Hoffer Plastics named PN Processor of the Year

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Plastics News photo by thegallerystudios.com William Hoffer accepts the Plastics News Processor of the Year award on behalf of Hoffer Plastics Corp. and its 350 employees.

SOUTH ELGIN, ILL. — Members of the third generation in place at Hoffer Plastics Corp. share the passions of their grandfather, Robert A. Hoffer Sr.: strong links to community and employees; and dedication to moving the industry ahead technologically, while honoring its past.

Take a look at a PN video feature of award-winner Hoffer Plastics.

"The reason why family's our first core value is because everybody in this building is our family. They're the pulse of this organization," said marketing director Charlotte Hoffer Canning, who nominated her company for the award. "We feel responsible for making sure that we do everything we can do to help them, too."

Bob Hoffer, a member of the Plastics Hall of Fame, died in 2007 at age 87, a man dubbed "the heart and soul of our industry," by Gordon Lankton, leader of Nypro Inc. They were good friends.

Hoffer's sons, Robert Jr. and William, ran the company. Robert Jr. has retired but is active on the board of directors, along with their sister, Mary Eagin.

The president, William Hoffer, works with his daughters Charlotte Canning and Gretchen Hoffer Farb, director of supply-chain management, and son Alex Hoffer, sales manager for packaging.

An accountant, Farb coordinates the Hoffer Foundation, created by her grandfather in 1966.

"The applications come streaming in all year long," she said.

The Hoffer Foundation has donated millions of dollars. Bill Hoffer said Hoffer Plastics was a small company when his dad started the foundation. He was active in Rotary Club and other civic groups. "He was one of the renowned fundraisers in this area. He loved to [raise funds]. So he got very involved in many, many projects around this area," Bill said.

Unparalleled community activism continues today at Hoffer Plastics. It's one reason Hoffer won Plastics News' Processor of the Year Award. A well-rounded, solid company, Hoffer scored high marks from the judges — Plastics News reporters and editors — on all seven criteria: financial performance, quality, customer relations, employee relations, environmental performance, industry and public service, and technological innovation.

Hoffer won the award over the two other finalists, Rodon Group LLC of Hatfield, Pa., and DeKalb Molded Plastics Co. of Butler, Ind.

Plastics News presented Hoffer Plastics with the Processor of the Year Award and honored all the finalists March 5 at its Executive Forum in Tampa. Fla. (The newspaper also recognized three winners of its PN Excellence Awards.)

Check out video of the award ceremony.

Bill Hoffer continues the heartfelt, humble approach to the business. He's an unassuming man who doesn't like to sit for hours at his desk.

"He knows everybody's names. He walks around: management by walking around. He is in that plant more than any president I know. And he's here, every weekend. He'll be here on Saturday walking around second shift. He'll be here on Sunday walking third shift," said Jack Shedd, vice president of business development.

Like father, like son.

Hoffer Plastics runs 110 injection presses, with clamping forces of 35-650 tons. More than 20 of RJG's eDart systems monitor production. All of the presses can divert bad parts, and many are set for cavity separation.

A walk through Hoffer Plastics' 360,000-square-foot plant today takes a visitor through a series of mini-plants. Several are set up to mold long-run, value-added parts like valves, spouts, closures and two-shot appliance knobs, molded-in on high-cavitation molds. In some areas, small parts rain down from presses, then get air-conveyed through tubes to an area set up for automatic, high-speed assembly, as bowl feeders bring the two components together. Often, each part zips past a camera inspection station.

Bob Hoffer applied a "focused factory" approach to custom molding. The idea is, as a company grows, to set up individual profit-center factories. In South Elgin, they are physically separated by walls and doors, as the company has expanded. Each has no more than around 12 injection presses. That lets individualized management keep a close watch.

All the individual factories share some companywide operations. They also share tool repair and maintenance, at a well-equipped, 27-person tool shop.

"We take care of molds like nobody's business," Shedd said.

