Plastic lumber pioneer reminisces

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In 1984, plastic lumber innovator Irv Vincent almost dropped the business altogether.

``We had less than $10,000 in sales,'' Irv recalled of the state of the plastic lumber division. ``I asked the family, `What are we going to do?' The boys and Nancy said, `Why don't we give it one more shot?' ''

The boys are Lonnie and Vern, Irv's sons who were put in charge of the businesses last fall. His wife Nancy worked by his side as treasurer.

Irv Vincent recalled the time in an April 15 interview at his company's headquarters in Luxemburg.

Vincent started blow molder N.E.W. Plastics Corp. (the acronym stands for Northeastern Wisconsin) in 1968. In the early 1970s, N.E.W. branched off into recycling when the company became one of the first to use continuous extrusion to produce plastic lumber boards, feeding the extruders with a combination of post-consumer and post-industrial waste. And so the firm's other division, ReNew Plastics Inc., was born.

Today Irv speaks carefully, slowly, pausing to catch his breath. His breathing has been compromised by mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung cancer.

``Right now, my biggest problem is getting my breath back,'' Irv, 71, explained, but he recently received positive news. He's treating the disease with a lot of natural foods and prayer, and he's also taking part in an experimental treatment program through Eli Lilly and Co., taking its Alimta drug.

It's difficult to determine exactly where he was exposed to asbestos. He does know it was well before he ever realized he'd start blow molding bottles as a favor to a friend. And well before he ever realized he would be one of the pioneers for a wood replacement product created from plastic.

On this day he is leading a tour through the facilities with Lonnie. It's the first time Irv has been in the plant since the beginning of the year. He juggles chemotherapy every three weeks and blood count checks every week. He was planning to retire and smell the roses with Nancy in 2002 before he was diagnosed.

``She's the brains behind the operation,'' he said of his wife's support.

Throughout the interview, he emphasized family support and dedicated employees as the foundation of his and the firm's success.

His family and colleagues said Irv never really could retire fully.

The company is his source of pride, his ``baby,'' as many people called it. His stories are a source of pride: how people outside the company laughed at him when he wanted to use plastic for certain products, like lumber and in certain agricultural applications.

In the extrusion facility, he makes sure to point out one machine in particular: the first extruder purchased by N.E.W. in 1975 from the former Johnson Extruder Co., after officials had run trials of plastic lumber on a blow molding machine.

``The very first board we ran was only 18 inches long because that's all the plastic we could get out of the machine,'' Irv said. ``What this running did for us, though, was allow us to see a part that was like a two-by-four.''

He's happy that the business is diversified.

``The one thing I like about it is that we're two separate businesses,'' Irv said. ``When the boards are slow, the bottles are probably running high. When the bottles are slow, plastic lumber is running high. And it's a good balance.''

Building the business

The company's blow molding business racked up $14 million in sales last year, and plastic lumber was a bit smaller, with sales of more than $10 million. Officials would not disclose exact numbers. The family maintains a hard line when it comes to categorizing or labeling the company as more focused on one segment over the other.

``We're plastics people,'' Lonnie said, citing the company's involvement in construction industry trade shows and the investment in hiring a testing lab to meet building standards for decking. ``We take both divisions very seriously. The proof is in the pudding.''

In the early 1990s, close to 50 percent of the firm's business was from agricultural applications. To this day, cows still outnumber humans in Kewaunee County by about 7,000, according to the 2001 census estimate.

But agricultural sales no longer are close to 50 percent of sales, thanks in part to the impact of corporate farms, Lonnie said. In the late 1970s, officials had brought in a used sheet line to make some products for that market, including manger liners and boards for chicken droppings. It made sense: The boards were made of galvanized steel, which eventually would rust. Plastic made inroads, but the product was too good: There were no repeat sales.

``The chicken-dropping boards, you run them once and that's over,'' Irv said. ``The manger liners for cattle, you take a look at our sales in manger liners, that's dropping by $150,000-$200,000 a year because they don't need them anymore.''

But humming extruders still push out plastic lumber boards at ReNew's main facility in Luxemburg. Lonnie now is vice president, leading operations in Luxemburg; Vern is president, based at N.E.W.'s sales office in Atlanta.

The early 1980s were difficult for the plastic lumber division, Vern attested in a May 13 telephone interview. The company learned a lesson about product diversification, after initially focusing on products like skids, pallets and lawn furniture.

