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CLEVELAND — Eddie Crawford is a free-wheeling entrepreneur who has set up a business to challenge Owens-Illinois Inc.'s position as the leader in pharmaceutical bottles and caps.

Armed with a license to produce a one-piece, injection molded pharmaceutical cap and the injection molded bottle that fits under it, Crawford has invested nearly $8 million in an attempt to rock Owens-Illinois' boat.

Crawford is chairman and chief executive officer of Park-Ohio Industries Inc. of Cleveland.

He believes Owens-Illinois of Toledo now commands about 85 percent of the $350 million North America market for pharmaceutical bottles and caps. Kerr Group Inc. of Lancaster, Pa., is the other major producer.

In a recent interview at corporate headquarters, Crawford said he would be happy if Park-Ohio gets a piece of that market, and he expects to gain a significant piece: $20 million by the end of 1998.

He explained that Owens-Illinois' and Kerr's existing closures are three-piece assemblies that combine an outer and inner cap with a foam core that provides a spring action.

Owens-Illinois', Kerr's and Park-Ohio's bottles and closures meet child safety protocols issued by the Food and Drug Administration, and each of the companies have new products designed to meet changes in federal protocols that are to become effective in January 1998, Crawford said.

However, Crawford said he believes Owens-Illinois' and Kerr's new closures also will be assemblies; while Park-Ohio's will be more competitive than other closures because they are injection molded in one piece, not assembled.

Owens-Illinois and Kerr executives could not be reached for comment.

Crawford also claimed the bottles and caps Park-Ohio is making are more user friendly:

He said they are easier to open for adults, yet difficult for children to get into.

The Park-Ohio closures have a see-through amber lid that allows patients to see the pills or capsules inside the bottles.

Crawford said his are the only bottles and caps available today that can be packaged with tamper-evident seals.

Crawford has established Park-Ohio Bio-Medical Group, which acquired the exclusive license from inventor Edward Akers of Fort Worth, Texas, to manufacture the bottles and caps. Akers holds the patent on the bottles and closures.

Park-Ohio Bio-Medical Group hired Erie Plastics Corp. of Corry, Pa., to mold a line of pharmaceutical bottles and their respective closures in seven sizes.

Production began in early February, and the company now is targeting its bottles and caps at the mass retailing pharmaceutical market.

To produce the caps and bottles, Erie Plastics has seven injection molds — from 32 to 64 cavities — that it is running on injection molding machines ranging in sizes from 200-400 tons, Crawford said.

The bottles and caps will be sold under the ``Friendly and Safe'' trade name, he said.

While Park-Ohio Bio-Medical Group is an upstart, its publicly held parent company has a rich history as a diversified manufacturer, and current annual sales of nearly $350 million.

Park-Ohio was started in 1908 as Park Drop Forge, an extant supplier of forged products for the transportation industry, and grew to be a diversified manufacturer of industrial heating systems, aluminum castings, industrial rubber products, industrial fasteners and consumer products.

Park-Ohio sold Bennett Industries, an $80 million maker of rigid plastic pails for the food service industry, to Southcorp Holdings Ltd. of Adelaide, Australia, in July 1996.

It was Bennett Industries that brought Crawford to Park-Ohio, an attraction he traced to 1968, when he was involved in a joint venture between two Cleveland companies that made plastic pails.

``My knowledge of the plastics pail business is what drew me to Park-Ohio, and we were interested in acquiring NAMPAC [a plastic pail maker owned by Southcorp],'' Crawford said. However, in negotiations with Southcorp, it became evident that the better decision was to sell Bennett, he said.

``Now, with these pharmaceutical vials, we are taking on Owens-Illinois.

``We are not underestimating them; we think they are going to give us tough competition. But we have a good sales force, a strong marketing department and a good distribution network in place, and I think we have a friendlier, more competitive product,'' Crawford said.

He expects Owens-Illinois to introduce competing one-piece and tamper-evident closures.