ELBRIDGE, N.Y. (Oct. 30, 11:50 a.m. EDT) — 1982 was not a good year for Henry Beck and Tessy Plastics Corp.
The economy was slumping. Resin prices were up. And business was down at Beck's company, founded with a partner nine years previously.
As Beck and his wife, Helga, took a walk, they discussed selling their upstate New York home to raise more capital and keep the custom injection molding business afloat.
Beck had laid off employees for the first time in his life and was down to about eight presses at the Elbridge plant.
"It was a difficult time," said the 66-year-old Tessy president. "We had so much money in the company, and it would have been lost if we were forced to close. That's when I decided to give up my side machine business and concentrate on Tessy."
And concentrate he did, with a laser-sharp focus on hiring the right people and preserving the company's attention to detail and quality.
The result, as they say, is history. On Oct. 17, Tessy was named Plastics News' 2000 Processor of the Year.
The award was given as much for the company's ability to tackle the truly tough projects, using stalwart employee-motivation techniques, as for its impressive sales growth.
"We like to say that we mold the products with significant technical challenges," said Joseph Raffa, Tessy vice president and general manager. "A lot of times, customers have approached other molders but have been turned down."
The family-owned company has racked up an impressive list of customer accolades for its work. Hanging on the wall of its rural offices — across the street from an apple orchard and adjacent to nearby dairy farms — are plaques citing patents for products on the market and numerous awards from its end users.
The customers are across-the-board industry leaders in many segments. They include Xerox Corp., where Tessy molds and assembles parts for ink-jet printers; Ericsson SpA, which handed the company its first cellular-phone contract; packager Pactiv Corp.; and medical-parts maker Welch Allyn Inc., located nearby in Skaneateles Falls, N.Y.
The work has been demanding, with most products involving tight tolerances and high precision. And the processes have included silicone overmolding, two-shot molding, gas-assist injection molding and a clean room in Elbirdge.
"It's quality and customers first," said Neil Hoselton, plastics commodity manager for Welch Allyn. "The basic philosophy is to take care of your people and meet customer needs. If you can focus on those two things, as Tessy does, a lot of good can happen."
Tessy has always been about people. Beck, a German immigrant from Munich, can be tough but fair. He demands a lot from his staff but never to the breaking point, said Bill Foster, Tessy's manager of polymer technology and a 16-year employee.
"The work ethic is very strong here," Foster said. "Henry (Beck) is a genius at getting the right people in the right job. He's not formally trained in clinical psychology, but he's certainly a keen judge of people."
Beck, a former service and sales engineer of mold making machine equipment, knows how to push employee buttons. When new employees are hired, he has their pictures taken. When they celebrate a birthday or anniversary, he makes a point to personally wish them well.
With close to 1,000 employees at four locations — including new plants in Ireland and China — the task is not easy. So Beck sometimes consults his book of photos to find the person matching the picture.
The company makes a point to do the little things, such as keeping the presses and plant floors as clean as someone's kitchen table. Boxes are always stacked neatly, sometimes obsessively so in criss-crossing rows.
Large electronic signs on the plant walls, emblazoned in orange lettering like those at a college football game, announce when a press is down. And when not broadcasting that, employee birthdays or anniversaries are posted in the lights.
"I've been in a lot of plants, but Tessy's is one of the cleanest I've seen," said Xerox technical specialist and program manager Robert Russell, who nominated Tessy for the Plastics News award. "And how progressive it was to see three (automated) machines running with one operator. They're actually doing what a lot of companies talk about."
The little things also stretch to employee satisfaction. Beck, a health enthusiast who likes to ski, bicycle and climb mountains, offers employee discounts to join a local health club.
Tessy, a non-smoking workplace, pays for employees to quit smoking, including nicotine patches, hypnosis and gift certificates if the person kicks the habit for six months.
A nature trail snakes along the back of the tree-lined property. And a holding pond — full of algae-eating fish — provides reserve water for the local fire department in an emergency. Employees can cast a line at breaks, as long as they throw the fish back.
Employees are given wellness days off each quarter if they do not miss work. Absenteeism is less than 3 percent, and turnover is under 2 percent for the company.
