DECORAH, IOWA (Aug. 5, 10 a.m. EDT) — Iowa Rotocast Plastics Inc., known for its colorful point-of-sale displays for beer and soda, has diversified into hunting and outdoor products.
Meet the Grizzly and the Outback — huge, heavy-duty, foam-filled coolers the company is rotational molding in Decorah. A cutting board and removable dividers are included, so you can fillet your catch and keep the fish — and your beer — on ice and cold for a week.
Iowa Rotocast is the dominant rotomolder of commercial beverage coolers, including the wheeled, canopied versions that keep drinks on ice at concerts, stadiums and retail outlets. Company officials wanted to broaden into a proprietary product, and the answer came on a Colorado elk hunt.
The eureka moment came to Vice President Clark Lewey and his brother, Greg Lewey, who is manager of shipping and assembly. They took along one of the company's Texas Tankers, big enough to hold two kegs of beer.
“People saw it and wanted to buy it,” Clark Lewey said in a July interview in Decorah. “Everybody that sees it wants it.”
Later, a friend, Nick Polfer, borrowed one to take bear hunting in Canada. Again, other hunters loved it. Lewey hired Polfer and made him manager of the Outdoor Division.
These are hardly your backyard ice chests. The Grizzly, molded from 100 pounds of polyethylene, has a 420-quart capacity. Outback models can hold 150 quarts. Iowa Rotocast even builds a steel holder that fits onto a trailer hitch and, for the really big cooler, a wheeled cart so you can haul it with your all-terrain vehicle through the woods.
The company is running ads in hunting magazines and on the Outdoor Channel.
Iowa Rotocast is working on its next new outdoor product: insulated deer blinds. Jim Krause, an avid hunter who is plant manager and sales engineer of custom products, explains: “It can get pretty cold here in Iowa, and if you put a heater in your blind, the deer can smell it.”
The new products mark the latest evolution of the company, which is nestled in the cresting hills of northeastern Iowa not far from the Minnesota border.
The founder, Floyd Mount, came from the retail beer business. He got his start in plastics when he purchased molds for a rotomolded beer keg cooler. His company sold the Super Coolers to beer distributors.
After outsourcing the molding, Mount incorporated Iowa Rotocast in 1986. Clark Lewey, his stepson, joined the plastics company when he returned home from the Air Force.
The molding company started out modestly in a garage in downtown Decorah. In 1993 it moved to a 20,000-square-foot building. In 1998 the owners moved to the current location, building a 24,000-square-foot factory. Several other additions followed, and now the building has 125,000 square feet.
Sales have tripled in the past five years — even as the number of machines has dropped from 10 to the current four. Lewey credits Krause, an industry veteran who was plant manager at the Bensenville, Ill., factory of rotomolding giant Rotonics Manufacturing Inc.
Krause said he found out about Iowa Rotocast by chance. He had purchased land nearby in Iowa, with the idea of retiring there. When he mentioned his occupation to a neighbor, the man told him about the local company.
Sales were about $5 million in the mid-1990s. Lewey said the company was unorganized. Sales people pushed to get their orders molded first. “Within 15 months, Jim established a highly efficient production plan,” Lewey said.
The streamlining came just in time. Lewey said business began to explode as beverage companies began placing huge orders. Today cooler components are neatly stacked throughout the plant, waiting for final assembly.
Nine of the 10 machines were aging clamshells. Lewey got rid of them and moved to modern equipment. Now the company runs two turret machines — one carousel machine and one with an independent arm — a shuttle machine and one large clamshell.
The new machines are much more productive. Krause said the company actually has fewer employees in direct rotomolding today than it did with 10 machines.
With $16.5 million in 2001 sales, Iowa Rotocast ranks 24th in Plastics News' survey of North American rotomolders.