COLUMBUS, OHIO — The low-key approach is history at PH Group Inc. and its Trueblood insert molding machines.
Charles T. Sherman, chairman, president and chief executive officer, wants to raise the profile — and raise cash for expansion or an acquisition — at the Columbus-based machinery company that makes Trueblood-brand insert molding machines for plastics, St. Lawrence Press compression molding machines and PH Hydraulics for metal stamping.
PH Group, publicly traded on the Nasdaq Electronic Bulletin Board, expects sales this year to top $14 million. Shipments in 1996 were $9.1 million. A decline on metal-forming presses was offset by Trueblood plastic molding machine sales, which more than doubled to $3.9 million.
Sherman said the company expects Trueblood injection press sales to increase 25 percent a year for the next three years, and to surpass the company's PH Hydraulics business in 1999.
``Right now, Trueblood's got presses scheduled to ship in to February. That's how good orders are going,'' he said. As of mid-October, the backlog for Trueblood machines was about $9.5 million. Through the first nine months of this year, new orders totaled $6 million, a 60 percent increase over the full year of 1996.
Trueblood machines come in clamping forces of 30-350 tons, with a C-frame or four-tie-bar design, and with either rotary or shuttle tables.
Earlier this year, PH Group expanded into the compression molding side of plastics equipment by picking up St. Lawrence Press Inc. of Romulus, Mich., a firm that makes large compression molding presses for processing sheet molding and bulk molding compounds.
``We believe we can offer one of the widest ranges of injection molding machines with vertical clamp,'' Sherman said.
Until recently, Sherman has taken a conservative approach to marketing the Trueblood line.
He founded PH Hydraulics in Columbus in 1987 by purchasing the hydraulic press line of another company.
In 1990, the firm bought family-owned Trueblood Inc. and moved it to Columbus from Tipp City, Ohio.
But Sherman moved slowly. He was not happy with the insert molding machines and ended up completely redesigning them.
``We pulled the machine basically off the market totally. We would only sell the machine to existing Trueblood customers until we designed the new machine.''
Sherman also wanted to make sure the company could maintain the machines properly. He concentrated on customers within 500 miles of Columbus.
``We held down sales artificially until I got the new model completed.''
The key year was 1994, when PH Group introduced the redesigned machine. Sherman, an energetic, intense man, fired his sales manager and the entire sales staff. He went on the road, calling on customers to get feedback on the new press and learn firsthand about the plastics industry.
The old Trueblood press ran with relay switches. PH Group added computer controls, replaced the hydromechanical clamp with a fully hydraulic clamp and made the frame thicker to reduce deflection.
For two years, Sherman was the only Trueblood salesman. Finally, in late 1996, he switched from go-slow to full speed ahead. He hired a national sales manager, Robert Thompson, and began a more aggressive approach. Thompson's background in plastics included positions at Sandretto Plastics Machinery Inc. and Hunkar Laboratories Inc.
Then, just before NPE 1997 in June, Trueblood announced its largest single order ever: 17 insert molding machines sold to two of General Motors Corp.'s Delphi units. The total sale was $4 million. Sixteen of the machines went to Delphi Energy & Engine Management Systems, where they encapsulate ignition parts and mold engine connectors and other engine parts. One Trueblood press went to Delphi Steering Systems, where it injects plastic around a metal sleeve for a steering gear on GM's Magna-Steer variable power-assist gear.
Since NPE, Delphi Steering Systems has ordered two more Truebloods.
That type of repeat business has Sherman confident about the future. Since 1994, according to Sherman: ``Every time we have sold a machine to a customer, the customer's come back and bought repeat machines. We've never lost a customer.''
Thompson has built a network of 80 manufacturers' representatives.
PH Group turned out 195 machines, both metal-forming and plastics insert molding presses, at its Columbus factory last year, Thompson said. Although the company does provide total dollar sales for the two types of machines, it does not break out unit sales for each category.
The company employs 72 in Columbus and 20 at St. Lawrence Press in Romulus. A dozen of the employees are engineers.
PH Group likes to promote its Trueblood machines as heavy-duty presses, built not with castings but with thick, all-welded frames.
``There's a lot of structure there,'' Thompson said on a recent plant tour, pointing to a machine under construction. ``You can't beat a welded frame.''
Columbus plant employees do the frame welding, and milling of some major metal components, such as the mounting part for the index table, in-house. Trueblood presses use Ferguson drive units to power the index tables.
According to Sherman, management is on the verge of a critical decision — how to raise $3 million to $7 million for expansion. Sherman said the money could be used to fund an acquisition, add manufacturing space or boost marketing efforts.
On the acquisition front, he said, PH Group would like to buy a company that can supply automation systems for its presses or a tooling supplier to make machine fixtures.
PH Group executives are considering several options, including issuing more stock or using a debt instrument that would be convertible to stock.
Sherman said they should make a final decision by the end of the year.
About 900 shareholders hold PH Group's stock. Sherman and four other company officials own 52 percent of PH Group's shares.
The others in this core group are Bob Binsky, a PH Group board member and chief executive officer of Cable Link Inc. of Columbus; Michael Gardner, PH Group's chief operating officer; Theodore Schwartz, PH's senior vice president of sales; and Kenneth Warren, secretary at the machinery company.