One example is a 216-cavity mold running tiny aerosol valve stems. The mold is 42 years old; it turns out millions of parts a year.

Making investments in technology, people

Over the last four years, Hoffer sank more than $15 million into new technology, like MuCell, two-shot and gas-assisted molding, and eDart in-mold pressure sensing.

Beyond the technology, the focused factory organization brings a core of workers in constant contact with the 12-machine setup. They know their specific customers and what to watch for on molding jobs. They do mold changes.

"Each plant is very self-sufficient," Hoffer said.

He said his father got the focused-factory idea while he was a resin salesman and read a study on how to manage a molding operation. "The numbers always came out around 10, 12, 15 molding presses. So we built the concept here of each molding room would be 12 molding presses." With a few variations, the concept has stayed consistent.

Each focused factory has its own managers, inspectors and operators.

Hoffer's markets are packaging, commercial and industrial, automotive and appliance. Three big customers have stayed with Hoffer for more than 30 years: Seaquist Closures (AptarGroup Inc.), Illinois Tool Works Inc. and Briggs & Stratton Corp.

Briggs & Stratton named Hoffer its Innovative Supplier of the Year for 2012, for an all-plastic carburetor body for lawn mowers. The molder bought a 300-ton, all-electric Niigata press to mold the filled-nylon carburetor, which has 463 dimensions. Hoffer Plastics has shipped more than 2 million in the first two years, so far at 100 percent quality, Hoffer said.

Hoffer Plastics has steadily improved its quality levels and has a miniscule number of customer complaints per million parts shipped, officials said.

Customers contacted by Plastics News praised Hoffer as consistent and responsive, able to address any problems that come up. In one case, a customer called in a panic on a Sunday night, when one of its suppliers abruptly closed a plant. Hoffer did a quick turnaround of 20 transfer molds, plus automation.

Every new mold is equipped with an eDart mold-pressure transducer. Hoffer uses scientific molding principles to do decoupled molding.

Debt-free for decades, Hoffer Plastics generated 2012 sales of $75.5 million. Hoffer has been profitable, even during a sales decline in the recession, when it had minimal layoffs, executives said.

The goal is $100 million in sales for 2017, said Bill Hoffer.

He said the company started a year-end bonus program in 2009, in the teeth of the downturn. "I think that it's important that we honor the hourly people, not just the salaried people," he said.

The molder was the only Elgin-area manufacturer to hire when unemployment stood at 15 percent in early 2010. Sales and profit have grown more than 40 percent over the past five years, the company said in its submission.

The Hoffers aren't afraid to spend to win new business. In the spring of 2010, German car component supplier Brose Fahr­zeugteile GmbH & Co. KG came to Hoffer Plastics with a problem. In Germany, the supplier had designed a new case actuator housing for the Ford F-150 pickup truck. It had built a four-by-four tandem tool to make parts that were similar, but distinct from each other, and married it to MuCell. But according to Hoffer, Brose Fahr­zeugteile could not find a U.S. molder to handle such a complex tool and a $2 million-plus financial commitment. Hoffer toolmakers learned that the designers missed on the original hot-runner design, which could degrade the glass-filled polyester.

Initially, Brose sourced the project to one of its existing German molders, but the supplier was not able to make the highly technical part.

Hoffer made the MuCell investment and injection press investment and during an around-the-clock holiday weekend, made mold repairs and started shipping parts that Monday morning. Later, Hoffer redesigned and rebuilt the tool and hot-runner system.

Another time, a customer called Sunday night in a panic. One of its suppliers was closing its plant. As a result, Hoffer is working on a 20-mold transfer and automation equipment.

The company set up a dedicated work cell with three Wittmann Battenfeld rotating platen presses to mold two-shot, soft-touch Whirlpool appliance knobs, fully automated. After molding, the knobs go through an automatic D-ring insertion and inspection process.

And Hoffer invested $2.5 million to develop a new closure for flexible-pouch food packaging.

