By: Robert Grace
November 1, 2013
I lost a friend recently. So did the plastics, engineering and design industries. I didn't know Peter Bemis all that well personally, but he still was one of my favorite people in the industry. So I was truly saddened by word of his passing Oct. 9, after a 19-month battle with cancer.
Peter, a 44-year plastics industry veteran, was one of a kind. He didn't suffer fools and he didn't mince words. He made a few enemies and he held grudges. A year and a half ago, Plastics News recognized Bemis Manufacturing Co. by naming it a PN Excellence Award winner for Industry & Public Service. But in the final voting, the firm was barely edged out for our top Processor of the Year Award. When I encouraged Peter to enter his company in the contest again, he responded sharply, "Why? We lost last time." There was no middle ground for Peter Bemis — it was win or go home.
He also didn't speak much to the media, at least on the record. Therefore, I was thrilled when he agreed to sit down for an interview with me in April 2003 in Nashville, Tenn., at the annual conference of the Structural Plastics Division of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., in which his firm had long been very active and won many product design awards.
The lead on my resulting story read as follows: "Many terms could be used to describe Peter F. Bemis — business leader, innovator, activist, philosopher, maverick. The plain-spoken plastics veteran generally shuns the spotlight, but doesn't hesitate to prod or challenge his industry compatriots when given the opportunity.
"The folksy, almost Columbolike demeanor of the Wisconsin native belies that he successfully runs — with his older brother Dick — a progressive, $220 million, family-owned company that had its beginnings 102 years ago as wagon maker White Wagon Works."
Peter never let me forget those words, and pretended to be offended by me describing him as "Columbolike," by which I was suggesting the quirky, absent-minded but brilliant TV detective played by Peter Falk. I stand by the description. I used to joke that, without a proper minder, Peter might have left his house in the morning without his pants,
on his way to solve some intractable molding problem at work.
Peter, who himself held 13 process patents, was an early adopter and a pioneer in many areas, including coinjection and multi¬shot molding as well as statistical process control. He recounted to us a few years ago that SPC was a challenge for him "because, in college, I took business statistics and managed to get two D's in a row." He told his staff to keep it really simple, or else "someone" wasn't going to get it. Even so, he mastered these disciplines well before most others in the industry had figured it out.
Peter innovated with GE Plastics resins and, together with machine maker Milacron Inc., oversaw development of the world's largest horizontal coinjection injection molding press — a 6,600-ton behemoth designed to turn out 8-foot-long, Class-A-finish John Deere tractor hoods that incorporated a recycled resin core. This in a company best known for its wood and all-plastic, injection molded toilet seats that still bear the Bemis brand.
Where others dreamed, Peter did.
Inspired by management guru W. Edwards Deming, Peter bought not only into SPC, but also into the concept of empowering his employees. His approach in that area still today could serve as a useful model for other firms.
I remember Peter telling me how he allowed a certain level of manager to spend up to a certain amount — I think it was $5,000 — to implement improvements in the plant without securing senior management approval, providing that person's entire team agreed it was a useful and necessary action. He recounted how he walked into the plant one day and discovered an entirely new ventilation system had been installed. He protested that such a system clearly cost way more than $5,000. The department heads explained that several managers agreed the new system was needed, so they "pooled" their votes and made the investment. Peter just smiled. He trusted in his people.
In another example of his vision, Bemis Manufacturing remains one of the few U.S. plastics processors that truly values the industrial design profession. In his 2003 interview with me, he explained: "My feelings on the subject are really pretty simplistic. I think the manufacturing and engineering communities that are functional groups within Bemis need to do whatever they can, and take extraordinary efforts, to fulfill the dreams of industrial designers. And then, in balance, the industrial designer has to develop a confidence … that every effort has been made to make it work and trust the engineer [enough] to say, 'He's right, I may be going in the wrong direction.' "
Peter Bemis believed that good product design, groundbreaking technology and motivated employees were the keys to successful U.S. manufacturing. He championed the cause as fervently as anyone. Over the years serving demanding customers such as Deere tractors, Buell motorcycles, Polaris watercraft and Whirlpool appliances, Bemis Manufacturing today generates more than $350 million in sales, with 1,800 employees in six locations worldwide.
In an excellent June 2006 profile of Peter by PN senior reporter Bill Bregar (on the occasion of Peter's induction into the Plastics Hall of Fame), Peter said the key for U.S. manufacturers was to remain relevant, to continually improve and innovate, and to bring value to customers. "To me," he said, "that's a key to continuing success, is to constantly reinvent ourselves."
Peter sadly may be gone from this world, in body, but I can imagine him in heaven, sketching out a diagram on a napkin, suggesting a way to make the pearly gates function more efficiently using some sort of coinjection molded hinge, made on a cube mold with a recycled core. May God bless his soul.
Robert Grace is Plastics News associate publisher and business development director.