Before most people their age have chosen their life's work, these ambitious "youngsters" — the oldest is 40 — already have made tremendous strides in the plastics industry. They've developed new materials, implemented substitutes for traditional steel products, improved medical science and headed teams of industry insiders. No one holds a crystal ball, but colleagues predict that by the time these men and women retire, they will have left their mark on our future.
They are a few of the up-and-coming — the rising stars of the plastics industry's 21st century.
At only 27 years old, Jeff Biesenberger is working to change the face of the automotive and building products markets.
As the senior process engineer at Geon Co. in Avon Lake, Ohio, Biesenberger is developing new compounds. He is part of Geon's strategy to diversify beyond PVC, using his knowledge of polyolefins as a starting point.
Biesenberger came to Geon more than two years ago from American Leistritz Extruder Corp. in Somerville, N.J., where he worked in processing for three years and performed lab extrusion trials.
His interest in plastics comes at least partly from his father, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and former president of the Polymer Processing Institute.
When the younger Biesenberger took a summer internship to work on nylon and injection molding, his future was sealed.
Exactly what that future may entail, in the long run, Biesenberger doesn't know. But he would like to remain in chemical engineering for five to 10 years, pursue his MBA and then transfer to the business side of plastics.
While everyone else is pushing computerization, Karl Van Blankenburg wants to get back to the basics.
As the executive vice president of American Team Inc., of Harrison Township, Mich., Blankenburg constantly searches for ways to help fellow mold makers. But he doesn't focus on high-tech machinery.
"The only thing a lot of shops may look at is computeristic," he said, while it's really the basics and the original philosophies of injection mold making that provide value.
When a customer asks for faster cycle times or quicker lead time, "We have a tendency to say, `We're doing the best we can. We've been doing it this way for years,'|" Blankenburg said.
He prefers to have an open mind and accept that mold making can be more efficient.
Through his position as president of the southereastern Michigan chapter of the American Mold Business Association, Blankenburg encourages "Old World craftsmen" to consider new options.
"If we don't accommodate them, somebody, somewhere in the world, will," he said.
Blankenburg often encourages machine shop executives to seek advice from their employees on how to improve the business.
"Everybody has access to a computer. Thinking power, that's the real high-tech machinery you have," he said.
The plastics industry has come a long way since Blankenburg's introduction to injection molding 35 years ago, when his father, Karl Blankenburg, started ATI.
As the elder Blankenburg retires in the next few months, Karl Van will take over as president. His plans are to keep pushing mold makers to think progressively.
They call him the "Polymer Guy."
And, since Bill Blasius, a research director at Clariant Masterbatches Division in Holden, Mass., decided to forget everything he ever learned in college to enter the plastics industry, it's not a bad nickname to have at only 40 years old.
"I started off in [agricultural] research and realized I was gonna starve to death doing that kind of stuff," he said.
So he used his background in molecular biology to get a job at Chesebrough-Ponds (which is now a division of Unilever), working in the packaging industry.
"It all kind of makes sense in a twisted kind of way. If you can do biology, you can do polymers," Blasius said.
It must have been the right choice, because from there, Blasius moved on to various large companies to research polymers.
One of his first accomplishments was to develop a polypropylene-covered manicure stick, which traditionally was made of wood.
"We had to figure out a way to coat wood with PP so you could dip it in acetone and it wouldn't swell," Blasius said. The PP manicure stick remains in wide use nearly 20 years later.
Since then, Blasius held on for the ride.
He holds four patents for the development of new acrylic copolymer materials, one being Bylar.
Bylar is a transparent ABS that is used in, among other things, medical applications and crisper drawers in refrigerators, he said.
Developing various PVC compounds, thermoplastic urethane alloys and adhesives has been a mainstay in Blasius' career.
"I like to find clever little ways to turn things around," he said.
After nearly 20 years in the business, Blasius continues to innovate.
The meaning behind his nickname at Clariant goes back to the colorists. Blasius instructs them on the properties of various polymers and helps them figure out why a colorant may or may not work with certain polymers.
Right now, the development of multipurpose colorants are consuming his time. Traditionally, colorants must be tailored to each different polymer, he said.
What are his plans in the coming years?
Blasius said he would like to find a way to make color concentrates without putting them through extruders, eliminating mixing, polymerization and volatility problems.
Just over a decade ago, automotive manufacturers were installing heavy, steel fuel filters that, when fuel flowed through them at high speeds, were retaining electrostatic charges that could have caused an explosion.
About that time, Anne Bolvari, a 1988 Virginia Tech graduate, was hired on at LNP Engineering Plastics Inc. in Exton, Pa. One of her first tasks — and still one of her greatest accomplishments —was to develop a statically dissipative material for automotive fuel filters.
What Bolvari designed was a conductive, chemical resistant nylon 12 filter that was 80 percent lighter than steel. The filter now is widely used by automakers.
Another of her inventions is a line of lubricated composites that eliminate the need to use a fluoropolymer lubricant on machinery. The Lubriloy line is popular with Europeans, she said, because it is illegal to incinerate any products there that contain polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE.
