EVANSVILLE, IND. — Wild horses — armed with lucrative tax deals — couldn't drag Matrixx Group away from its home in Evansville.
The compounding firm, formerly known as Replas, will consolidate its three Evansville facilities into a single site on U.S. Highway 41 late next year, but that decision wasn't made without first considering tempting offers from Kentucky and Tennessee.
``Other sites were saying `Just let us know what you want,''' Replas Executive Vice President Keith Rodden said in an Oct. 13 interview in Evansville.
But for Matrixx and its owner, Evansville plastics veteran Ray Wright, it came down to a matter of people and places.
``Our employees are the backbone of our company and to risk losing a significant number of them by moving somewhere else was an unacceptable risk to us,'' Rodden said. ``And in terms of plastics consumption, we're in the heart of the country. The Ohio/Indiana area probably accounts for 40 percent of plastics consumption in the U.S.''
As evidenced by the commitment shown by Matrixx, the plastics industry has maintained a solid profile in the tri-state area of southwest Indiana, southeast Illinois and northwest Kentucky since T.J. Morton launched one of North America's first injection molding businesses in Evansville in 1935. This profile has kept up the pace as Evansville has grown into a city of 130,000 people in a metropolitan area of 350,000.
Between 1990 and 1995, jobs in the plastics and rubber industries increased 25 percent in a 14-county area in southwest Indiana. By comparison, the average gain in overall manufacturing jobs in the area for the same period was 6.1 percent. The plastics and rubber industries employed 6,460 workers in 1995 — 11.5 percent of the total manufacturing work force.
In the Evansville metropolitan area, which includes three counties in Indiana and one county in Kentucky, the 4,800 jobs in the plastics and rubber industries account for 15.2 percent of all manufacturing jobs. That percentage stayed the same between May 1996 and May 1997, although the number of overall manufacturing jobs dropped 2.8 percent.
Overall, plastics and rubber jobs ranked third in the 14-county area in 1995 and fifth in the Evansville metro area as of May 1997.
And many of the businesses enjoying this continued prosperity can follow their family trees — in whole or in part — to Hoosier Cardinal.
Morton already was running Hoosier Cardinal, a major supplier of refrigerator parts, when he imported an injection molding machine from Germany in 1935. He imported two more in 1936, the same year he purchased the second U.S.-made injection press.
Hoosier Cardinal, which no longer exists as such, prospered through World War II, when its metallic vacuum-plating process was used to make plastic bubbles for gun turrets on bombers. Post-war prosperity sent many Hoosier employees off on their own. The largest such group formed Kent Plastics Co. in Evansville, which later spun off Mid American Plastics Inc. in Mount Vernon.
Other surviving Hoosier-related companies include Moll Plasticrafters, a major supplier to Evansville-based Whirlpool Corp., and the plastics business triumvirate of Crescent Plastics Inc., Wabash Plastics Inc. and Cresline Plastic Pipe Co. Inc., all of Evansville.
Cresline ranked 13th in Plastics News' 1996 ranking of pipe, profile and tubing extruders. Crescent held down the No. 69 spot in that same ranking. Combined, the two businesses racked up about $180 million in sales.
Fiberfil Inc. a Hoosier Cardinal venture into the reinforced-thermoplastic market, has gone through several ownership changes since the early 1950s and now does business as DSM Engineering Plastics. Complas Inc. — also owned by Matrixx's Wright — split from Fiberfil before being acquired by Ferro Corp.
GE Plastics added to this plastics momentum in 1960 by choosing Mount Vernon, a town of 7,000 about 15 miles west of Evansville, as the site for its manufacturing plant. That facility is now the world's largest production site for polycarbonate, which GE sells under the Lexan name. The company has 1,700 employees and uses 1,000 acres of land in Mount Vernon.
Berry Plastics Corp., with 650 employees in Evansville, is another major player in Evansville's plastics scene. The company ranked among North America's top 25 injection molders in Plastics News' 1997 ranking with more than $150 million in annual sales, including large positions in aerosol overcaps, open-top containers and drink cups.
