DeKalb redefines focus, survives downturn

Dan Hockensmith

Published: September 13, 2010 6:00 am ET

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Three years after assuming the presidency of DeKalb Molded Plastics Co., Rick Walters feels the firm has turned some significant corners.

During that time, the Butler-based structural foam molder has undergone workforce development and continuous improvement training, rebranded its marketing to better reflect 21st century conditions and survived the worst economic downturn in generations.

Recently, DeKalb broadened its presence at trade shows and conferences such as the Medical Design & Manufacturing Midwest and West Coast shows, as well as some events that are off the beaten path, like the Casket and Funeral Supply Association show, the Global Gaming Expo and the American Wind Energy Association conference.

“In my 30 years [with DeKalb], we've had some very basic service projects that we have been involved with that have had great longevity. Then we've had these projects that are more quick hits,” Walters said during an Aug. 18 interview at DeKalb's 80,000-square-foot plant.

Examples of the former include DeKalb's signature medical cabinetry, its office furniture and materials-handling pallets, event flooring, highway guardrail bumpers and municipal water-filtration components.

Recently at the plant, workers assembled 41/2-square-foot high density polyethylene water-filtration beds that DeKalb molds for Severn Trent Services, the U.S. subsidiary of Severn Trent plc of Birmingham, England.

Each HDPE block requires a media plate to be attached by hand after molding to take the place of a traditional gravel filter.

Severn Trent and DeKalb have had a relationship for about 12 years, because the type of injection molding DeKalb does is ideal for making the large parts, Joe Bonazza, Severn Trent Services director of filtration, said in a Sept. 1 telephone interview.

“It's very intricate. Attention to detail is a plus,” he said. “That and some of the secondary operations is something DeKalb can do that not a lot of injection molders can do.”

Walters said in addition to its long-term customers, DeKalb is interested in expanding into markets related to essential human needs.

“We have what I call blue-chip market segments. You've got to have these staple things that support just [people] living. We follow that philosophy,” he said.

DeKalb is focused on emerging opportunities for structural plastics in large medical casings, casino gaming machines, bowling alley scoring machines, wind- and solar-energy devices, and even the transportation of dead bodies — all areas where metal-to-plastic conversion is in full swing.

Eco-friendly

With the ability to channel as much as 80 percent recycled resin into products, DeKalb's marketing is aided by its environmentally friendly image, Walters said. The company logo recently changed from red, white and blue to green, white and gray to reinforce DeKalb's image as an eco-friendly manufacturer.

“Structural plastics … is extremely green. We run more recycled material here than we do virgin materials. Our niche is to take post-industrial as well as post-consumer regrinds and put it back into products,” he said.

DeKalb runs eight injection molding machines with clamping forces of 300-1,000 tons in structural foam, gas- assist and high-pressure molding. Its combined factory and warehouse features two overhead cranes with 15-ton capacity, five outdoor and six material silos, and a vacuum material-conveying system, as well as resin blending, drying and vacuum gathering, and central and portable chillers. The company is ISO 9001 certified.

DeKalb was founded in 1979 by JSJ Corp. of Grand Haven, Mich. In 1997, Jeff Rodgers, then DeKalb's president, and Walters, then vice president of operations, bought the company. After stepping down as president in 2007, Rodgers remains chairman and CEO.

After weathering several years of flat sales, Walters said, he took a hard look inward upon moving up at the firm.

“I really did my own self-check. I thought maybe it was because of my management style: I was in charge of the operations, so maybe that was the problem.

“I worked really hard after I became president to really listen to the group. That was a change out of the gate,” he said.

As a result, DeKalb flattened its organizational chart: No longer were managers the only leaders of discussions. There are monthly profit-sharing meetings, daily production meetings between management and floor staff, and small group meetings to discuss safety, quality and morale-building projects.

“We want everybody involved in the company. We really value their input,” Walters said. “We asked them to become Level 1 certified with [Global Standards for Plastics Certification] training. We asked that they participate in a committee of some sort. And the other thing was attendance.”

In 2008, DeKalb hired CMI Teambuilding Associates for management and workforce coaching. In 2009, DeKalb brought in Harbour Results Inc. to lead a continuous improvement initiative, and Strategic Marketing Partners LLC to enhance its branding efforts.

Pulling together

The approach paid off during the recent global economic downturn, Walters said.

“We took a dive in the recession like everybody else. We were going along OK. Then in August of '08 … you can see from any chart how it went down. Our team put a really tight contingency plan in place and I'm so glad, because it got us through 2009.”

At times, as much as half of the company's 75 employees were temporarily laid off. Pay cuts and short workweeks also got the company through, he said.

“We put together a very elaborate plan across the entire company. We would huddle constantly and talk about how we were doing with that plan.

“We would track our sales or [sales] opportunities on a daily basis. We put that into a spreadsheet so we could calculate the labor costs on a daily basis. Communication was strong and [employees] understood. And nobody left me; nobody jumped ship,” he said.

“The way that our team attacked that recession and survived that period of time has got to be one of our proudest moments,” Walters said.

DeKalb's future may include an expansion of the plant, parts of which date back to the 1950s, with a new main entrance and a rail siding, but many of the details have not been finalized.

The company's sales are about $15 million annually, and Walters said increasing that number and building new contacts through the company's revamped website and e-mail communications are top priority.

DeKalb ranked 211th in Plastics News' most recent ranking of North American injection molders.


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DeKalb redefines focus, survives downturn

Dan Hockensmith

Published: September 13, 2010 6:00 am ET

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