BRIDGEPORT, CONN. — If a wheel is spinning on its axis, and the axis suddenly is taken away, what happens to the wheel?
That was the question employees and customers of Apollo Packaging Inc. had to face on Sept. 3, 1998, when they learned that the Bridgeport-based injection molding firm's two owners — Leonard Kleinman and Robert Kokoruda — as well as Vice President Michael Gambone had been killed the night before in the crash of Swissair Flight 111.
All 229 people on the flight perished when it crashed into St. Margaret's Bay off the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. The cause has never been determined, partly because the last minutes of voice and data recordings were destroyed in the crash. Canada's Transportation Safety Board is expected to finish its investigation and issue a final report on the crash later this year.
The loss of Kleinman, 58, was most devastating to Apollo. Kokoruda's tooling business had worked with Apollo, and Gambone, 38, was in his third year with the firm, but Kleinman was indisputably Apollo's heart and soul.
Kleinman acquired the company, which was then located in Rockville, Conn., in the late 1960s — ironically, after its original owner, David Luginbuhl, died in a private plane crash. Kleinman had joined Luginbuhl as a co-owner less than a month before Luginbuhl's fatal crash.
Kleinman transformed Apollo with help from cosmetic industry contacts he had established during his tenure with injection molder Fairfield Plastics of Fairfield, Conn. The company changed from a molder of spray-top lids for aerosol cans and other industrial products into a solid provider of powder boxes and deodorant sticks to the cosmetics industry. Apollo's roster of clients included Estee Lauder and L'Oreal, which bought products that Apollo molded from polystyrene and other styrenic-based plastics.
There were plenty of molders bigger than Apollo — which was posting annual sales of about $7 million in 1998 — but few where there was such a direct link between an owner and his employees.
"Lenny was down-to-earth — he talked to everybody almost every day," said machine operator Benny Affricano, who joined Apollo in 1979. "If you had a problem, he was the first guy you went to."
"Len always had a great deal of confidence in his people," added Ruth Hildebrand, who has been a machine operator with Apollo since 1972. "And he'd bend over backward for customers."
Affricano and Hildebrand are good examples of the devotion Len Kleinman could inspire in people. When Apollo's Rockville site finally closed late last year, Hildebrand moved right over to the Bridgeport site, even though it's an hour and 15 minutes away from her home.
Affricano's drive is longer, taking him two hours from his home in southern Massachusetts.
Kleinman's concern for his employees went beyond just saying hello at the water cooler, said Robert Anderson, president of Unique Multidec Inc., a product decorating firm that occupies part of the Apollo building.
"If you needed a doctor, he'd find you one," said Anderson, who was friends with Kleinman for 30 years. "And I know for a fact he helped one guy buy a house by giving him a loan."
As if Kleinman's profile wasn't high enough in the eyes of his employees, he rescued Apollo from bankruptcy in the early 1990s. He had sold the firm to outside investors in the mid-1980s to pursue other business interests, but the new owners saw the firm quickly run into trouble, longtime employees said.
After reacquiring Apollo, Kleinman took steps to expand the firm aggressively. He opened a second site in Bridgeport and doubled the number of injection presses by buying the assets of Shore Plastics on Long Island, N.Y.
Kleinman's death was all the more difficult to take since he and his wife were originally scheduled for the previous flight but had changed their plans so they could fly with Kokoruda and Gambone and their wives. The group was traveling to Europe to follow up on a business deal with a French company.
Kleinman also had little time to appreciate the new manufacturing and office space he had helped design in Bridgeport. Apollo had moved into the new facility less than a year before the crash.
Several Apollo staffers called each other the night of the crash after seeing news reports on television. Others did not find out until they arrived for work the next morning and saw local TV vans in the Apollo parking lot.
A lot had to be done — and done quickly. That's where Kleinman's son Adam came in.
Adam Kleinman had left Apollo a few weeks before the crash. He had worked there several months before deciding the injection molding business wasn't for him.
