After almost four decades, Frank Fire has called it a career at Americhem Inc., a leading color concentrates maker in Cuyahoga Falls.
And if it weren't for a case of pneumonia, he wouldn't have been there at all.
Fire was working as a technician at a pilot plastic plant operated by General Tire Co. in Akron, Ohio, in 1962 when he discovered he was allergic to toluene diisocyanate, a feedstock for polyurethane foam.
``I had four bouts with chemical pneumonia and realized I had to get a new job,'' Fire said in a recent interview. ``That's when an employment agency set up an interview for me with Dick Juve for a sales position at Americhem.''
When he started at Americhem in April 1963, Fire was the firm's 14th employee. At that time Americhem was a fledgling color concentrate maker that also represented a dozen additives suppliers to the rubber and PVC industries. When Fire was promoted to sales manager in 1968 he helped convert the company's focus into manufacturing.
``There were only a couple of companies making color concentrates at that time, and [Juve] and his partner Harvey Cooper saw a tremendous opportunity in the automotive market,'' Fire said. At that time, it was mostly flexible PVC, but people were starting to use ABS and polypropylene and they wanted their colors to match.''
Another opportunity came along in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the firm developed products based on rigid PVC used in vinyl siding. Throughout, Fire said Americhem focused on ``really hard-to-color stuff'' and shied away from commodity-type business.
``We were never attracted to commodities,'' he said. ``We actually got out of the wire and cable market when it became a commodity.''
Other big moves for Americhem in the 1970s included developing materials for PU film in lettering on sports jerseys, acrylic sheet in signage and nylon-based fibers for commercial carpeting. Fibers, now including PP and PET grades, remain a big market for Americhem today.
The three-person sales staff Fire had joined in 1963 grew rapidly, and he quickly learned to delegate. He was promoted to vice president of sales in 1982, the same year he received his MBA from the University of Akron.
After almost 30 years with the company, Fire was given what may have been his biggest assignment in the early 1990s when he was asked to build the firm's international presence.
Fire, who had traveled extensively in the United States, began a regimen that would have him on the road for roughly two-thirds of the year.
The first big payoff was Americhem's 1994 purchase of a compounding plant in Manchester, England. Since 1994 that plant has tripled in size. Americhem now plans to add a second site in Europe.
Mainly as a result of Fire's globe-trotting in South Korea, China, South Africa and beyond, non-North American business now accounts for as much as 15 percent of Americhem's annual sales.
``We knew that if we didn't globalize, we'd be very vulnerable at home,'' Fire said. ``We also had gained some multinational customers who wanted us to be where they were. Our customers were pulling us there.''
Fire wrapped up his last trip - a ``farewell tour'' to longtime customers in the United States and around the world - in late October, just before his Nov. 4 retirement. Interviewed Nov. 6, Fire said he's ``already missing being in front of customers.''
``The secret is being energized by your customers,'' he said. ``I'm a salesman and I always wanted to be in front of customers.''
Along the way, Fire has had a somewhat unique relationship with his current boss, Rick Juve, who took over the firm from his father, Dick, in 1993.
Rick came to work for Americhem in 1983 at age 24. After spending two years working in production and research, he moved into sales. Fire was his first boss.
``[Rick's] father had a sales career planned for him and [Rick] was a tremendous salesperson,'' Fire said. ``He knew everybody was watching him because he was Dick's son and he knew that he had to outperform everyone. And he did.
``There was never any doubt in anyone's mind that Americhem was what Rick wanted to do.''
Rick Juve described Fire as ``a great mentor.''
``He really taught me a great deal, and ingrained in all of us the importance of the customer,'' Juve said.
``Frank has had a significant impact on our success from several different standpoints, including building our sales and marketing organization and developing key customers,'' Juve added.
Some numbers indicate Americhem's growth while Fire was there.
* Sales in 1963: $62,000; sales in 2002: $150 million.
* Employees in 1963: 14; employees in 2002: 600.
* Sales employees in 1963: three; sales employees in 2002: 30-40.
Retirement should be far from leisurely for Fire, who plans to continue to live in nearby Tallmadge, Ohio. He plans on spending more time with his ``very understanding'' wife, Marlene, and seven grandchildren, but also plans to do consulting work for plastics materials makers and finish a pair of books he's started to write.
Fire already has published five books - three instructing firefighters on hazardous materials, one on plastic combustibility and another that he co-authored on environmental regulations. One of his two new efforts is on hazardous materials, while the other details what he calls ``a common-sense approach'' to selling in the industrial market.
Looking back, Fire said he is not really surprised that a job interview in 1963 resulted in a 39-year journey.
``I'm a long-term person, and when I find something I like, I stick with it,'' he said. ``Dick Juve said, `Here's your job, go do it.' I didn't have to be looking over my shoulder all the time and I got to be my own boss.
``I'd have been crazy to leave.''