As the new Society of Plastics Engineers president, Norman S. Behn expects to spend 45 days away from home this year, touring Europe and several U.S. cities for the 36,000-member group.
It sounds like fun — except that Behn also has to run his one-man sales company out of his house in Fort Wayne, Ind. Behn is Alltech Sales Co.
``Right now it has just me as an employee,'' he said.
Behn, 56, used to employ a secretary, but now technology keeps him in touch: an answering machine, car phone, e-mail and voice mail.
``I found that I could sit down at a computer and type it out as fast as I could dictate it, for the most part,'' Behn said. ``I do my own editing. I just found that it was more efficient to do it myself.''
Behn won't have to travel alone on his SPE trips. His wife, Cherie, who teaches high school physics, chemistry and math, has taken time off to accompany him. They were together at the April Annual Technical Conference in Atlanta, where Behn became 1998-99 president.
Cherie Behn isn't one to take the ``spouse tour'' at conferences. ``I have an interest in science and education. I went to the [plastics] museum demonstration at Antec. It's neat. I'm a very hands-on teacher.''
She also helps judge SPE's annual high school essay contest. She has attended two K shows in Germany.
The two met while pursuing advanced chemistry degrees at the University of Kansas. She jokes: ``I had the lab across the hall.'' They got married in 1965.
Norman Behn earned his bachelor's degree from Ripon College in Wisconsin in 1963, then went straight through at UK, earning a doctorate. He went to work in Wilmington, Del., as a research chemist, focused on high-temperature plastics. He quickly moved over to the technical service side for DuPont Co.'s nylon and acetal resins.
``That got me into contact with customers, because I was going out in the plants, doing [research and development] testing in the plants. As a result, I ended up becoming a field service tech rep, then in 1971, I was transferred to Fort Wayne by DuPont. I had my own sales territory,'' Behn said.
Three years later, he quit and went to work for his largest customer, National Plastics Corp., a Fort Wayne custom molder. Behn was vice president of engineering. He stayed until 1986, when he formed Alltech.
Alltech is affiliated with the Troy, Mich., sales firm Engineered Product Sales Co.
Behn represents eight manufacturers, including two blow molders, one profile extruder, a silicone molder, and a blow molder. On the nonplastics side, Alltech handles a metal stamper, a metalworking company and a firm that makes sensors and switches. That diversity helps.
``I may have to go see two or three different buyers, but within the same company I can sell plastic parts or metal parts, all in one stop.''
Since he works on full commission, if Behn doesn't sell, he doesn't eat.
``The good part is that as long as I'm keeping my customers happy, I still get my commissions. Most of my sales are not one-time purchases. They're long-term. I sell a part that's sold all year long so I get commissions all year round.''
Behn supports SPE's embrace of the computer. Through the society's Web site — www.4spe.org —visitors can buy books, become a member and get contacts at divisions and sections. Through a secured intranet system, SPE members can get more detailed information such as membership lists.
Behn said the computer could change dramatically how SPE works. For example, committees will post their reports online. One section even has broadcast a monthly meeting over the computer, using a video camera.
The world of technology has changed drastically since 1969, when Behn, urged on by his boss at DuPont, signed up for SPE. One thing remains the same: the value of face-to-face meetings with industry colleagues.
``Even today I feel I get my money's worth out of SPE, in contacts,'' Behn said. ``If a customer calls me with a question and I don't know the answer, I know who to call where I can get the answer, usually within an hour or two.''