NORTH LIBERTY, IOWA (Aug. 5, 10 a.m. EDT) — The largest U.S. custom rotational molder rises out the Iowa cornfields like a rotomolding Field of Dreams.
And yes, there is a baseball connection to Centro Inc. The late Dick Rozek, who pitched in the majors from 1950-1954, founded Centro in 1970 to mold sprayer tanks for farm equipment.
Today Centro has gained a reputation as a company willing to push the envelope in an industry that is slow to change. President Gary Rozek, son of the founder, is a rotomolding advocate. “We have worked tirelessly to make ourselves the process and supplier of choice,” he said in a July interview at the company.
Today, Centro stands as the biggest custom rotomolder — and fourth-largest firm overall in Plastics News' new ranking of North American rotomolders, with $59 million in sales, 625 employees and 27 machines in six factories. Cornfields surround the headquarters factory in North Liberty, near Iowa City. Like Kevin Costner in the baseball movie, Centro is not afraid to try the impossible.
Glenn Beall, an industry consultant and product designer, called Centro “one of the premier molders.”
“This is a technically competent rotational molder, not just another rotational molder. They'll take on difficult jobs,” Beall said.
An example is what Rozek calls the most complex part Centro has ever molded — a roof for a John Deere tractor, sporting 63 molded-in inserts and several air-duct chambers inside to carry heating and air conditioning to the cab. Centro uses a drop-box foam technology. This year, the roof won top design awards from the Association of Rotational Molders and the Society of Plastics Engineers.
“These parts will make you better,” Rozek said. “You get better, and then you create a competitive advantage because you do things that other people can't do.”
Centro has its own laboratory, an area set aside in a corner of the sprawling North Liberty plant.
The laboratory includes a rotomolding machine and a computer numerically controlled router. Beall said it's extraordinary for a rotomolder to have a dedicated lab — a major investment.
“I don't know of another rotomolder that has that. But this is the way forward,” Beall said.
Five years ago Centro began an aggressive spending program to boost research and development. One big breakthrough came when Centro hired Alvin Spence from one of the world's renowned college rotomolding programs at Queen's University of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Spence moved from Northern Ireland to eastern Iowa to become Centro's director of advanced technology and manufacturing.
Centro employs 26 degreed engineers, covering quality and manufacturing, product design and sales.
The company can do “clean sheet” computer-aided design, using finite element analysis to predict molded-in stresses.
Rozek said the firm has 10 Pro/Engineer CAD system licenses.
“That shows our commitment and our vision to try and advance the industry,” Rozek said.
In June, Rozek gave a speech to an SPE rotomolding conference in Cleveland. His message: Rotomolding technology has not progressed fast enough.
“As other processes continue to advance quickly in materials, molds and equipment, and as labor and fringe benefits continue to increase … our threat today is that, instead of being the process and supplier of choice, we now may become the process and supplier of last resort, where customers will buy from us only if there are not alternatives,” he said.
Centro may enjoy a leadership position today, but the company had humble beginnings — and almost didn't survive.
Ball field to industry
Dick Rozek had a short baseball career, winning one game during two years each with the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Athletics. Although the left-hander threw only 65 total innings, he may be remembered forever for giving up Mickey Mantle's first home run in Yankee Stadium, on May 16, 1951.
After he retired from baseball, the Cedar Rapids native returned to Iowa and joined the Amana Appliances management training program. He became regional manager. As his family grew — eventually Dick and Imelda Rozek had seven children — he wanted to cut down on the travel. He bought a manufacturers' representative business that sold industrial materials-handling products such as conveyors and storage racks.
“So he came across a lot of food and meat processing plants in the Midwest and, of course, saw they were using stainless-steel containers. So he saw an opportunity,” Gary Rozek said.
His father, who died in September, contacted an early rotomolder, Amos Molded Plastics in Edinburgh, Ind. — now called R&R Technologies LLC — and started representing them.
“He saw an opportunity for all the agricultural tanks in the Midwest that were made out of fiberglass, or steel that rusted like crazy,” Gary Rozek said. His father started selling basic rotomolded tanks for spraying fertilizer and pesticides on crops.
He began some testing programs with Deere & Co. At the same time, Amos Molded was sold and the new owners began replacing outside reps with a direct sales force.