After 12 years in the plastics industry, Bolvari, now 37, recently was promoted to application and product development manager at LNP.
In her latest position, she will oversee chemists as they invent new materials. But she will continue to direct the projects and come up with her own innovations.
As she gets settled in as a manager, Bolvari wants to take a step back and look at the larger picture of getting products to market faster.
"Now that I'm a step above the day-to-day issues, I can look at `What is a cycle and how can we shorten that,'|" she said.
Mark Deming, 34, got his start in a machine shop as a second-shift extruder operator fresh out of high school.
Originally he had enrolled in college, but his then-employer, Isothermal Systems of Riverside, Calif., handpicked him to manage injection molding operations on first shift.
"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Deming said.
>From there he dropped out of college to spend his spare time learning more about plastics.
It paid off.
Deming eventually moved up to a product supervisor position at Baxter Healthcare, which bought Isothermal, where he oversaw injection molding, extrusion and assembly.
Six years ago, he signed on as project manager at Universal Plastic Mold Inc. At Baldwin Park, Calif.-based UPM, Deming helps customers find new materials for their concepts and helps them design and build the tooling, he said.
"I work a lot with new and existing customers from concept to production. [And] I've done everything without a four-year degree," he said.
Deming said, however, that he regrets dropping out of college, and he's scouting universities in Southern California that will allow him to earn an engineering degree with a focus on injection molding.
His ultimate goal is to design products for injection molding, and help customers see how the process can turn their ideas into reality.
"There's all kinds of designers out there, but the parts don't lend themselves to the injection molding process," Deming said.
Peter Hatchell, the 39-year-old president of the Hudson-Sharp Machine Co., likes to think of himself as a high achiever.
During his 17 years in the plastics industry, he has focused on plastic bag manufacturing.
Hatchell has helped develop machinery that improved the cycle times, production and efficiency of making zipper bags. He also holds numerous patents on technology that is used in manufacturing everything from diaper bags to trash bags to bread bags, he said.
"I like to solve problems, not be a propeller head, [because people] think you're some kind of technical geek," Hatchell said from Hudson-Sharp's Green Bay, Wis., headquarters.
His "desire for accomplishment" continues to drive him to think of ways to improve the plastic bag industry.
While trying to stay as hands-on as possible as the captain of Hudson-Sharp, Hatchell also stays involved in industry associations like SPI's Film and Bag Federation.
Hatchell said he concentrates right now on improving the quality of life for his employees and understanding customer needs. However, his ultimate goal is somewhat larger.
"I want to own the company," Hatchell said of Hudson-Sharp.
Riverside Co. acquired Hudson-Sharp in 1998 and has plans to sell it in the next several years, he said. Hatchell and other executives hope to strike a deal.
"They want to sell it to the highest bidder and we want to be that bidder," he said.
In his 17 years with DuPont, Jim Hay, 37, has held an array of management positions and bounced around from plant to plant doing everything from making chemicals to marketing.
Last year he came back home to Mississauga, Ontario, to serve as the business director of engineered polymers in Canada and to oversee DuPont's Canadian operations.
In his latest position, Hay plans to implement organizational strategies he helped develop as product manager at another DuPont plant. He considers that his highest accomplishment at DuPont.
Hay said he helped his employees become more interested and comfortable in their jobs by basically letting them be their own bosses.
"I'm not telling people what to do every minute of every day," he said.
The results were a more efficient plant in which each employee followed a project through from start to finish. Employees worked with the customer, suppliers and even solved their own personnel issues, getting away from the tradition of stationing each employee at a certain machine or having them perform only one task.
"They were doing all kinds of interesting things besides just riding on a piece of equipment. People have a lot more talent than people give them credit for," Hay said.
Though the idea of eliminating supervisors and foremen is not new, Hay believes organizational concepts are key to running an efficient facility.
"These [employees] understand better what's going on in the operation. Let them help lead the business," he said.
Hay also is working on getting DuPont to behave like more than a materials supplier. "I like to think of our role as being in the business of helping to create, support and supply," he added.
As a project manager for three years at Van Dorn Demag Corp. in Strongsville, Ohio, Scott Kroeger stayed in tune with the market and pinpointed areas that needed improvement.
At 34, he recently has been promoted to director of marketing overseeing the company's three project managers.
What got him there?
Kroeger will tell you one of his best projects rose out of the realization that there was a "need for smaller machines with larger specifications, more energy efficient, more flexible in terms of applications."
He also heard the cries of many manufacturers that wanted better lead times and easier production.
Three years ago, Kroeger helped invent the Caliber Series two-platen machine. The graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, saw the plan through and worked on all assets of the project, from engineering to purchasing.
"It started out as a white piece of paper. It's nice to see a plan come to fruition," Kroeger said.
As he settles in as the firm's new marketing manager, Kroeger plans to keep his fingers in the mix by continuing to monitor the market and its inadequacies.
Helping meet the needs of molders "is always going to be a focus of mine," he said.
Kroeger is earning an executive MBA at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
At 22 years old, Mark Lieberman noticed there wasn't much recycling of durable thermoplastic products.
With all the interior plastic parts included in cars, there must be an underlying opportunity, he thought. And that was the start of American Commodities Inc. in Flint, Mich.