"We select people that care about work and enjoy working here," said Beck, who has sought engineers from the United Kingdom. "From the moment a person answers the phones to the moment someone comes in the door, we want that (attitude) to permeate the organization."
The proof is in the work, according to several customers. For Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv, the company helped develop the slider opening for the second generation of Hefty one-zip bags, a part lower in weight and molded at half the original cost, Beck said.
Tessy has followed Xerox by opening nearby facilities in Dundalk, Ireland, where it opened a plant in February, and in Shanghai, China, where an assembly plant was launched in May.
While the Shanghai plant is only 16,000 square feet, more than 150 employees have been added at the labor-intensive facility.
For Welch Allyn, the investment has been personal. Tessy inspects, packages and ships Welch Allyn single-use, medical disposable items in Elbridge and shares a warehouse with its medical customer there. Its computer system is tied to Welch Allyn's. When an order comes in, it ships out within 48 hours, Beck said.
The relationship stretches further. Welch Allyn was Tessy's first customer when Beck and partner Al Bauerschmidt founded the company in 1973. Its 92-year-old chairman, W.G. Allyn, sends Tessy a fruit basket each year at Christmas.
"There's a very open feeling between the companies," said Hoselton at Welch Allyn.
And for Ericsson, Tessy opened a plant near an assembly facility in Lynchburg, Va., in 1997 to mold cellular phone housings and assemblies. Its first foray in telecommunications has impressed Ericsson, said David Griffith, director of volume management for Ericsson USA, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
"Absolutely, they are a worthy company (for Processor of the Year)," Griffith said. "The only issues we face with them is that they are family owned and a bit conservative."
Global expansion could be in Tessy's future. The company has built a strong organization, with sales expected to reach close to $100 million this year, up from $73 million last year. Profit is strong, and debt is low.
Henry Beck would like eventually to pass the business to his three sons — Roland, Ken and Ralph — and let them make the expansion decisions. Henry Beck already is beginning to slow down. Since January, he has attended few of the daily, 8 a.m. staff meetings to discuss pressing issues. He travels more. The sons know they must continue the commitment to quality and employees, said Roland Beck, Tessy executive vice president.
"We don't want to make a move that jeopardizes quality or service to customers," Roland Beck said. "We want to keep the old-fashioned values of giving the customer what we promised and on time."
Still, the company is considering moves into Brazil or Mexico, where Ericsson is building plants, Henry Beck said.
Beck started the company as a side business after coming to upstate New York as a sales and service representative for a Swiss mold machinery importer. He eventually formed Beck Machinery Corp. in Skaneateles, N.Y., selling milling machines and other equipment.
With three young boys to raise, he decided to open Tessy in the farming community of Elbridge, about 20 miles outside Syracuse, N.Y.
The name came both from a Thomas Hardy novel, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," a favorite of Beck's wife, Helga, and from the name of the daughter of his business partner, Bauerschmidt.
Beck bought out Bauerschmidt in 1978. Today, Tessy has 135 presses at its four plants. In 1982, during the economic slump, Beck closed his machinery company.
Since January 1999, the company has spent $9 million in Elbridge and $4.5 million in Lynchburg to expand those plants and add equipment. Elbridge, the flagship plant, now boasts 150,000 square feet.
Tessy would like to expand its customer base, too. Xerox is undergoing financial troubles, although its ink-jet division is relatively strong. About 92 percent of Tessy's sales come from 10 customers.
Meanwhile, the current work has meant 24-7, round-the-clock activity. Engineering is, and always has been, a key component.
"It's been quite a ride in my 16 years here," said Foster, who helped develop clarified polypropylene and other specialty materials for Tessy customers. "The evolution has been interesting. Everyone has a job to do and is very busy at it. There's no room for deadwood."
Driving Tessy is its technical expertise. And the key to that is service to customers and good treatment of employees. Each Valentine's Day, the company gives every employee an African violet with the words "Tessy Loves You" on the flower pot.
Beck hopes that, by extension, those employees pass on that love to Tessy customers in the form of quality work.
"We have to care about our people, so our customers can feel it and taste it," Beck said. "When customers come here to develop new products, they need us to provide something useful to them."