SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - A chance meeting 12 years ago in France turned entrepreneurial plastics molder Merheg Cachum into an association man. Last month, that secondary career path reached its pinnacle, with Cachum assuming the presidency of Associacao Brasileira da Industria do Pl stico, or Abiplast - a 27-year-old group that represents the interests of more than 6,000 Brazilian plastics processors.
It was in 1983 when Cachum, then a 22-year plastics industry veteran with his own custom injection molding company in SÃo Paulo, was delayed at a Paris airport.
``I started talking with others waiting for the flight to Brazil. One of them was Feres Abujamra, then president of Abiplast,'' Cachum recalled in a May 16 interview in the association's headquarters in the center of SÃo Paulo.
Speaking through an interpreter, Cachum said he had been aware of the trade group, buthad never participated.
His airport discussion with Abujamra, who in 1983 oversaw the launching of the first biennial Brasilplast exhibition, boosted his interest in the association, and Cachum decided to get involved, initially as an alternate member.
After Abujamra completed his presidency, Cachum served as secretary and vice president to Celso Hahne, who held Abiplast's top post for nine years, before association bylaws changed to limit the president to two three-year terms.
Now Cachum - a physics graduate and engineer born 57 years ago - is in the driver's seat.
He is guiding Brazil's huge plastics processing industry, which consumes on average some 3.3 billion pounds of thermoplastic resins a year, through a critical period of change.
``Brazil is going through a transition now,'' said Cachum, referring to the process of lowering trade barriers begun in 1990 by former President Fernando Collor de Mello, and to Plano Real, the bold, 11-month-old economic plan named for Brazil's new currency, the real. This plan has given Brazil, for now at least, a degree of relative economic stability.
Inflation, which ran rampant at 40-50 percent per month in early 1994, has hovered since last August between 2-3 percent a month, and stayed steady as Brazil's new business-friendly president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, took office in January.
It truly is a time of change in Brazil, a country of 153 million people, and Cachum sees his role as one of preparing the country's plastics processing sector to compete globally.
He enumerated several key issues for Abiplast to tackle during his tenure: equipment financing, interest rates and taxes, worker training, and industrystatistics-gathering.
Cachum said that Brazil's 6,000 plastics processors are running about 45,000 processing machines, of which 80 percent are more than 10 years old. To compete, the country's molders and extruders must upgrade their equipment - but to do so, they need the government to revamp some of its policies.
He explained that the current system for small and medium-sized companies to finance equipment purchases is very bureaucratic. It calls for firms to pay for 20-30 percent of the value of the equipment up front, and allows financing only for a three- to five-year period.
``For small and medium-sized companies, five years is very little time,'' Cachum noted. ``Our aim is to try to ... obtain full financing for the machinery. If we can get this, then we will have the ability of changing very quickly to high-tech technology.''
Additionally, the government's measures to cool the economy's growth by restricting credit are coming at a very inopportune time for the industry. Inflation now is running at 2.3-2.5 percent per month, but banks are lending money at 8.5-10 percent per month.
``This is absurd,'' said Cachum, who noted that these economic policies are interfering with the industry's development.
He claims that, as a result of the effect of these policies on Brazil's consuming public, the country's plastics industry will process 10 percent less resin in May than in April. If current trends continue, Abiplast projects consumption may drop from May to June by 25 percent. Cachum said his association will work with the government to try to obtain more favorable conditions for processors.
Additionally, Cachum aims to encourage the government to alleviate some of the cost pressures brought to bear on the nation's processors via the current multitude of intermediary taxes on raw materials. Such changes, he suggested, would help Brazilian companies to export products by making them more competitive.
The new Abiplast chief said he also recognizes the industry's acute shortage of skilled labor and intends to make a priority the development of more and better technical training programs.
Finally, he notes the need for improved communication and collection of data. Cachum said the industry lacks the statistics and data necessary to provide an accurate picture of its true status. He wants to encourage the collection of such information, while also creating a monthly newsletter that will provide current updates on issues of relevance to the industry, such as new and pending legislation.
Plastics News correspondent Richard Higgs contributed to this report.