Ridding the nation's back yards of billions of nasty mosquitoes may seem like a daunting task, but a new weapon in the war against pests has helped save a Providence, R.I., custom injection molder from the brink of bankruptcy.
Cowan Plastics LLC has joined with American Biophysics Corp. of East Greenwich, R.I., to produce the Mosquito Magnet Liberty, a gas-grill-like contraption that lures mosquitoes to their death. The machine uses propane gas and a catalytic converter to mimic a person's breath, emitting carbon dioxide to lure biting insects into a trap, where they die.
``They are probably the two biggest success stories in the state of Rhode Island this year,'' John H. White, president of customer Taco Inc. of Cranston, R.I., said of Cowan and American Biophysics.
American Biophysics had planned to produce the Liberty in China, but decided to keep manufacturing closer to home after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Cowan was in receivership a year ago, but changed course when its new owners stepped up to produce and assemble the Liberty model in November.
``We knew if we did well it would change our lives,'' Cowan President William J. Dessel said by telephone.
Cowan employs 170 and expects 2002 sales to reach $50 million this year - up significantly from 30 employees and $2 million in sales last year.
Raymond Iannetta, American Biophysics president and chief executive officer, did not disclose his company's sales figures, which a recent newspaper report placed at $23 million. The company employs 250.
Dessel and his father-in-law, Richard M. Oster, bought the Cowan assets out of receivership in August.
Oster had retired as CEO of Cookson Group plc in 1998, and Dessel had experience at Cookson and a family-owned medical plastics company. Iannetta knew Oster from their days at Cookson, where they had worked together for 10 years after Cookson purchased two companies Iannetta owned.
American Biophysics has been around 11 years, according to Iannetta. Growth has been explosive for the past four years, as the company has commercialized lower-cost versions of its mosquito-killing product. The Liberty model is the third in its line.
``We spent a lot of time studying mosquitoes and probing mosquitoes, so we know mosquitoes. That's our business,'' Iannetta said.
American Biophysics landed a big customer last summer when Home Depot signed on to sell the Liberty model in its stores nationwide. Cowan met the first deadline, producing 500 Liberty models for Home Depot by February.
``[Oster] took it personally that we were not going to let American Biophysics down,'' said Dessel, noting that everyone at Cowan worked every day except Christmas to complete the project on time.
Now Cowan is making Liberty mosquito catchers by the thousands, and American Biophysics is selling them in the United States, South America and Africa. Dessel said the Liberty has 153 parts, including 25 injection molded components.
Recently, Cowan opened a 50,000-square-foot assembly center near the airport in Warwick, R.I., about five miles from Cowan's molding plant on the Woonasquatucket River. The division is named American Assembly LLC and can handle other assembly projects, according to Dessel.
Cowan calls itself the oldest injection molder in Rhode Island - the company was founded in Massachusetts in 1946 and moved to Providence in 1948. The company was facing hard times in recent years after a big customer went out of business.
``The first thing we did was secure our good customers and fire the ones who were losing money [for Cowan],'' Dessel said. ``Our goal is to follow the concept of partnering with our customers.''
Dessel said the next matter was to sort out employees and machinery. The firm built upon a core of 22 workers, including Michael Marra, who has been with the company 42 years. Marra, a toolmaker by trade, now is chairman. The firm also brought in Nelson Rego to handle quality control.
Cowan had 18 molding machines, but the new owners kept 11 and upgraded the operation with 10 more Van Dorn Demag presses. The company now has 21 machines, with clamping forces of 28-500 tons.
Dessel said the new owners have invested about $4 million in the company.
``When we came out of receivership we had no credit, so we really built strong relationships with our vendors. We paid everybody every week until we re-established their trust,'' he said.
While mosquito killers are a big part of the company today, Cowan does have other customers. About 30 percent of its business is from health-care products, including floss and pill dispensers. About 40 percent comes from industrial customers, and consumer products comprise 30 percent.