Gordon B. Lankton is a man ahead of his time.
When Lankton bought into Nylon Products Corp. in 1962, the company was a regional, $1 million job shop with one injection molding factory. This year, Lankton is looking at $550 million in global sales. Nypro employs 5,500 people at 25 factories around the world.
Along the way, Lankton brought Nypro through industry-leading moves to focus exclusively on big customers in a few markets, and to set up plants around the world. Nypro, based in Clinton, Mass., has managed to stay out in front of other molders by taking chances, said Lankton, who is president and chief executive officer.
Hard work helped, too. Lankton, 69, works six full days a week. He usually gets to the office by 6 a.m. to telephone Nypro plants in Asia. He likes personal contact.
"I'm not an e-mail person at the moment," he explained.
Often on Sundays he hops in a plane bound for far-flung Nypro plants, to Asia or Europe. He logged 200,000 air miles in 1999.
"I probably did more miles than I ever did in one year. I'm going to Russia on Monday," he said in a telephone interview June 1.
Last year Lankton sold Nypro to its employees, through an employee stock ownership program. He and his wife, Janet, have three daughters, who have their own careers in other businesses. Lankton said he doesn't like nepotism, anyway.
"I don't have any plans to retire, but I do have a plan to turn the presidency over to someone next April, which is my 70th birthday. The board of directors is helping me find a president, probably from within" the company, Lankton said. He will stay on as chairman of the board.
Robert Hoffer, who nominated Lankton to the Plastics Hall of Fame, called him "truly a unique, dedicated person in our industry."
"He gives total dedication to this job of running the company," said Hoffer, president of Hoffer Plastics Corp., a molder in South Elgin, Ill. Lankton calls Hoffer, who went into the hall in 1997, a role model.
But Nypro — which Plastics News honored as its Processor of the Year in 1997 — has become the role model for U.S. custom molders interested in going global. Nypro embarked on its strategy in the 1970s, when U.S. industry was still fat and happy, before "global economy" became a buzzword.
The philosophy really dates back to Lankton's now-famous 1956 motorcycle trip from Germany to Japan. But Lankton's connection to the plastics industry starts even earlier, in 1954, when he graduated from Cornell University with a mechanical engineering degree. During one job interview, he saw for the first time plastics parts being produced by an injection molding machine.
"To have something very complex like that, and to see it falling out of a molding machine every 20 or 30 seconds. It was just an amazing new process," he said.
DuPont actually hired Lankton, but first he took a stint in U.S. Army Military Intelligence in Frankfurt, Germany, from 1954-56, to fulfill an ROTC commitment from college. In the height of the Cold War, Lankton said, he worked with spies stationed in what was then East Germany, monitoring the Russians.
He passed a government exam and faced a choice: be a DuPont engineer or work as foreign service officer. That led to the motorcycle journey.
"I decided that one way to make that decision was to go around the world and visit embassies to see what these foreign officers did."
After the trip, he married Janet and settled down at DuPont. But the travel bug bit hard.
"Two years later I was back in India for a week working at a molding plant, trying to do a joint venture," he said.
After two years as a DuPont plastics technologist, Lankton was recruited by Stanley Tools in New Britain, Conn. He was general manager of the plastics division from 1959-62.
Ready to break out on his own, Lankton picked out a manufacturing guy.
"We looked at garages and were about ready to start up. The first thing I did was put a half-inch ad in the Wall Street Journal. It said, `Young engineer interested in injection molding partnership.' I got a phone call from a broker about Nylon Products. That caused me to come up there and have a visit."
Nick Stadtherr, who founded Nylon Products with Fred Kirk in 1955, was having health problems. Lankton negotiated to buy his half of the company in 1962. Stadtherr ended up dying of cancer.
For seven years, Lankton teamed with Kirk to run the company. Lankton bought out Kirk's 50 percent share to become full owner in 1969.
Kirk "had a reputation for being wild," Lankton recalled. He had a big boat and liked to do daredevil stunts in his plane. Kirk drank and smoked, but Lankton said he always got to work on time the next morning, and worked hard.
"The guys that started injection molding companies in those days were something like this," he said.
Lankton said he still keeps in touch with Kirk, who is retired and living in Florida.
In the 1960s Lankton began to shape Nypro, starting profit-sharing and stock bonus plans. He added the first molding clean room in 1978. Then the company bought the hulking old Bigelow-Sanford carpet mill in Clinton and began a massive renovation.
Nypro got a reputation for molding parts nobody else could make — like the tiny nylon strings used by retailers to hold price tags. Nypro became the sole supplier.
"It got to be a $10 million business, and 50 percent of our sales," Lankton said. The customer, Avery Dennison Corp., asked Nypro to build plants in Asia and Europe. It was, Lankton remembers, a key moment that fueled two Nypro strategies: follow customers overseas and work with large customers.
Nypro got hit by the recession in the early 1980s. The company had 800 customers — too many, Lankton reasoned. After much debate, management decided to focus on a few key markets, such as business equipment and medical products. The job-shop approach was history.
"We told the salesmen ... if the customer cannot be a million dollars within two years, don't go after them," Lankton said.
It took five years to change the company's mentality, he estimates.
"All us, including me, were accustomed to going out and, if you could, picking up a mold somewhere, putting it in the station wagon and bringing it in here."
Internationally, Nypro's use of 50-50 joint ventures also fostered the company's unique flat corporate culture that gives the plants plenty of autonomy. Each plant has a board of directors made up of employees from other plants.
"I try to foster the culture that making a mistake is not bad. It's not as bad as making no decision at all," Lankton said.
Bob Hoffer likes how Lankton treats people: "With dignity and respect. Never in a domineering way. You would never guess if you came into a room that is Gordon Lankton."