WASHINGTON — Don Duncan took over as president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. with a clear mission: Restore the grandfather of the industry's trade groups.
A year later, membership remains depressed and a tough economy in 2001 will not make rebuilding easier. Still, by most accounts, Duncan has helped put Washington-based SPI back on the right track.
"There is only so much he can do in a year," said Maureen Steinwall, president of injection molder Steinwall Inc. in Minneapolis and a member of SPI's board. "He had to stop the slide before you can climb back up."
The soft-spoken Duncan, an avid stock-car racing fan who was at the Daytona Beach racetrack the day Dale Earnhardt died, has not reshuffled SPI in any major way. But he has beefed up its work-force development programs, improved relations with the American Plastics Council and taken steps to bring in more members.
"When I came in here a year ago, the charge I had was pretty simple: Re-establish SPI, its presence, its reputation within the industry," Duncan said.
Several SPI board members said Duncan has helped to do that. Angelo Firenze, president and chief executive officer of Adaptive Instruments Corp. in Hudson, Mass., said, "The words I would use are stabilizing, confidence-building."
David Hidding, another SPI board member and vice president of Dana Molded Products Inc. in Arlington Heights, Ill., said: "I think there are very positive impressions I've gotten out of SPI board members.
"They are very happy with the strides made to put SPI in a business footing and looking at problems in a cost-benefit way."
Still, Duncan said SPI's membership hovers between 1,600 and 1,700 companies, well below the 2,000 it had several years ago. Some of that decrease is the result of industry mergers, SPI officials said, but the group also lost a significant number of resin company members and business units to APC in the past few years. At one time, SPI officials accused Arlington, Va.-based APC of stealing members.
Duncan now says the two trade groups are making good progress on working together. They recently signed an agreement to work on codes and standards and are negotiating a formal pact to team up on Food and Drug Administration regulatory issues.
The codes and standards work is key because increasingly, as plastics supplant more traditional materials, there is a risk that suppliers of different resins will start to snipe and wind up doing more harm to the overall industry, Duncan said.
"Because of the success of plastics, the competition is not with natural products — it is with ourselves," Duncan said. "This puts even more premium on making sure our participation in the codes and standards area is effective for the plastics industry as a whole, and we don't wind up shooting each other."
Further cooperative agreements could be reached on state government issues, he said, where the two groups used to share resources formally, but split apart when relations soured. Duncan said SPI and APC continue to work together at the staff level and have cooperated on day-to-day issues.
Duncan downplayed suggestions that the groups should merge, as they once tried, saying it's more critical for them to cooperate. He said he and APC President Ron Yocum have a friendly working relationship. Both men have backgrounds with large resin companies: Yocum with Dow Chemical Co. and Quantum Chemical Corp., and Duncan with DuPont.
"There is very little, if I wanted to call up Ron and have a candid conversation, that I couldn't talk with him about," Duncan said.
Still, SPI is not without challenges.
Hidding said membership is still down.
"We had hoped last year was the end of it, and it didn't turn out to be. We've seen some huge growth in regions, [but] net membership is down," Hidding said.
Duncan said SPI has a goal of adding 60 new members this year and is on track to do that. He pointed to some major new members: Basell NV, the world's largest polypropylene maker; and North America's largest compounder, PolyOne Corp.
But none of the resin companies that left SPI in favor of APC have rejoined, he said.
In its continuing effort to build back up and launch more business-oriented programs, SPI under Duncan's tenure has expanded its satellite-based worker training program, hired a full-time person to run its work-force initiatives and set up partnerships with state workplace safety agencies in Michigan and Indiana, with more planned.
SPI is looking at trade missions to Mexico and possibly Eastern Europe, he said.
The satellite training program has 340 participants in Florida alone, with a waiting list there. Members have requested that it be expanded to include thermoformers, he said.
Duncan said he had hoped to have an e-commerce initiative in place by now, but the roller-coaster changes in that market are making it tough to move forward.
Duncan, who was president and chief executive officer of DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC before joining SPI, said he understands that companies increasingly are questioning the relevance of all trade associations.
The tough economy is making it harder to get companies to travel to meetings, for example, he said.
A recent meeting of resin and processor councils in SPI set aside time to talk about the economy, and the general theme was that North American sales in 2001 will be down 10-25 percent from 2000, Duncan said.
"There is going to be tremendous emphasis on maintaining market share and protecting margins as best you can," Duncan said.
Duncan, who commutes weekly to Washington from his Delaware home and lives in different hotels in the city when not on his frequent trips for SPI, said the lean economy puts that much more pressure on SPI.
He noted: "It's more important that we can create an environment where people have this compelling desire to contribute."