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Prism builds its base through steady effort

By: Gary Angelbrandt
CRAIN'S DETROIT BUSINESS

March 10, 2014

Prism Plastics LLC in the Detroit suburb of Chesterfield Township opened for business in 2000 and has since entered the supply chains of eight companies, all in the automotive industry.

Vice President Jerry Williams said the goal he and his fellow co-owners of the precision injection molding company have in mind when they set out to break into a new supply chain is to win over one key person.

And you have to be willing to put in the time to do it.

Usually the person sought is someone from engineering, quality, R&D or development who will visit Prism's factory, which allows Prism to show its capabilities.

To get to those people, they have to go through purchasing.

If Prism can get the interest of a purchasing agent, that opens the door to get an initial quality assessment, showing the customer that they meet the requisite industry standards.

"Then the best part is the technical side (people), who say, "These people can help us with trouble jobs.' Then it becomes a little easier to get a contract from purchasing," Williams said.

Prism gives the buyer reps -already-made parts that are similar to what the buyer is expecting to need. In some instances, Prism does a short trial run or a prototype run.

But it's that first hurdle — purchasing — that's the trickiest.

A good day is when it so happens that somebody within Prism already has a connection to the buyer, be it Williams, who had experience in plastics molding before opening Prism, or an employee who worked at the target company in the past.

If not, then it's time to hit the phones and pound the pavement, trying to get the attention of a purchasing agent. Prism on any given week is working on about 12 companies this way. The expectation is not that it will win deals with all 12 — that would overload the company — but maybe one or two.

Leaving voicemails, unannounced visits, dropping off business cards — these are the tactics at this point.

Williams said there's a fine line between being persistent and being a pest, but it does help to keep things light: Say you understand the buyer gets hundreds of calls like this, and don't get a short tone about the lack of a call-back.

Yes, there is a lot of trial and error. "There's no secret sauce," he said.

Deals can happen in as little as a few months, but that's usually from a company that already knows Prism. A cold-called company deal takes a year or two to develop the relationships and credibility.

It took about a year to go from first call to production when Prism entered the supply chain of Nexteer Automotive Corp., a -Saginaw-based maker of automotive electric power steering systems and formerly a part of Delphi Corp. and General Motors.

The way was smoothed by a new salesperson who knew someone at Nexteer through previous industry work. She had an entryway that made it easier for Nexteer to say, "We'll listen to your spiel," Williams said.

Even so, it took six months and a prototype run to first gain Nexteer's confidence. It was almost another six months before official production began last year, a lesson for rookie businesses that these things aren't done overnight — even when there is a trusted connection.

Prism is producing a dozen molded parts for Nexteer now, and Prism's revenue has steadily climbed since 2009 as it methodically works its way into new chains. Last year, Prism brought in $24 million in revenue, up from $18 million the year before and well above the $5 million it posted in 2009.

The company's next move is to move into the aerospace and medical device industries. Williams said the company expects that, as in automotive, it will be a matter of meeting and forming relationships with the right individuals at prospective customers.

"Breaking into a new area like aerospace or medical device, I honestly believe we have to find that right body. From there, we can perform," Williams said.