer, chief financial officer of Walnut Capital.

Asked what drew him to bathroom tissue as a product category, Willy Paterson-Brown flatly responded: "It's something 98.6 percent of the population uses." (He has no explanation for that elusive 1.4 percent.)

Prior to the spring introduction of Purely Cotton, Linters tested sales of the product under the name Cotton Fluff at grocery markets and pharmacies in Texas. From that pilot, Paterson-Brown extrapolated his $10 million to $15 million sales projections for this year.

Cotton is more expensive than wood pulp, said Paterson-Brown, so Purely Cotton is not competing on price, one of two points the industry traditionally has lever-aged in marketing the category. Purely Cotton costs approximately 10 cents more per roll than other premium brands.

"It's reassuringly expensive," said Paterson-Brown.

Softness, the other point of comparison, is a sticky point. Paterson-Brown concedes there are wood-pulp brands that feel equally soft, but he stresses that you still can't use paper tissue to clean your spectacles because of its inherent abrasiveness. If you can't clean your glasses with that tissue, why would you want to use it anywhere else, he asks.

The cotton fiber pulp used to make Purely Cotton is imported from China by a Tacoma manufacturer that produces the finished product. Citing a confidentiality agreement with the manufacturer, Paterson-Brown will not disclose the name of the company.

If Linters reaps success with the toilet paper rollout, the firm will foray into related categories such as facial tissue, napkins and feminine hygiene products.

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