SALEM, OHIO — A large flatbed truck, idling outside the Salem plant, carried the future of Worthington Custom Plastics Inc.
On the truck sat a large Milacron horizontal press with a clamping force of 1,500 tons. The press, among the largest at the company's flagship Salem facility, is part of a coming-out party for the "new Worthington" as an automotive supplier of plastic parts.
"If anything, we plan to be more aggressive in the market," said Clifford Croley, Worthington Custom Plastics president and chief executive officer. "The company is already well-positioned. Now, we have the funds to invest in the business and upgrade equipment and technology."
In some ways, the plastic-parts processor has found new vitality. The company always has been a bit of a sleeping giant — about 2,000 employees, sales of more than $180 million last year and three Ohio molding plants, all operating with similarly spacious, 250,000-square-foot buildings.
Until late May, the company had been part of Worthington Industries Inc., a Columbus, Ohio-based steel-processing firm with $1.6 billion in annual sales.
In April 1998, Worthington Industries said it would sell or spin off the plastic-parts segments of its business to focus on its steel products.
Although Worthington's plastics operations were good performers, the company decided the plants needed a larger financial commitment to remain competitive, said equity analyst Mark Parr of Cleveland-based McDonald Investments Inc.
"The company determined that (Worthington Custom Plastics) needed to be much larger, with greater resources, to be an effective long-term player in the market," Parr said.
But for more than a year, no buyers came forward for the three automotive plants that were part of the company's Worthington Custom Plastics subsidiary.
According to sources, several interior-parts giants expressed interest, but backed off.
Meanwhile, Worthington took the plastics plants off its balance sheet, citing them as discontinued operations. Some equity analysts wondered whether the plants would shrivel from lack of attention inside Worthington.
"At one time, (Worthington Industries) wanted to market both plastics and steel to automotive customers," said analyst David MacGregor of Cleveland-based Midwest Research. "I don't think it played out that well. Long term, they never wanted to be the largest injection molding company."
Meanwhile, this spring, Worthington Industries sold its nonautomotive molding plants to Morton Industrial Group Inc. of Morton, Ill., and unloaded a steel foundry.
For the automotive plastics plants, the wait ended May 27. The operations were sold to a group of private investors that includes Croley, 14 former Worthington managers and Key Equity Capital Corp., a venture-capital company affiliated with Key Corp.
The group formed a new holding company, WCP Holdings, to manage the plastics processing facilities. The sale price was not disclosed.
The company has wasted no time infusing Worthington Custom Plastics with greater financial muscle. During the next two years, an investment of $22 million will be made in new molding presses and robotic manufacturing cells. That figure also includes an upgraded paint line at its Mason, Ohio, plant.
About $11 million will be invested during the next year. Plans include four new 1,500-ton presses for the Salem plant, which produces instrument-panel bezels, grilles and front and rear exterior lighting. The first press was unloaded June 23.
Worthington Custom Plastics currently has 125 presses with clamping forces of 125-3,500 tons.
It also plans to move more aggressively with technology. Worthington's main customers, Detroit-based General Motors Corp. and Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Automotive Systems, are asking their suppliers to add more value to parts, Croley said.
On that end, the Salem plant makes in-mold, decorative appliques that attach to instrument panel skins. Those appliques, vacuum formed in the plant from ABS film, are adhered to the skin during injection molding.
The process creates a luxurious surface finish for low-end vehicles, with a wood-grain look the most common.
The plant also chrome-plates its lighting products by adding a reflective top coat. The vacuum metalizing process is done in sealed, rotating bins, where aluminum pieces adhere to the lamps.
Now, Worthington officials would like to share that technology with the automotive world. The company already has a sales and engineering office in Troy, which it will use as a launching point to reach automakers.
Broadcasting the firm's plastics capabilities will be a change from its old ownership, Croley said.
"To say (the plastics operation) was low-profile might be a bit of a stretch," he said. "It almost had no profile."
With the renewed marketing focus and investment, Worthington Custom Plastics expects sales of more than $200 million this fiscal year, which ends May 31, Croley said.
No acquisitions of outside companies are planned. At least in the near term, the company will stay centered on internal growth, Croley said.
"The industry is solid and so are our plants," Croley said. "We think with what we have already, we can make our mark."