It was a galvanizing event for dot-com companies, one that seemed to prove they were part of the plastics industry's fabric.
At NPE 2000, more than 30 Internet companies pitched booths, hung out flashy signage and gave away trinkets and T-shirts. They held news conferences and hospitality parties all over downtown Chicago: One featured former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, while another feted a jazz combo in a penthouse hotel suite.
With just a smattering of dot-coms exhibiting three years before at NPE, the moment appeared to signal a changing of the guard in plastics-buying behavior.
Time has clouded that impression, however.
``We had on a bad color of rose-colored glasses back then,'' said Ed Rivera, a former Nypro Inc. executive who had joined new design-collaboration site BuyPlastics.com just before NPE. ``They were the color green, as in money.''
Executives like Rivera were recruited from more mainstream parts of the plastics industry. Some leaped in, hoping to become prosperous dot-com millionaires and pathfinders in an industry poised for explosive growth to usher in the millennium.
Among the companies exhibiting for the first time in June 2000 was getPlastic.com, a Burlington, Mass., online resin distributor that featured former sales executives from Ticona and Entec Engineered Resins. Paul Durand was one of those - but a little more than a year later Durand was back at Entec as New England regional sales manager.
He was not alone: Many Internet converts have retreated to more-conventional jobs.
``I thought the Internet would make a significant change in my life,'' Durand said. ``I had a good-lifestyle business going with Entec, but I had the desire to hit that window of opportunity. ... Unfortunately, the window had passed. We didn't realize it yet, but we had just missed it.''
The good times in dot-com Neverland already were over for many executives by NPE 2000. Today, some are bitter about the dashed hopes and wasted time. Others say the lessons will serve them in future pursuits.
Yet virtually none of them, including the founder of the largest Web plastics marketplace of the late 1990s, said their sites could have succeeded - even if investor backlash against dot-coms had not taken them down first.
The business-to-business marketplaces had too many strikes against them, said Tim Stojka, former chief executive officer of Web legend PlasticsNet.com.
``I think we could have done a number of things differently,'' he said. ``It was hard to forecast and hard to envision.''
A few years ago, Stojka was the plastics ambassador of the Web. He was quoted in major financial and Internet magazines and spoke at plastics and technology events. Founded in 1995, PlasticsNet was one of the first online manufacturing sites.
He told anyone who would listen that the Internet was the future. He recruited top officials from resin firms. Among those coming aboard were Mike Bogar and Jim Morelli of AlliedSignal Inc. Others came in a rush in 1999 from such firms as General Polymers, GE Plastics and BP Amoco.
Bogar, AlliedSignal's commercial director for the Americas, saw joining PlasticsNet as a logical career step. But he left at the end of 1999, he said, a bit wiser but disappointed in the Internet.
``I was thinking I was on the ground floor of something I could tell my grandchildren about someday,'' said Bogar, who became a sales and marketing consultant in Chicago after leaving PlasticsNet. ``It was something so big - the new industrial revolution. But too many people drank their own bath water for it to have any chance.''
PlasticsNet grew to more than 150 employees by 1999. It had venture capitalists falling over themselves to lend money, with Wayne, Pa.-based Internet Capital Group Inc. the leader of the lending pack. That company later ran into financial distress.
PlasticsNet hired an executive from GE Plastics, Jeffrey Garwood, to help lead its growth. But sales never even approached $1 million annually, Bogar said.
``We got so caught up in the buzz of technology and what [Wall Street] was saying that we lost sight of basic one-on-one business steps to be successful,'' Bogar said. ``Cash flow, customer generation. That was not being done fast enough.''
Processors viewed PlasticsNet as a research project, something to try. Few used it regularly, Bogar said. One reason, perhaps, was that many processors had to key in entries twice, once when buying products and a second time when recording purchases in their own accounting systems.
But the money flow was strong, even if the technology needed some work, Stojka said.
``The notion of having a lot of money means you are more inclined to spend money or waste more money,'' Stojka said. ``Venture capitalists and analysts expected overnight success and believed in it. It was a vicious cycle. It was easy to lose touch with realistic and fundamental things like making money.
``Profitability numbers were not important. They were our third or fourth questions at best. We had a great management team and a great market. We thought we would build it and customers would come.''
There was the glimmer of even more incoming money in January 2000, when PlasticsNet filed for an initial public offering, hoping to raise as much as $100 million.
PlasticsNet delayed the IPO for several months while trying to boost the firm's value. But the stock market shifted. Internet companies rapidly fell out of favor. A rival company, ChemConnect Inc., withdrew its planned IPO in July 2000.
PlasticsNet's IPO was less than 30 days away by October 2000 when the company pulled the offering, Stojka said. It left many executives without the nest egg they had envisioned.
There were heavy layoffs. Soon, the A-list of plastics executives left for other positions. Days after canceling the IPO, Stojka and his brother, Nick, resigned from day-to-day operations. When Garwood was passed over for the top slot, he went back to a division of GE.
The house of cards tumbled in 2001, after PlasticsNet's parent, Commerx Inc. of Westchester, Ill., shifted to selling Web-based software and sold the virtually dormant dot-com to Verticalnet Inc.
Today, the PlasticsNet model does not make as much sense, said Morelli, former PlasticsNet vice president of sales and now an executive with American Fibers & Yarns Co. in Chapel Hill, N.C. At the time, the company's software was too expensive for all but Fortune 100 companies, Morelli said. But today, such software has become affordable and the technology finally has arrived, Morelli said.
