These firms shine in worker relations

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"People are our most important resource." How many times have you heard that? Sometimes, it's pure boilerplate, business-speak without much sincerity. But not when it comes to companies that get to the finalist stage, and the winners, of the Plastics News Processor of the Year Award.

Employees — how to find, keep and motivate them — was the theme of the Plastics News Executive Forum in Tampa. Dubbed "The Industry Leadership and Skills Summit," the forum attracted lots of human resources directors, plus plastics executives looking for direction. One of the best places to find motivation is this newspaper's Processor of the Year Award. Year after year, the finalists and ultimate winner have one thing in common: extraordinary employee relations.

For those not familiar with the award, we judge based on seven criteria; employee relations is one. For the last three years, we've also added an employee relations category to our PN Excellence Awards. And we just announced a new honor: Plastics News' Best Places to Work.

It's not hard to figure out the importance of employee relations. The finalists and winners realize that employee relations, that's something they can control. Resin prices go up and down. A storm knocks out power. A major customer moves work to China. What are you gonna do? But how you treat people, you can do something about that.

As coordinator of the Processor of the Year Award, I get to spend a day at each finalist company each year. For the employee relations part, I talk to HR heads and hourly employees. That's the best part of the visit — an inspiring connection with factory workers at leading U.S. manufacturers.

Probably the most memorable year was 2001, only about a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Everyone was still shell-shocked by the deaths of thousands on U.S. soil. So I drove from Akron to Madison, Ind., a small town along the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Louisville, Ky., to visit finalist Grote Industries Inc.

Grote is a historically important company, having pioneered injection molding to make the first plastic lenses for car lights. Founded in 1901, it remains family-owned. That's pretty remarkable. But what was really inspiring — even more so in the post-Sept. 11 fog — was the story of Grote Industries and its union.

Years earlier, relations between management and union sank to an all-time low. It was an adversarial relationship that was seriously hurting the company. Then in the mid-1990s, labor and management signed a joint partnering agreement. They decided that instead of fighting each other, they should battle the competition, including parts made offshore.

In 2009, the team updated the employee handbook.

On my award-judging visit, I had lunch with a longtime union activist, who laid it all out, how the bad turned into the good. The company rebounded. It clearly showed the strength of American manufacturing, led by people in the offices and on the factory floor.

Cascade Engineering Inc. ended up winning the award that year. Cascade is a leader in hiring people on welfare and helping them become productive and proud. See the Executive Forum coverage on Page 1, if you don't already know about this extraordinarily progressive injection molder in Grand Rapids, Mich., and its leader, Fred Keller.

The story includes comments from Maureen Steinwall, an expert on employee training and empowerment who owns last year's winner, Steinwall Inc. in Coon Rapids, Minn. Having Keller and Steinwall on the stage at the same time was a great moment. They're two of the most progressive leaders in plastics. Heck, in all of American manufacturing.

But, as I said, all the finalists share strong worker relations. At Rodon Group LLC, a finalist this year, a man in his 70s, Nick Santoleri, came up to me to praise the company. Rodon had hired him when he was 58 years old and out of work. He loves his job and the molder in Hatfield, Pa.

Hoffer Plastics Corp. won the current Processor of the Year Award. Employees I talked to said they hoped the South Elgin, Ill., molder would win the award as an honor to the Hoffer family.

You can't fake that kind of sentiment.

Bill Bregar is an Akron, Ohio-based Plastics News senior reporter.