But now, hours after learning of the deaths of his father and stepmother, he was back at the business. Robert Kokoruda Jr. and his sisters Jackie and Donette also pitched in, although neither of them had been active in Apollo.
Customer relations manager Lisa Henri and warehouse manager Joe Wills each credited Adam Kleinman and Bob Kokoruda Jr. with keeping the firm together in the tense days that followed the crash.
"They both took a lot of responsibility, which a lot of people wouldn't have done, especially since this business wasn't their dream, it was their dads'," Henri said.
"Adam really stepped in, even though he didn't know a lot about the plastics business," said Wills, who joined Apollo in 1995.
Adam Kleinman could not be reached for this story. Bob Kokoruda Jr. did not respond to several telephone messages.
Employees also gave a lot of credit to operations manager Lynn Falkowski, a longtime employee who left the firm in December, with keeping things running smoothly.
Customers had to be called and reassured that their orders would be processed and completed in spite of the tragedy. Apollo lost only one day of production in spite of the death of Kleinman, the man who had called the shots.
Finding right buyer
But it soon became clear that the Kleinman and Kokoruda heirs had no plans to stay involved with the company and were looking for a buyer. Kleinman wanted to pursue a writing career in New York, while Kokoruda owned his own construction business in Bridgeport and now had his hands full with his father's primary business, Acson Tooling.
Adam Kleinman took on the task of handling day-to-day operations at Apollo. He began to receive offers for the company almost immediately, but, to his credit, did not accept the first check that was handed to him.
"When [Adam] went to sell, he was very concerned about us and our jobs," Henri said. "He was looking to sell the company and keep our jobs intact."
"[Adam] turned away companies that wanted to restructure our business," she added. "He received dozens of offers and could have sold and got out very quickly, but he didn't."
The right offer would come along in June 1999, nine months after the crash. SKM Applied Technology Partners, a Radnor, Pa.-based investment group now known as ATP, was assembling an injection molding empire in the northeastern United States and had its eyes on Apollo.
"We had looked at Apollo before [Len Kleinman's death] and thought it would be a good fit for our health and beauty segment," ATP Chief Executive Officer Raymond Langton said by telephone. "When we looked at it again [in 1999], we thought it was still in good shape. It wasn't in free fall, but it had lost momentum because of Len Kleinman's death."
The road ahead
Moving forward, ATP plans to keep Apollo's identity intact, even though it is moving into a new facility that it will share with Nadel Industries LLC — another ATP unit — later this year. The new building is in Stratford, Conn., less than two miles away from the current Apollo site.
Apollo and Nadel will share some sales staff but will retain their own product development and customer assistance personnel. Apollo's 14 presses will be moved to the new site. ATP has closed three older, less efficient lines since buying Apollo.
With an emphasis on new product development — including twist-bottom deodorant packaging — Apollo's sales are expected to top $8 million this year, according to William Allen III, who was named the firm's chief executive officer in December.
Allan is in somewhat of a sensitive spot, running a company where employees talk about the deceased owner as if he is still around. A framed photo of Kleinman and Gambone hangs in Apollo's lobby area. A framed copy of the same photo sits on file cabinet in the firm's main office.
"There's tremendous respect for the past here, but we're really focusing on the future," Allan said. "The companies that ATP has bought were good, successful companies when they were acquired. They each have built up a name presence, and there's no reason for [ATP] to mess with that."
Time rolls on
Michael Gambone's three school-age children, orphaned in the crash, are being raised by his sister-in-law.
Bob Kokoruda Jr. still is wearing two hats, running his own construction firm and keeping Acson Tool, the firm his father built, open as well.
Adam Kleinman was last heard to be splitting time between New York and Europe, still pursuing a writing career.
And Len Kleinman's presence still lingers at Apollo Packaging.
"Is the shock gone? No, it's still here," Joe Wills said. "Every Sept. 2, we still take the flag down, and you feel like it just happened."