Tom Plein's success is inextricably linked to plastics. It didn't begin that way, however. Plein, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business with a degree in finance, was working for a finance company in the San Francisco area when his boss asked him to move to Southern California in 1982 and manage a proprietary manufacturing company called Al's Machine Shop.
The finance company wanted to sell the nearly bankrupt firm after its owner defaulted on loans — but it wanted to sell a going concern rather than a failing one. The company machined PVC pipe nipples and slip-fix pipe repair couplings for sale to the irrigation industry.
Plein got the small company — which had a large market share — up and running again, successfully supplying the irrigation industry with products. Then he bought a small share of it in partnership with a large workers' compensation insurance company. The insurance company's top executive had been in the plastics industry during the 1940s and 1950s, and still had a soft spot in his heart for the business.
Injection molding had been part of AMS' manufacturing mix all along. However, after Plein became a shareholder in 1983, he began searching out some custom molding. At that time, AMS had 12 presses of 1970s vintage. In 1990, AMS purchased its first new presses — five Toyos — and entered the custom molding business in earnest.
By 1992, AMS Plastics Inc. was doing $3 million in custom injection molding, and $4 million in sales of the proprietary irrigation products. Plein then decided to buy out Fremont General, the insurance company. He sold off the irrigation product line to a company in the Midwest that is a large supplier to the irrigation industry, purchased the balance of AMS shares and entered the custom molding business.
Today, AMS boasts almost all new equipment and does a little more than $10 million in sales annually. Plein finds the industry to be both challenging and fun. As a graduate of a top U.S. business school, does he believe that he is representative of the new era of plastics company owner?
``It's not just in our industry,'' Plein commented. ``It's every industry. You need to know how to run a business if you're in business. You have to be able to bring all aspects of the business together, and I just put things together and bring the right people in.''
Plein doesn't like to take much credit for the company's success, and points to the technical people and production workers for making it all work. His humility extends even to his refusal to have his picture taken.
Plein said the people he respects most are the ones who, like Mike Daasnes, AMS' general manager of the El Cajon plant, ``came up through the molding ranks.''
The one advantage he sees to being relatively new to the plastics industry is that he brought with him a completely unbiased view of the industry.
``I had no preconceived notions about what the plastics industry should be,'' Plein said, ``but I like being in this industry.''