Two unusual technologies carry the hallmarks of an entrepreneurial manufacturer. Bob Hoffer invested in a fluidized bed-cleaning oven for screws, barrels and hot-runner manifolds. In 1994, upset with high electric bills, he had nine gas-turbine engines installed in a soundproof room, for a co-generation system.

During a recent plant tour, a thunderstorm automatically started the turbines up on standby, ready in case the power went out.

Legacy of hard work and humble approach

The founding Hoffers set the tone for working as hard as necessary for customers. Robert and Helen started out working side-by-side molding twist sticks for roll-on deodorant — 250,000 of them — on a used injection press. It was 1953.

A chemist with a degree from Purdue University, Hoffer worked at DuPont Co. and GE Plastics. Bill said his dad moved 13 times as a national sales manager for GE. He called on customers in Ohio. One was Nylon Molded Products Corp. in Garrettsville, Ohio. NyMold executives got him interested in molding, and offered to support him — but they were no dummies and wanted him to move farther west, out of Ohio.

The family moved from GE-land in Pittsfield, Mass., to South Elgin, Helen's hometown, where her father ran a drugstore and helped them find a small building.

In 1960, the Hoffers bought 24 acres of land that became the headquarters. They expanded throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A residential neighborhood sprouted up around the plant. Bill said his dad always wanted to be a good neighbor, keeping the styles and height of the additions the same. He unhappily consented to pave the side yard for parking; that's where neighbor kids used to play football.

There's no big sign. Hoffer employees get a laugh when people stop in, asking if it's the elementary school. Or the local nursing home. "So I always say it's a great victory that they confuse us, even though there's a whole bunch of people who thought we ought to be in one," said Bill Hoffer with a belly laugh.

Bob and Helen met at Purdue, and they continued to make major donations to Purdue, as well as other schools. In the 1960s, Bob Hoffer spearheaded a local plastics program at Elgin Community College, and was the first chairman of the college's board.

Hoffer worked with Elgin Community College to develop, back in 1979, the first injection molding apprenticeship to be recognized by the Department of Labor.

The Hoffer Foundation has given millions of dollars throughout its history, helping more than 25 agencies and organizations each year. Now the foundation has created a $500,000 endowment in Robert Hoffer's name so Purdue can create scholarships, and started a $10,000 scholarship at Elgin Community College.

And next time you're Elgin in the springtime, you can see baseball at Robert Hoffer Field at Judson University.

Hoffer Plastics has been a major financial supporter of the National Plastics Center. Money donated by Bob Hoffer paid for the first traveling educational exhibit, the PlastiVan.

"The main thing that dad brought, and that we're trying to continue, is this, you know, kind of hands-on family side of the business," Bill Hoffer said. He gets private equity calls fishing for prospects, but he doesn't take them. "We're not interested in that. We've got the third generation here now."

Employee dedication, and right back at you

About 350 people work in South Elgin.

Employees appreciate working for a solid, family-owned company. They tend to stay a long time. Hoffer-ites have an average of 12 years of experience for hourly workers and 17 years for salaried.

The Brewer family — Rocky, Andy, Erick and George, with a combined 97 years at Hoffer Plastics — said they hoped the company would win Processor of the Year to honor the Hoffers. "I never felt I worked for them. I worked with them," said Andy, who is foreman of plant No. 7.

Over the years, Hoffer has employed 10 families in which three or more members worked at the molder.

The processor's Christmastime adopt-a-family program brought two new employees into the fold. Mario and Nilda Aguiniga both had been laid off from their jobs. They had three children, and were teetering on the edge. Nilda got tears in her eyes when she recalled her best Christmas present: a solid job.

"They're now three-year employees, and they're great," Bill Hoffer said. "And so, it's a really feel-good thing. They're good people. And the neat part is — and I'm not bragging, I just feel good about it — it saved their house. Because they were going to lose their house, because neither one had a job."

Hoffer Plastics has helped employees face personal challenges, from health problems to a furnace that stopped in the winter.

"We try to operate the company, but family integrity, service and trust is a big part of it," he said.