ASHLAND, OHIO — Workers at Hedstrom Corp. got a much-needed boost with a shop-floor ISO celebration Feb. 23, an award from Toys "R" Us and news that the rotational molder is investing more than $1 million in new equipment.
This all comes while Hedstrom's parent struggles to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
"This is a testament to the strength of the individual employees we have here. We've been through a lot of adversity," James Braeunig, vice president and general manager, said at the ISO 9001 certification party at Hedstrom's Custom Plastics Division in Ashland. Known as Plant 2, the operation became ISO certified Jan. 31.
ISO certification is becoming common in some plastics sectors, such as injection and blow molding. But Braeunig said only a handful of rotomolders are certified.
Braeunig said the rotomolder's parent company, Hedstrom Holdings Inc., hopes to emerge from bankruptcy this spring. Last April, Hedstrom Holdings filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The company cited poor sales at its Amav Industries Inc. subsidiary, which makes pool tables, air-hockey boards and children's games.
Hedstrom picked up Amav in 1997 when it bought ERO Inc. That deal more than doubled Hedstrom's size but brought trouble when Amav lost a major project, then fell into debt. Hedstrom ended up closing Amav last year.
In a speech at the ISO party, Braeunig said the company's two Ashland factories were not responsible for the bankruptcy.
In Ashland, Plant 1 molds most of the play balls sold in the United States. Plant 2 gave tours to local dignitaries, showing off its custom products, such as fuel tanks, medical carts — even mortuary boards used by funeral homes. During a plant tour, the blue board used to carry corpses drew nervous chuckles from onlookers.
Hedstrom's 300 employees make it the fourth-largest industrial employer in Ashland.
Ashland Mayor Douglas Cellar paused before digging into a lunch of chicken and ham, an event staged in the factory.
"We had some concerns when they filed for Chapter 11," he said. "But they have made some substantial investments in the last two years in the city. When you see people investing, you assume they're here for the long haul."
Braeunig's speech was upbeat.
"I'm here to say that we're alive and well and growing, and we're going to continue to dominate this marketplace and the toy industry," he said.
Toys "R" Us delivered its Vendor of the Year award to Hedstrom at the International Toy Fair, held Feb. 11-15 in New York. The retailer recognized Hedstrom's full range of products — balls, swing sets and sleeping bags. Even under Chapter 11, "We did the pricing. We did delivery. We never skipped a beat," said Mark Lasko, controller for the Ball, Bounce and Sport Division.
Meanwhile, the company announced the following investments:
Hedstrom's first computer numerically controlled router, a $170,000, five-axis Quintax from Ferry Industries Inc., began running in mid-January. Charlene Wilson, group leader at the custom molding plant, watched the router trim a large green flower pot. "I ran that part this morning, and I did 300 planters in four hours," she said. Trimming them by hand would have taken 10 hours.
Hedstrom also will buy a Ferry Rotospeed 330 machine, with five independent arms, for its custom molding operation. The rotomolding machine, expected to cost about $320,000, will be Hedstrom's largest. The firm wants to expand its plant by 40,000 square feet to handle the machine.
A new, $600,000 line has been ordered for color printing and lacquering of 4-inch-diameter play balls.
Braeunig said the router and new rotomolding machine are part of Hedstrom's strategy to become stronger in custom molding. This year the company expects custom work to bring in $2 million in new business, he said.
Hedstrom ranks as the sixth-largest rotomolder in North America, with rotomolding sales of $54 million, according to the most recent Plastics News data. Custom molding accounts for about $7 million of that total, Braeunig said.
To compete, Braeunig said, the company will import some products from China, such as sewn balls. But Hedstrom remains committed to Ashland, he said.
"The challenges that we face are very, very serious. But I'd rather have this group than any to work on it," he told employees.