Berry traces its roots to Imperial Plastics, which was founded in Evansville in 1967. Imperial was purchased by Florida real estate developer Jack Berry Sr. in 1983.
The company is a recent success story, as four acquisitions in the past year have swelled its total holdings to nine plants nationwide, employing almost 2,000 and operating 190 injection molding machines. In Evansville alone, Berry has added 300 workers since 1991.
But that was then and this is now, in Evansville and throughout the Midwest.
Several plastics executives interviewed recently provided an all-American list of Evansville's virtues, which would sound too good to be true if the area's employment figures didn't back them up. That list included access to the Ohio River, highway access via U.S. Highway 41 and Interstate 64, and a skilled work force other states only wish they had.
``The reason we're here is history,'' said Stephen Hartig, vice president of marketing and sales for DSM Engineering Plastics, which employs 300 in Evansville.
``We've decided to stay and we've continued to grow,'' Hartig added.
``Speed to our customers is also very important to us,'' he said. ``And the work force here has a strong work ethic and pride in American products.''
Berry Plastics also has stayed in Evansville because of the area's tradition and work force, company President and Chief Executive Officer Martin Imbler said in a recent telephone interview.
``We've reviewed other locations and possibilities several times and Evansville usually comes out toward the top of the list because of the work force,'' Imbler said.
``And when you think about it, we're extremely well-located. We're equidistant from Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville and St. Louis and only five hours away from Chicago by truck.''
William MacIver, marketing director for Ferro's filled and reinforced plastics division, which has about 230 employees in Evansville, drew attention to the city's proximity to Ferro's central customer base, as well as its quality of railroad, airport and highway access.
In Mount Vernon, Robert Balke, product manager for GE's Lexan line, pointed out the Evansville area has prospered even in the absence of a dominant raw material.
``There's not a lot of synergy from a raw material standpoint,'' Balke said. ``But there's a very skilled industrial work force.''
``Logistically it's fantastic,'' added Mike Brown, product manager for GE's Valox and Xaloy engineering plastics lines. ``We can get most of our raw materials by barge on the Ohio River or by trucks.''
The career of Ferro General Manager Steve Edge is almost a microcosm of the plastics industry's growth in Evansville. In a recent telephone interview, the Mount Vernon native recalled his plastics debut in what was, to put it mildly, an entry-level position.
``When I walked on the GE site in Mount Vernon in 1961, I was a 19-year-old kid who had been working on a farm the day before,'' Edge said. ``I was the 48th employee they hired and they had me scraping Lexan off a ribbon.''
Edge would stay at GE for 19 years — working as a color matcher, extrusion foreman and technical service engineer — before moving to Ferro in 1980. He has enjoyed similar success at Ferro, as the company's glass-filled compounds have seen growth rates of 20 percent in each of the past three years.
Edge listed Evansville's location, work force and transportation infrastructure as factors that have supported the region's continued growth.
The two-year plastics manufacturing technology degree offered by Evansville's Ivy Tech State College is another sign of the industry's attachment to the area, according to Edge.
The program, launched in 1994, is based on a curriculum designed by GE and other area businesses. That curriculum includes courses in injection molding, extrusion processes and fluid power basics.
The program's low graduation rate — four graduates in four years — is misleading since many students are hired by local companies before completing their degree requirements, according to Ivy Tech spokeswoman Rosi Weatherwax. Forty-three students are enrolled in the program.
The vitality of Evansville's plastics businesses isn't tied solely to their aggressive marketing or superior products, according to Kate Northrup, director of the business assistance group for the Metropolitan Evansville Chamber of Commerce. Northrup maintains that the relatively small size of many of these businesses has played just as important a role in their survival.
``You have to have flagship industries, but for a community to have long-term health and prosperity, you need smaller, midsize manufacturers,'' Northrup said. ``We've been seeing growth in businesses with fewer than 350 employees — manufacturers who don't have a staggering overhead so they can survive in lean times.''
``It's almost like a mall, where you need anchor stores, but you have to have other stores to fill the mall and bring in business,'' she added.