He alluded to the IPO, saying the company needed to make decisions faster. Stojka, however, said the IPO would not have saved PlasticsNet.
``Don't raise money until you have a product that works,'' Stojka said. ``With the money, we still would have been running a public company in transition to a different business model.''
Money might have deafened other plastics executives to the Internet's siren song. Rivera left a top post at injection molder Nypro to help found BuyPlastics, later called Conferos Inc. The dot-com had backing from large software house Parametric Technology Corp. and IBM Corp., and Rivera wanted to try his hand with a smaller company.
The company raised money from its four founders - who included former executives with Tech Group Inc. and distributor Performance Polymers Inc. - and some angel investors. It had strong management, a solid business model and a lean staff, Rivera said. But it, like others, soon found that the value of being a first mover eroded over time. It faced the same struggle in winning customers, he said.
``We were riding the success wave and got blindsided by all the excitement and hoopla,'' Rivera said. ``We thought, `Wall Street can't be all that wrong.' ''
The company's ``green-colored glasses'' came off, Rivera said. Three of the four founders left Conferos earlier this year, some to move back into injection molding. Rivera eventually joined former Ticona chief Edward MuÃ±oz and his brother, George, in a new investment firm for processors.
Short on cash, Conferos ceased operations Aug. 1.
``The degree of temptation offered by the Internet craze and the money pouring in just was too hard to resist,'' Rivera said. ``But in a span of five or six months after I joined Conferos, it all had passed.''
Still, he said, ``I wouldn't trade the last few years for anything in the world. It ingrained something indelibly in my head: You can't be fooled by that sort of thing.''
That same disappointment faced executives at getPlastic. After the company dropped its distribution model and became software firm Resinate Inc., many of those executives, including Durand, left. Their top official, former Chevron Chemical Co. LLC executive Robert Kennedy, moved back to Houston.
``We certainly didn't anticipate having it end so quickly,'' Durand said. ``We thought it would take 18-24 months, we'd all make millions and move on and retire. But no one would have believed that we'd start and then fail.''
Still, a few of the marketplaces formed around the time of NPE 2000 have survived the chill of the dot-com winter. Omnexus, with U.S. headquarters in Atlanta, was founded by five resin companies - each of which invested $5 million to $10 million to start a hub to buy resin and equipment and exchange data on materials.
That dot-com has had to adapt, and a few of its core plastics executives have left, including David Jukes, a vice president who recently became chief executive officer of resin distributor Distrupol LLC of Chertsey, England.
Jukes believes Omnexus will succeed, now that it has thrown out its consultants. The group initially was run by about 15 ``advisers'' from Andersen Consulting, now called Accenture. Decisions were made slowly, and the consultants did not understand the needs of the plastics industry, according to several insiders.
Since then, Omnexus has come up with solutions such as Ultra-Lite, a technology to eliminate the need to double-key entries. The work at Omnexus has been a thrill ride, complete with ups and downs, Jukes said.
``At first the only people who made money were the consultants. We learned that it's not about fancy technology, but about behavioral change. It's tougher than anyone anticipated,'' Jukes said. His advice: ``Don't believe the consultants, and learn to trust your gut.''
Another ex-Omnexus official, Doug Bray, painted a picture of an organization in some disarray at first. Bray, now in financial sales for Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. in Atlanta, said he wasted a year of his life at Omnexus as sales director for North America.
Bray was one of few Omnexus employees to come from an injection molder. He moved his family from North Carolina, where he had worked in sales at Technimark Inc. The potential for career growth, stock options and a better financial future were too much to pass up, he said.
``Omnexus had the potential to revolutionize the businesses for molders in more ways since the invention of the reciprocal screw,'' Bray said. ``Here was a way to gain some leverage for molders, to line up all the suppliers and say, `OK, boys, who wants my business?' '' But Bray became disillusioned early.
At the first Omnexus employee meeting, Bray introduced himself and gave his title. Then, he said, another new employee got up and introduced himself as sales director for North America. And another. And another.
Bray should not have been surprised by the identical titles - that's the structure that had been laid out clearly by Andersen, according to Michael Thaler, Omnexus vice president of marketing and strategy. ``I can't speak to why he was surprised,'' Thaler said.
Bray learned to adjust, but never made the money he'd anticipated. ``I took the majority of the risk, and it left a sour taste,'' he said.
The site's progress has taken patience to build, Thaler said, but now the company is gaining hard-won acceptance. The most difficult challenge was getting customers to adopt a new way of doing business, he said.
``There is a comfort zone to picking up the phone call or sending a fax. We're asking processors to do something they've never done before,'' he said.
Some others have gone from being believers in the central-marketplace model to skeptics. Stojka, now president of hot-runner supplier Fast Heat Inc. of Elmhurst, Ill., is among the latter. He still believes in the Web but not the marketplace model, where companies use a central site to buy resin or equipment. Instead, the use of Web services by individual firms and supplier networks will drive growth, he said.
``At PlasticsNet it was never really about making a lot of money, but about changing the world,'' Stojka said. ``We wanted to be out in front revolutionizing the plastics marketplace and changing the way companies buy and sell.
``That idea still makes sense, even though very few companies have been able to pull it off.''