With zero manufacturing experience, Rozek made a bold move to open his own plastics factory, in Oxford, Iowa. Centro was born in 1970. He secured a small business loan from the government and bought a Rotomatic machine from Bud Boyce's company in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Centro hired an operations guy from Amos to run the plant. Rozek did the selling.
“He felt that the process was very opportunistic, as far as the timing, especially for the tank market,” his son said. Early technical problems proved it would not be easy, however.
Then, the following year, tragedy struck. “In May of '71, my mother had a brain hemorrhage and fell into a coma for 5½ months. We had seven kids, from the ages of 4-17, at the time. So he's got this failing business over in Oxford, Iowa, and he's got his high school sweetheart laying in a coma, and he's got this rep business he's got to keep going to support his income,” Gary said.
Dick Rozek had to get personal loans from friends to make payroll. Imelda never came out of the coma and eventually died.
But, somehow, Centro survived. “We went through nine housekeepers,” Gary Rozek said, chuckling. Today, three of the Rozek siblings work at the company — Gary and his two sisters, Diane Flynn, vice president of ISO and quality, and Lisa Rozek Hingst, corporate safety coordinator.
When Gary Rozek joined the company full time in 1977, the business had not had its first million-dollar year. He told his father Centro could be a lot bigger and was given the go-ahead. But before taking the reins, he ran a machine for nine months and worked in quality, purchasing and sales.
In the 1980s, Centro expanded with plants in Wisconsin and Arkansas and the new headquarters building in North Liberty.
Back from blaze
Centro retained the original plant in Oxford, where another challenge — a major fire — hit in early 1996. Melting snow on the roof collapsed onto an electrical box, and fire spread to destroy the building, wiping out three rotomolding machines and several key molds.
Centro quickly moved work to other plants. Rozek also credits help from mold makers Lakeland Mold Co., Wheeler Boyce Co., Norstar Aluminum Molds Inc. and Viking Pattern & Mold Co. Inc., plus resin suppliers.
Centro officials got on the phone with a major customer to plan how to keep production going.
“And between pulling back service parts and coordinating efforts with mold makers and shifting production, everyone was back at work the following Monday, full time. We were able to keep their lines going. Months after the fire, they came in and bought every one of our employees lunch and had a big celebration,” Rozek said.
After the fire, in the late 1990s, Centro launched a major expansion, opening plants in North Dakota, Louisiana and North Carolina, and a joint venture plant in Indiana.
Sales grew quickly during that period, from $36.5 million in 1995 to $69.7 million in 2001.
Sales dropped in the fiscal year ended June 30 to $59 million — a 15 percent decline. That means Centro has fallen from third place to fourth in the overall Plastics News ranking, behind Toter Inc.
Centro is not alone. Of the top 10 rotomolders, only Toter reported a sales increase; two companies had flat sales and the others declined.
Rozek cited weakness in the key heavy-equipment market, which includes agriculture and earth-moving machinery. During a tour of Centro's headquarters factory, machines turned out big fuel tanks, housings for floor cleaners and components for corn harvesters.
Centro has taken action during the recession. The company closed its Springdale, Ark., factory. Also, officials reviewed Centro's business plan and dropped some customers that were not profitable or that were not deemed a good, long-term match.
Rotomolding, a small part of the plastics industry, still fights for recognition. Rozek outlined several areas that he believes need improvement, during his Cleveland speech and the interview in Iowa.
Most parts still are trimmed and drilled out by hand. But routers can do the job better, he said. Centro plants run 11 CNC routers, most of them purchased in the past two years.
Although size limitations remain for machined rotational molds, Rozek advocates molds made on CNC machining centers, when possible. Most molds still are made of cast aluminum or are fabricated from sheet metal. “Aluminum casting is yesterday's technology,” he said.
He also said the industry needs closed-loop rotomolding machines. “I want smart machines,” he said.
Rozek echoed a common complaint, that resin companies do not develop new materials for the small-volume rotomolding market. “ I think the more noise we make about it, the more they'll stand up and listen,” he said.
Suppliers are listening. At the Rotoplas trade show three years ago, exhibitors displayed a fast mold-unclamping system and a method to dispense resin into molds automatically.
Centro uses overhead resin dispensing and weighing on several machines, replacing the old system of buckets and scales.
Rozek said he's open to all new technology. He stresses that the industry should use caution to avoid what he calls “vapor-tech” — unproven technology that lacks process control and consistent performance.
Even so, Centro is always searching. “I'd buy it, if it was there and made sense,” he said.