Ex-Tupperware workers mold expanding venture

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Advantage Manufacturing Inc. Wanda Rea

Tupperware employees Cindy and Paul Jones had just bought a house when they learned the plant where generations of families had worked in plastics manufacturing was closing.

The announcement made in early 1993 sent shock waves through the Halls, Tenn., factory that employed 1,200, and the small towns where they lived in the western part of the state.

"I was standing next to a lady that had five children and she just broke down and sobbed," Cindy Jones recalled in a telephone interview. "All I had was something material to worry about. You can get rid of a house. That gave me a sense of peace on a personal level."

Still, her sense of security was rocked. Jones wouldn't retire from Tupperware like her grandmother and she was faced with finding another job along with hundreds of former co-workers as the nation shook off the recession of the early 1990s.

Employment opportunities were far away at another Tupperware plant in South Carolina and at other companies. Processors were courted by Rubbermaid. Former controller Wanda Rea considered a similar position at a Jimmy Dean sausage plant in eastern Tennessee eight hours from her home. The thought of relocating made her, the Joneses, and 11 others reassess their options.

"We had a core group that didn't want to move," Rea said. "We thought we could take on all the different levels in a plant on our own, like quality, maintenance, management and finance. So we rolled our 401(k)s over into a new corporation."

Months later, Advantage Manufacturing Inc. opened in an old high school gym in nearby Friendship, Tenn., with used equipment and an order from Tupperware to make lids for spaghetti containers.

Twenty years later, Rea, the company president, is the Tennessee Women in Business Champion of the Year for the Small Business Administration.

In good form

Rea, 57, helped lead Advantage from $750,000 in sales during its first two quarters in business in 1993 to as much as $11 million a year when its 14 machines — soon to be 17 — are molding. The company makes single-use medical supplies like those kidney-shaped bowls for soiled dressings, tier-two automotive parts, yogurt cups, and most recently, plastic lids for dog food.

In her 10 years at the helm, Rea has put an emphasis on partnerships, employee relations and giving back. Her hard work impressed Maleia Evans, director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center. Evans nominated Rea for the state SBA award, citing her "passion, drive, charisma and unfettered concern for creating jobs in west Tennessee."

"The driving force behind their vision from the beginning was jobs," Evans said. "They didn't go into an entrepreneurial venture to get rich. It was about the 14 of them having jobs and making a place where co-workers and other folks could have a place to work. Wanda in particular is a firm believer in 'pay it forward' and teaching responsibility, accountability and a strong work ethic."

To that end, Advantage started a program to reward elementary school students with a new bicycle if they have perfect attendance.

"That really struck me," Evans said. "Wanda is really involved in the community and believes in the hard work ethic and loyalty."

More jobs are on the horizon at Advantage Manufacturing, which last year received a $1 million, zero-interest rural economic development loan to buy new injection molding equipment and increase its production.

"We're back up to 32 employees and bringing more on as we bring machines on," Rea said. "Within three years we have to be at 70 as part of the loan terms. We've been as high as 100 before."

The loan is being used to grow the medical-grade products operation and venture into food-grade products.

"We just bought a brand-new Toshiba 310 all-electric machine," Rea said. "It will cut the cycle time for the products we're making by 35 percent. That makes us more efficient, and the faster you can make products the more money you can make."

When she talks about Advantage, Rea describes business in terms of "us" and "we." Ten of the founding investors still are employee-owners, including Cindy Jones, who is the human resources manager. The company has several women in management, making it essentially a women-owned and -operated business.

Rea is proud of the diversity but takes greater satisfaction in how the core group stayed together.

"We've been able to become like family," she said.

"We went into this to maintain jobs and 20 years later we still have jobs and we're creating jobs. We're really proud of everyone."

Even so, Cindy Jones gives Rea a lot of the credit.

"Not every year has been wonderful but there has been a whole lot more good than bad," she said. "Miss Wanda is a wonderful manager and we've made it through the hard times. Until we got this $1 million loan, we had been debt-free for quite a while. That makes a world of difference, too.

"When you're in a slow period and the economy is bad, you know if you have everything paid for you've just got to work to keep your employees paid and their benefits paid."

Looking back

In 1993, Rea, who worked in finance for Tupperware, and Robert Fein, the former Halls plant manager who preceded her as president of Advantage, were early advocates of having displaced colleagues pool their retirement funds and start their own business. Some invested everything they had and others just a portion.

They came up with about $340,000 of seed money.

Rea said she didn't have to hard-sell anyone on the Plan B to start a new company.

"We set up a corporation and rolled the money into a new 401(k) so we were able to invest without taking a penalty," she said. "I bet they're a lot stricter now but back then we could do it."

Rea also said it probably helped that "we had lots of confidence and maybe we were a little naïve."

The group was convinced their training and experience were their best assets.

"Tupperware shut down our plant because of lack of sales in the United States, yet our plant was very efficient," Rea said. "We said let's try it on our own. Our people had molded 15-20 years for Tupperware."

They called their new corporation Advantage Manufacturing.

"We felt it was a good name because we had experience and we could give customers the advantage of quality products and top service," Rea said.

Low-interest loans were sought and approved, including one from the Bank of Friendship. The employee owners bought six 450-ton Impco machines from a dealer, who in a strange twist had purchased them from the Tupperware plant where the group worked. They also bought some new Toshiba equipment.

All the company needed was some space in Friendship, a town of about 600 where they wanted to be based.

"As you know, injection molding machines take a high ceiling," Rea said. "It was a very small community and they said, 'All we've got is a 1920s hipped-roof gym, but you're welcome to take it and turn it into a factory.' "

Jones said everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They pulled out bleachers, tore up the wood floor and poured a cement one. Some of the initial small investors made big contributions in sweat equity.

"With the encouragement and belief everybody had, they did all the labor," Jones said. "It sounds easy but it was a lot of work to get it started. It took us a few months."

Advantage Manufacturing operated out of the renovated gym for 18 months then moved into its current location, where it added on over the years.

Moving forward

In addition to Tupperware items, the company made some small appliances, like humidifiers and vaporizers for Honeywell and Wal-Mart.

"Sam Walton was still alive and he liked things made in the USA," Rea said. "That changed after he died. I think that changed all around."

Advantage also has made toys for Fisher Price, outdoor products, and a promotional tumbler for Burger King made of acrylic. The company runs nylon, ABS, polypropylene, polyethylene and high density PE.

"We've had lots of different clients," Rea said. "We have lost customers over the years but it's always been that they moved to Mexico or to China. We've had the plant full, then we lose a customer to Mexico and then we get another customer."

Her latest effort to grow the clientele centers on plans to retool with all-electric injection molding machines and cut down on production times.

"That's our new niche," Rea said. "Injection molding is usually hydraulic and electric, so the new all-electric machines run faster. We're looking to get more into the automotive industry and the food industry."

When she gets a moment to introduce someone to Advantage Manufacturing, Rea rolls its history and prospects into a catchy little phrase.

"When I do my little elevator speech, I say we started in a gym and now we're a gem of a company," she said.