Energy, innovation built Mehnert's Bekum

By: Bill Bregar

June 19, 2006

Like all of Germany after World War II, West Berlin in 1953 was a city struggling to recover - and for 18-year-old Gottfried Mehnert, leaving East Germany and moving to Berlin marked a new beginning.

Mehnert, 71, went on to start blow molding equipment maker Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH. He said Bekum was one of several startup companies in West Berlin that helped, in a small way, to launch the German Miracle by rebuilding the shattered country.

"People were very poor, but there was a good atmosphere for a startup," he said.

Mehnert said he was a young man with lots of energy. He also had confidence, because the upstart Bekum went head-to-head with big-name German blow molding companies such as Kautex, Fischer and others. Later, when Mehnert started Bekum America Corp. in the late 1970s, the company faced Uniloy, a powerhouse in the giant U.S. dairy bottle market.

Innovations and pioneering technology helped Mehnert's young firm win customers. In the process, Mehnert created many blow molding standards, like blowing bottles from the top, inside-neck deflashing and calibration via a cutting ring inside the mold, and later, the shuttle machine.

Bekum, under Mehnert's sole ownership, has delivered more than 10,000 machines to more than 70 countries in its 48-year history. The firm employs 600 around the world.

Mehnert is entering the Plastics Hall of Fame at NPE 2006. He still has lots of energy, although he comes across as a soft-spoken engineer, not a machinery big shot.

Nominating Mehnert for the honor are Michael Gigliotti, a blow molding consultant who helped set up Bekum America in Williamston, Mich.; and the Williamston operation's president, Martin Stark.

Gigliotti said Mehnert invented Six Sigma quality before the term existed.

"Gottfried could not tolerate variation. He had to be precise and on time, everything. The other thing that always impressed me about Gottfried is how careful he is, how fast his mind works. Gottfried was an apprentice. He didn't get formal education. He got out in the business world, and he has this instinct for business that I think is very unusual."

Mehnert was born in Wilthen, Germany. Educated as a toolmaker, he served a year as an apprentice at Fiedler Tool and Engineering in Meissen. His father, Rudolph Mehnert, started Meno GmbH, a company that did injection molding, built molds and made injection molding machines.

After World War II, that region became East Germany. In 1952, the government seized Rudolph Mehnert's property, including the company. The following year, the family fled to West Berlin. There was no Berlin Wall yet, and the border between East and West Berlin was pretty open. The Mehnerts took the S-Bahn, the urban commuter train, over to the West.

Mehnert remembers feelings of liberation, of youthful exuberance.

"That was a positive feeling at that time. Because if you're very, very young, nobody thinks negative," he said.

It was a good time to start a business. In 1953 he and his father re-established Meno and bought a mold shop. Meno became known for injection molding packaging, toys, cream jars, lipstick tubes and technical parts. The history-making move into blow molding came when a customer in West Berlin asked Meno to supply bottles. Mehnert said the customer had been getting bottles from West Germany, but the logistics of getting product to West Berlin were too complicated.

"Customers pushed us to produce bottles. We could only ensure quick success by building our own machines, because Kautex and the other companies were building their own machines as well," he said.

Meno used its first blow molding machine, designed and built by Gottfried Mehnert, in 1955, to make baby bottles and cosmetic bottles, plus bottles for lighter fluid, oil, lemon juice and eye drops. A big market was bottles for new liquid and powder forms of penicillin. By 1958, Meno was running 14 of the machines.

He left his father's company in 1958. He and his brother Horst Mehnert founded Bekum in Berlin's Mariendorf area. They worked feverishly for a pivotal coming-out party: a 1959 trade show in Dusseldorf, Germany, the forerunner of today's K show.

At the trade show, Bekum displayed its first machine, which blow molded bottles from the top of the extruded parison. The traditional way, blowing from the bottom, could cause problems because, as the parison stretched out, the plastic would thin at what would be the bottom of the bottle. Another show-stopper was neck calibration and finishing. Each bottle came out with a perfect neck, 100 percent completed. That set Bekum apart.

"Our kick was that a finished bottle came out of the machine," Mehnert said. But Bekum was still an unproven newcomer. "It was clear that a lot of customers were interested. They didn't believe it really, was it possible? Young people, young machine - so what would be in the future? A big question mark for them."

Stark said the Bekum machine was a revolutionary change from the old needle blow molding technique. "When you needle a bottle you need secondary finishing equipment. These machines did away with that," he said.

Still a strong selling point today, Bekum touts several advantages from its patented calibration and top blowing method. The bottle neck is well-calibrated by the blow pin, forming a ring surface for sealing. A bottle with a handle can be formed using a parison bubble prior to mold closing.

Mehnert's Plastics Hall of Fame nomination form credits Bekum for opening up "the free market in blow molding worldwide." The reason: Bekum did not require customers to buy a license. Gigliotti, a consultant in Gloucester, Mass., and an authority on blow molded packaging, said licensing and royalties were common. Bekum "absolutely created a free market," he said.

"To blow mold plastic bottles in the 1930s, 40s or 50s, if you wanted to make plastic bottles in volume, you had to take a license from Plax, or from American Can or from Continental Can, and pay a per-bottle royalty," said Gigliotti, who went into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2003.

In 1962, Bekum developed a twin-station shuttle machine. One parison feeds two sets of molds that shuttle in and out. The groundbreaking machine opened the market to mass-production of plastic containers.

Bekum entered the coextrusion machine business in the 1970s, first by licensing a three-layer technology from another equipment company. After a few years, the company began developing its own machines that could mold up to six or seven layers - opening up food packaging markets such as salad dressing, ketchup and juice.

Bekum in 1961 opened a second plant Bodenteich, Germany, to make screws, barrels, molds and tools. An assembly plant in Traismauer, Austria, followed. Then came a major expansion beyond Europe - with a factory in Brazil. It opened in 1975.

A U.S. operation would come next. Bekum had a sales office in New Jersey. Tino Perutz, who headed Bekum's North American sales, told Mehnert about a Michigan firm called Baker Plastics, which blow molded milk jugs. Cliff Baker, the owner, had been president of the Uniloy Division of Hoover Ball & Bearing - then the dominant player.

Perutz linked Mehnert up with Gigliotti, who worked with the negotiations. Bekum bought Baker Plastics in 1979, and moved into its building in Williamston. Mehnert was interested in supplying blow molding machines for the huge U.S. markets of soda bottles and milk jugs.

Gigliotti said Mehnert impressed him from their very first meeting. "Gottfried's business sense always got me. His insistence on getting it right," he said.

Mehnert recalls that Uniloy fought back by dropping its price for machines.

But Gigliotti said the German man never hesitated: "My impression was he was set on having a U.S. presence ... I don't think it even entered his mind that the competition was Uniloy. He was set to come to the U.S."

Bekum America has become a leader in Michigan's School to Registered Apprenticeship program. It also works with Ferris State University and Lansing Community College.

In Germany, Mehnert was honored with the Federal Cross of Merit in 1994 for community involvement and education of young people.