Fast forward 15 years, and ACI is now a global firm, with a joint venture in Germany and dreams of expanding into the Far East, said Lieberman, ACI's 37-year-old chief executive officer.
Lieberman, who was a marketing major in college, decided to scrap that vocation after he realized the potential recycled plastics had in the auto market.
"I was seeing an industry that was growing at such tremendous rates but it wasn't efficient. I had a desire and goal to build an organization with capabilities of recovering engineering thermoplastics that have never been recovered before," he said.
Leiberman recently won a Product of the Year award from the Small Business Association for a bumper he helped develop that incorporates recycled content. He said his firm specializes in finding applications for recycled ETPs that are cheaper, but perform better, than virgin resin.
"We recycled material at high levels without any worries of quality," he said.
Lieberman envisions a 100 percent recycled car — but meantime he plans to work on recycling computer parts, recreation equipment, lighting and electronics.
Al Power was tossed into the plastics industry by mistake in 1984. Now, he's the 37-year-old president of Decoma International Inc.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from Technical University of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, Power obtained a job at a General Electric Co. plant in Canada, where he thought he was going to work on metals.
However, when he showed up for work, the company placed him in plastics.
>From there, his career took off.
In his three years at GE, Power held many positions, from tooling and engineering to maintenance supervisor. Then he went to work for Decoma in Concord, Ontario, where he rose from project engineer to project manager in his first six months.
Six years later, at 30 years old, he's in the president's seat at the automotive exterior manufacturer.
"My career has been a rocket," Power said.
"I attribute some of it to being in the right place at the right time," he added. "I've always been able to build a good team of people around me."
Power likes to motivate his 9,000 employees and "knock down the walls for the people around me," he said.
Though he never had any official education in the plastics industry, Power is confident in his ability to run an injection molding machine and to understand the business as a whole.
"I'm a firm believer in you have to be hands-on in whatever industry you're in," he said, although he admits he doesn't have much time for that these days.
Meanwhile, Power has set a plan in motion to expand the public company into Europe while becoming recognized as the top auto supplier of exterior plastic parts. He already has achieved his personal career goals and said he will be happy retiring from the presidential throne at Decoma in 25 years.
"I treat this like it's my own business," he said. "Why would I want to be anywhere else?"
Glenn Starkey remembers being in his dad's office at the family's machine shop at age 5. While dad was finishing up paperwork, he would hand Glenn plastics magazines to look at to keep him busy.
Now, 30 years later, and almost by accident, Glenn Starkey heads his own global tooling company: Progressive Components Corp. in Wauconda, Ill.
Glenn's dad started the business in the basement of their home, and it served as a hobby. When the elder Starkey decided 10 years ago to close the business, Glenn and his brother Don, now 41, offered to buy it, Glenn Starkey said.
"Dad was looking to fold this and move on to something else but we saw some potential in it," Starkey said.
Careful planning and a general love of the tooling industry has taken the business from the basement to five U.S. offices and six other countries in only a decade.
"A key part of our reasons for growth is that we've established a plan and have worked that plan step by step," he said.
Starkey predicts his firm will top $18 million in sales this year.
Because he's been in or around the trade his entire life, Starkey realizes how much the plastics industry has changed.
Automation and foreign trade are making it more challenging than ever before, and he wants to help mold builders realize their potential and place in the market.
As a board member for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Moldmakers Division, earlier this year Starkey led a group of mold makers and U.S. Department of Commerce representatives on a trade mission to Asia.
Starkey is spreading the word about how important it is to compete in the global market through a seminar he designed and called, "The American Mold Builder."
The presentation, which he makes to mold makers, stresses the importance of courting countries in Europe, South America and the rest of the world for their business.
A biomedical engineer by training, Karen Winkler, 32, has become one of Dow Chemical Co.'s leading designers.
With just 10 years in the work force under her belt, Winkler is the medical industry manager for Dow's global Engineering Plastics Division.
The Florida native became interested in plastics because of its potential in medical devices. After graduating in 1989 from the Rensellear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., she was hired at Dow — as a trouble-shooter .
>From there, she was sent out to assist customers with technical product development.
"I still got to use my engineering skills but was able to work with the customers. The most fun I get out of my job is working with customers — I get the biggest high out of that," Winkler said.
Perhaps the most memorable medical device she has helped develop is now widely used in endoscopic vein harvesting.
During open-heart bypass surgery, a vein is taken from the leg and used to create a new route for blood to the heart. After surgery, patients often complained of severe leg cramps related to the vein extraction — because doctors had to make an incision spanning the entire leg.
Winkler helped develop the product that allows doctors to pull the vein out through a small, 2-inch cut, eliminating much of the pain.
"I really want to have a passion for whatever I work on. I can't think of a more noble mission than being able to positively impact the patients," she said.
A recently elected vice president in the Society of Plastics Engineers, she plans to focus on making SPE meetings efficient and worthwhile for its members.
Being one of SPE's youngest board members, Winkler believes she has an advantage: "I want to make sure they think about things in today's terms. I want to keep everybody's minds open and keep them thinking creatively."