Tyson Daniels' journey to plastics company president has followed an unusual path — through the restaurant industry.
The 35-year-old owns and leads the small Allentown, Pa., injection molding company Polymer Contours Inc., which he bought in 2015 after serving as director of operations for a local fast food franchisee with seven stores.
While it might sound like a strange transition, Daniels has always had an entrepreneurial bent and had worked around plastics manufacturing.
Daniels and a partner, in fact, developed an injection molded product — the Pen Pal, a light with a grip that fits around pens to be used by airline pilots in dark cockpits — and they had successfully sourced tooling and manufacturing in China, all while he still worked in restaurants.
"My journey into injection molding was the pilot pen," he said. "We spent a lot of time and money on that. We were producing 5,000 to 10,000 parts at a time and shipping them over here from China."
So, when the opportunity to buy Polymer Contours came up in 2015 — through a conversation with a friend who worked in economic development in Allentown — Daniels jumped on it.
For the first 18 months he operated the injection molding company, Daniels said he kept his restaurant management job before deciding he really needed to focus full time on plastics.
While it's still a very small company, with only four employees and three injection molding machines, Daniels said it's growing. Late in 2017, Polymer Contours began using fully automated, lights-out production for some work.
"Here we are in our fourth year," he said. "We've quadrupled sales; we have gone from one customer to 21 customers. We're running commodity materials to engineering-grade resins. We have automation. We're running lights-out on two of the three machines."
The company is very much a custom molding operation, making parts for other manufacturers ranging from glass-filled nylons for industrial applications to disposable plastic spoons to medical devices that don't require clean room manufacturing.
"People ask me, 'What's your market?' We're whatever you need," he said. Two customers each have runs of more than 70,000 parts a month, but the company also has orders where it may swap out a mold and run parts just for one day.
Daniels' title is president, but running a very small company, he wears a lot of hats. A typical day can range from cold-calling potential customers to, as he mentions in a phone call, tinkering with a mold on a table in front of him.
"I do everything. I do all the processing. We're doing scientific molding at this point. I am an engineer at this point. I wire my robots. I do all the maintenance on machines," he said. "I'm not traditionally trained. I'm trained, I guess, in the school of hard knocks."
Daniels said he's been surprised by the amount of help he's gotten from others in the industry, such as people he's met at conferences who've volunteered substantive advice and connections. He particularly credits Bob Holbrook, sales and marketing manager at additive manufacturer ProtoCam, also in Allentown, and distribution company Chase Plastic Services.
"I think one of the greatest things I've learned about plastics is relationships. I just love the camaraderie," he said. "Being small and not from the industry, I thought I was going to take a hit from that."
Right now, he said Polymer Contours has sales of about a half-million dollars a year. There have been setbacks, of course, and sales targets that have proven overly optimistic.
But he said he'd like to add capacity, noting that for a company the size of his, that means adding one machine to have a quicker response.
"We've hit all our goals," he said. "I mean lights-out alone is such a huge advantage. I don't want to sound like I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, but I think we're on the right path."