COLUMBUS, OHIO — Little more than five years ago, Vacuform Industries Inc. was ``having trouble in getting anything done,'' said company owner Dennis Kaufman.
Today the company expects a 20 percent increase in business this year over 1996, and has plans to expand and to acquire new businesses.
The turnaround came late in 1991, Kaufman said.
``Our market was very demanding and we weren't making any progress. I felt our customers weren't the problem, but we were,'' Kaufman said in a recent interview at the firm's Columbus headquarters.
That realization made Kaufman take a hard look at the firm he and a group of investors purchased in 1987, a firm that marks its 35th anniversary this year.
``We quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to change how we did business. Communication wasn't good. We realized we needed to go to a team concept.''
Vacuform, whose business began taking off with producing plastic signage for the national hamburger chain Wendy's, generates about half its annual sales from plastic products. The company would not provide sales figures. It fabricates materials including ABS, polyurethane, polycarbonate and acrylic. Its processes include thermoforming and PU injection molding.
The changes made in 1992 eliminated the customer service, sales, and engineering departments, and instead formed teams.
``Rather than prototype with one team, we formed three or four,'' Kaufman said.
Those teams, given resources and support, worked out their issues together.
``Rather than telling them what to do, they would stop me and tell us how to do it,'' Kaufman said.
The team concept receives full credit for eliminating Vacuform's internal woes in solving problems. Another recent concept moved Vacuform from being ``just a sign company'' into ``total image specialists.'' Kaufman said the company now has a ``high-performance culture, a very flat organization, and a vision of what we want to become.''
Vacuform has plenty of room to expand. With 140 full-time employees working essentially on one shift, Kaufman sees eventual movement to three shifts.
The company's employees sing the praises of Vacuform as a good place to work. The unionized shop workers belong to the Sheet Metal Workers of America.
Bill Jipping, an estimator and team leader, has worked at the plant for nine years and likes the team concept.
``We have a lot of latitude in doing our jobs. Everything's not carved in stone here. We have good relationships with our bosses, and we can walk in their offices and talk about anything we need to.''
Don Kulp, a lead supervisor and coach, said the teams help with scheduling and support workers.
``I love the concept,'' he said. ``It gets away from the traditional manager style, giving everyone freedom to do what they want.''
Doug Szilagyi, a team head, is product manager for the Wendy's account. He has been with Vacuform since 1982.
``We try to keep the groups focused and set goals,'' he said. ``There's not much hierarchy. To get something done, it's pretty easy to cut to the quick.''
President Kenneth Galloway, who joined Vacuform two years ago, said the company hopes to enhance its capabilities through acquisition, possibly in six to 12 months.
Galloway said Vacuform is selling more point-of-purchase products, including items employing rigid PU foam.
``We're clearly moving into the retail sector,'' he said, pointing to recent work with Chrysler and Audi dealerships.
One new plan is designing and implementing a new outside look for Agway stores, a chain of 450 farm and garden stores in 11 Northeastern states.
``We did everything from the survey, to the permitting, to the production of products, including the full installation of the exterior of Agway's stores,'' Galloway said.
So far, 60 stores have been completed, he added.
Agway, based in Syracuse, N.Y., has been a Vacuform customer for 18 months, learning of the company from a retail image consultant. Retail operations manager James Bubnak said he has been ``very pleased with what Vacuform does.''
``Glitches have been worked out over time,'' Bubnak said. ``They've been good to work with.''
Another customer is Rally's Restaurants, a large chain of drive-through fast-food restaurants in the Midwest. Don Gilbert, Rally's vice president for administration, said the company has used Vacuform products for seven years.
``We buy all our signage, menu boards, and canopies for new construction from Vacuform,'' he said. ``We chose them because they've been fair in their pricing and quality. If we have a minor issue dealing with manufactured items, Vacuform always has been quick to solve those problems.''
Vacuform provides a Web site (http://www.vacuform.com) that offers extensive information about the company and its wares. A newsletter on the site describes current and upcoming projects.