Agri's new leader following in dad's footsteps

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Agri Industrial Plastics Co. Lori Schaefer-Weaton succeeds her father, Richard Smith, as president of Agri-Industrial Plastics Co. Smith remains as chairman.

Opening day at Agri-Industrial Plastics Co. was a family affair, and not the ceremonial kind, with founder Richard K. Smith cutting a ribbon across the door of his blow molding plant in Fairfield, Iowa.

Everyone rolled up their sleeves to fill the first order.

Daughter Lori Schaefer-Weaton, who was 11 at the time, her mother, Judy Smith, her brother Brian, and a young visiting cousin were on the inaugural assembly line back in 1978. They made water dispensers for piglets for Kane Manufacturing Co. Inc., which sells livestock products.

"We lived with the boss and we were all put to work," Weaton said during a telephone interview, then paused and laughed. "I don't think my cousin David has ever been back after that vacation."

Now 46, Weaton is doing a lot of reflecting about the business and looking ahead. AIP marked its 35th anniversary in September. Kane Manufacturing is still a customer among many others. And, she is taking over as president Oct. 1.

"Yes, the title president is important but what's more important is the entire team we have at Agri," Weaton said. "We have a lot of continuity, a lot of longevity and a lot of talent so I'm just one of many positioned to move the company forward."

AIP is a custom blow molder of mostly large parts like non-automotive fuel tanks for snowmobiles, watercraft, lawn and garden equipment, and the agricultural industry. More than 150 employees use about 400 active molds to make products of all shapes and sizes, including food storage containers, office furniture, grass chutes and highway safety devices.

Some of the products are designed and tweaked by AIP's engineering department — a field where Dick Smith had worked for big companies like Monsanto before he struck out on his own. Weaton said the family was behind him all the way.

"He's a very hard-working, steadfast person so our family — even though it required some sacrifice like second-mortgaging our house — never recognized the risk because he was so passionate about what he was doing," she said. "He had such faith about the path he was on. That made it easy to believe in it."

Weaton said her father's know-how gives AIP a history rich in innovation and makes her proud to be part of "the Dick Smith legacy."

"Early on in the company we spent a lot of time creating new applications for blow molding by creating products that were made out of metal, wood or other materials," she said. "That was an exciting time for the industry because we were pushing the limits of traditional blow molding and we were convincing end-customers to consider blow molding as a viable option."

Weaton came to see innovation as collaboration.

"We sit down. We smooth out some corners. We change the design a little but we always step up to that next challenge. It pushes us, it pushes the customer and together that makes innovation," she said.

On the flip side, AIP has many sophisticated OEM customers that come in with full-blown concepts and drawings. Weaton said they're more interested in consistent manufacturing.

AIP's 20-acre campus has 25 industrial blow molding machines, including two new Kautex KBS241 and KBS61 Smart machines. They went into production last year to keep up with demand for multilayered small-engine fuel tanks made of high density polyethylene.

AIP often goes with Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH, ordering five units in the last eight years from the German machine maker.

The need for a skilled workforce to run machines that cost up to $5 million each makes Weaton a big advocate for education, especially two-year community college programs in robotics and industrial maintenance. She tries to reach out to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular.

"There's a returning military that I think is such a huge pool of talented and disciplined people," she said. "They know how to train and get a group to move in the same direction."

As she takes over daily operations, Weaton expects a smooth transition. She has been business development director at AIP since 2004. That's when she gave up a corporate technology service position in Chicago for her family to experience small-town Iowa. She and her husband, Nate Weaton, have five children ages 7-13.

Before that, she worked at AIP during her summers off from Fairfield High School and Valparaiso University. She took away some handy business lessons.

"It really afforded me the opportunity to understand manufacturing in general and the challenges that come with keeping an operation running 24 hours a day," Weaton said. "I also got to appreciate the concept of making something and to meet great employees, many of whom are still here today, including some of my high school buddies. They're now in supervisory roles here at Agri. It's a great kind of community story."

About 10,000 people live in Fairfield with its sidewalk cafes and art galleries not far from cornfields. Weaton is president of the Fairfield Economic Development Association. She also sits on an advisory board for Project Lead the Way, which uses private funds to offer an engineering curriculum to middle and high school students. AIP is one of the financial supporters of the program designed to let students earn college credits as they learn about 3-D modeling, digital electronics, control systems and sensing devices.

Weaton also made a video testimonial for Elevate Iowa, which is trying to attract and train the next generation for jobs in advanced manufacturing. If she can convince more young women that manufacturing is a viable career path, from human resources to the plant floor, that's all the better.

"As one of the few girls in manufacturing, I believe strongly that helping these kids excel in high school builds their confidence to try something that is not typical for a girl," Weaton said.

"We need to get out the word that these are great careers with solid companies."