``We ended up really looking at what do we do for the future?'' he said. Then, they started gravitating toward other markets, including docks, piers and decking.

``People always referred to it as the `cheap plastic stuff,' '' he said. ``And you've got to overcome that.''

The firm remains dedicated to 100 percent plastic lumber, despite the market emphasis on wood composites.

Irv recalls the early days and the type of machinery used. At one point, they had even worked with a field chopper for hay to chop up the milk bottles.

``We had too much trouble with that,'' he said. ``We would block up a lot of times because it wasn't made for milk bottles.''

To get post-consumer plastic, the company worked with church organizations, which required everyone to wash the bottles, remove the caps and bag the bottles.

Lonnie and Vern have a work force of more than 200 at two sites in Wisconsin. They are focused on ``controlled growth,'' with no elaborate expansion plans. On the day of the tour, they were preparing to add one state-of-the-art Bekum blow molding machine to the Luxemburg site, one that has better calibration, higher quality and a view stripe attachment.

About 55 miles northwest of the headquarters, N.E.W. operates its second facility in Coleman, a former Chrysler Corp. site acquired in 1990.

``Fifty-five miles in that direction is a long way from the direction of tornadoes,'' Irv said of that region's penchant for producing twisters and needing a contingency plan as a business owner. ``This was a very good chance for us to tell customers, `Look, we have duplicate machines.' That's the name of the game - to keep the customer. They could care less about your problems.''

Community focus

Irv talks about his company's history in plastics like a passionate professor aiming to deliver his lesson: He starts talking about his time as a code breaker in the Korean War, yet he'll manage to connect it to how the business operates today.

``I broke one code that the U.S. and British were working on for 10 years. They sent me on special assignment for 16 months. The way I solved it was by the vulgarity of the person that was sending the messages. I was able to track down the whole network by this one guy,'' he said.

The lesson is this: There shall be no use of excessive vulgar language among N.E.W.'s employees.

``You can trace people by some of the comments that they make, especially if they're vulgar,'' Irv said. ``You remember that more than the good things they say.''

Sure, it seems strict, but the Vincent family has a reputation for treating employees well.

``He was known to give employees second chances,'' said Linda Rueckl, who worked for N.E.W. for nine years handling accounts payable. ``He always kind of looked at character rather than the past history of what they did. I just can't say enough about their family and working for them. He was even a banker to some of his employees.''

Irv and Nancy have sent employees with smoking habits to hypnotists; they've helped recovering alcoholics and those with gambling addictions.

Irv credits dedicated employees for where the business is today. He knows that people in the plastic industry have criticized the firm for being too focused on the Vincent family, but emphasized a need to trust who he was bringing into the company.

``We've been back-stabbed, even in the bottle industry,'' he said. Over the years of business, he said outsiders have tried to plant people into N.E.W.'s operations to get ideas of how the company was operating and gain insight into its technologies.

``With some, you have to start taking a look at who you will let into your plant,'' Irv said.

The Vincents have planted the seeds for the firm to remain privately held. Lonnie and Vern have no plans to change that distinction in a business world dominated by corporate buyouts. They receive inquiries about twice per month, Nancy said.

The topic sets Irv on a tirade.

``I didn't trust the people. If they live in New York and there's a plant in Wisconsin, how are they going to know what's going on with the company?'' he asked. ``This is one of the problems that's facing the whole United States, that all of our small companies are being sold to larger companies. The local bank, the small bank, was our biggest supporter of anything you can imagine. If I had to borrow $5,000, I would just go over and oh, sure, show them the financial statement, and here's your money. A large bank, you have to have a five-year or 10-year business plan. Small companies just starting out don't have five-year or 10-year plans. Who in the hell would have thought we would have made chicken [dropping] boards?''

Irv and Nancy remain loyal to the region where they both grew up. He's chairman of the board for the Bank of Luxemburg. They organize golf outings and give out gift certificates that support local businesses. They keep a water tanker on company property in case the fire department needs help to put out a fire.

``Irv's a unique individual,'' said Dave Luebbers, president of the Bank of Luxemburg. ``If you tell Irv he can't do something, he'll find everything in his power to do it. It gives him added motivation to find a way, added motivation just to prove you wrong.''