WASHINGTON — When Don Duncan took over as new president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in February, the group was bruised from its fight with the American Plastics Council and reeling from lost members and lost business units.
Duncan, a former DuPont executive who was tapped for his plastics industry experience, now wants to repair the rift between SPI and APC, as part of building stronger ties with other trade groups, and make SPI's programs more relevant.
The former head of the DuPont Dow Elastomers joint venture sat down with Plastics News in his Washington office June 5 to talk about the direction he sees for SPI, the industry's largest broad-based trade group.
While some of the conversation dealt with efforts begun well before his arrival, such as using satellite television to provide worker training and an internal restructuring to get members more involved, Duncan indicated he wants SPI to develop e-commerce programs, beef up its statistical programs and get more from its regional offices to make itself more relevant.
"What I'm trying to do is come back and deal with the issue around membership," he said. "We have got to make SPI more relevant to its members."
Garth Henry, SPI's vice chairman and executive vice president of M.A. Hanna Co. in Cleveland, said: "I think he's looking primarily to find out what his customers, which are the members of the organization, want. I think in the past we didn't ask enough about that."
Duncan reserved some of his strongest statements on the need to mend fences with the American Plastics Council.
"I think if the plastics industry in North America is going to be as successful as it can be, there has got to be significant improvement in the working relationship between SPI and APC," he said.
In unusually pointed comments for a plastics industry trade association leader, he said the boards of both groups need to reach an agreement to improve relations.
Duncan said he and APC President Ron Yocum have been meeting, and Duncan termed the conversations "most delicate." He said it is too soon to say where the talks might lead. He declined to volunteer an opinion on how the effort is working thus far.
"Somehow or other, with Ron's and my help or with some other way, we have to get those boards to agree that there is a better way to serve the needs of this industry going forward than what we have displayed in the last 12-18 months," he said.
Jay Finch, senior vice president of plastics for Ferro Corp. in Cleveland and a member of SPI's executive board, said that if the groups do not come together, "we'll be in very poor shape to react to a crisis in the future."
About a dozen large resin makers that are APC members left SPI in the past several years. Depending on which side tells the story, it was either to save money or get more leverage in the failed merger talks between the two groups. In total, the departures dropped SPI's annual budget from about $30 million to $17 million.
During the executive search process to find a replacement for former SPI President Larry Thomas, who resigned Dec. 31 after leading the group for 11 years, some SPI members urged the group to hire a resin executive to improve relations with APC. When Duncan came on board, SPI leaders said they hired him because of his industry experience managing the $1 billion DuPont Dow joint venture and his extensive work restructuring the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers when he served as its president.
Duncan praised SPI's staff as "very good people who have been through some very difficult times," and did not say he wants to radically revamp SPI's structure.
He also said the group's ongoing restructuring to focus around teams driven by member companies, which launched in early 1999, is helping SPI work much better. His wife, Betty Duncan, a safety and regulatory affairs manager at DuPont, served on the SPI committee that developed that plan, and she sits on another SPI council.
Since Duncan came on board, he has brought in one of DuPont's in-house organizational consultants to analyze how SPI works. Duncan aides said the effort is mainly to look at things like how the group communicates internally, and not to make big changes.
"I don't know where this is going to lead, whether we're going to tweak a couple of things or overhaul something," he said. "I've got great value from bringing in an outside perspective and somebody who can work with us to help us understand how we can do a better job."
Duncan said the push for more relevance is something the group worked on before his arrival.
"We may have been distracted a little bit by some things going on, but the concept that we have to be relevant to increase the number of members and increase member participation ... has been understood for some time," he said.
The group will continue to work on core activities such as government relations and codes and standards, he said.
But to become more relevant, SPI needs to develop services like e-commerce group-purchasing agreements or programs for members, he said.
"I'm talking about forming relationships with e-commerce organizations that have the capability to bring e-commerce-type practices to parts of, or the entire, SPI membership," Duncan said. "I think there is a role here for SPI to assist in areas where some of our members don't have the expertise or knowledge but where they want to pool their resources."
He said the group also should try to expand its recently announced partnership with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration to safety regulators in other states.
Duncan said he is looking for the group's newly hired director of work force development, Gary Moore, to make recommendations for SPI's worker training programs. Moore was hired in mid-April.
Moore has suggested federal funding sources SPI could tap. Duncan said, "He was aware of things we didn't have a clue of ... I see a whole series of contributions coming from Gary on a continuing basis, some of which we have already started."
Duncan also said he wants to boost the effectiveness of SPI's regional offices. SPI needs to get its five regional offices better offerings to help existing members and draw in new members, he said.
"We have to figure out a way to get them better tools to be able to represent us out there on that front line," he said. "If we need more people, hey, we'll put more people out there. Right now, I'm not sure we're anywhere close to getting the maximum effectiveness out of the organization that is already there."
Paul Appelblom, president of injection molder Jatco Inc. in Union City, Calif., and SPI treasurer, said Duncan seems to want to strengthen regional offices.
"He is the first president that I know of at SPI that has taken the initiative to reach out to people in the regions and address what his vision is," said Appelblom, who has been involved with SPI for more than 20 years. "He is taking what I consider to be a unique initiative."
Duncan also spoke at length about industry productivity trends in the just-completed SPI Economic Report, which found that U.S. plastics processors had not kept pace with resin makers and equipment manufacturers in productivity growth.
Both resin and equipment makers had seen significant productivity growth without adding labor, while processors had not, he said. Duncan said that could be because the processing industry is more labor-intensive than the others, but it still raises a question of industry health that SPI needs to explore.
"Here's where you then start to understand: Is what you are doing competitive, is it good enough, is it headed in the right direction?" he said. "I'm not saying there is a problem in the processor area. I'm not even saying the resin producers are doing the best they could."
Duncan also may emphasize worker safety issues, given his background at DuPont, said Ferro's Finch. While he has not talked to Duncan about it, Finch said that could include developing detailed processor industry safety statistics.
Duncan said statistics indicating the plastics processing industry has a higher injury rate than manufacturing in general is a "great opportunity for us to help our members."
Finally, Duncan said he wanted to see if SPI can work more closely with the Society of Plastics Engineers, including cooperation on NPE conference programs, and he said he has had several discussions with SPE Executive Director Mike Cappelletti about further cooperation.
Duncan said he also plans to talk with representatives of European and Canadian plastics groups at NPE about working together.
"I don't know what they are doing and what might be of interest to us, and I'm more than willing to tell them what we're doing in the hopes it might be of interest to them," he said.
"I do know having spent 36 years on the other side of the table as a member, the internationalization of this industry is a fait accompli, and those who don't understand it will be in great peril."