HOFFER SHINES IN INNOVATION, PHILANTHROPY

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Robert A. Hoffer Sr. has forged a unique path, running Hoffer Plastics Corp. his way and donating time and money to worthy causes, such as education, the National Plastics Center and Museum and local charities around South Elgin, Ill.

At Hoffer Plastics, his way means all 700 employees see a profit-and-loss statement, every day, showing each machine. To improve management of the growing custom injection molding company, Hoffer years ago hit upon a novel idea: Set up separately managed profit centers, each one having no more than 12 molding presses. Other companies have copied the profit-center approach.

For Hoffer, 78, who enters the Plastics Hall of Fame this week, the business and the philanthropy are linked.

How would Hoffer like to be remembered? Simply for doing what he enjoyed.

``We enjoy the consideration of being generous in our community and in our industry,'' he said. ``Over these 44 years, we've given away millions of dollars. We enjoy using the fruits of our labor in that way.''

A humble man, Hoffer does not like to make a big deal out of his volunteering and monetary donations. But so far, Hoffer Plastics has contributed $500,000 to the National Plastics Center and Museum in Leominster, Mass. The money has gone for the museum's traveling van program and to put in an elevator, among other things. Hoffer just finished a two-year term on the museum's national board of governors.

Hoffer donations also helped install a cancer-fighting machine — a linear accelerator — at St. Joseph Hospital in Elgin.

Hoffer has donated nearly $750,000 to Purdue University, buying equipment for its School of Technology, even building a shelter on the school's golf course. Hoffer, his wife Helen, and their three children all went to Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.

In the 1960s, Hoffer pushed for a local plastics program at Elgin Community College. In 1966, he served as the first chairman of Elgin Community College's board.

With $82 million in 1996 sales, Hoffer Plastics is the 59th-largest injection molding company in North America, according to Plastics News' ranking.

Hoffer Plastics has expanded during the years, from a 2,400-square-foot garage in 1953 to 270,000 square feet today. Now the company is about to expand again. Hoffer said the firm is spending $3.3 million to build a 72,000-square-foot addition in South Elgin, with space for more molding machines.

Hoffer worked for big resin companies for a dozen years before he decided to be his own boss. After earning a chemistry degree from Purdue in 1941, he joined DuPont Co., originator of nylon. Nylon was tough to mold. Hoffer was in sales. He traveled.

``We'd get to talking about plastics, particularly nylon, and they'd ask me who could mold nylon,'' he recalled.

He used to recommend Nylon Molded Products, a company in Garrettsville, Ohio.

The name-dropping paid off.

Before moving to GE Plastics in 1949, Hoffer touched base with the owners of Nylon Molded, David White and David Sloane.

``They said, `If you ever want to go into business, let us know,'*'' he recalled.

After a few years at GE, he called to take them up on the offer.

``I put up $9,000 and they put up $18,000,'' Hoffer said.

The original plan was to locate in Ohio, maybe Cincinnati. For competitive reasons, White and Sloane did not want Hoffer Plastics too close by.

``We moved a molding machine from Garrettsville to South Elgin.''

Robert and Helen Hoffer built the business for a year, then White and Sloane sold the Hoffers their piece for $23,000 — their original investment plus a share of the profit. Hoffer Plastics remains family-owned. Sons Robert Jr. and William are vice presidents. A daughter, Mary, serves on the board of directors.

Hoffer said the firm has run debt-free for 20 years, paying for expansions with its own money. In 1991, Hoffer Plastics spent $3 million to build an electricity-generating plant run by natural gas, trimming $1 million a year from its electric bill.

Employees receive quarterly profit-sharing payments. Hoffer also puts profit-sharing money into 401-K retirement accounts.

Each day, the company prints out a daily report for each profit center. The report gets posted in offices and lunchrooms.

Using profit centers makes it easier to track profit and expenses, essentially by breaking Hoffer Plastics up into 10 smaller units.

``They're 12-machine centers,'' Hoffer said. ``Twelve machines make a plant. Each plant has a plant manager and a foreman and three assistant foremen and two inspectors on each shift.''