Plastic Lumber Co. Inc. is leaner and meaner after a year in which its parks and recreation segment offered disappointing returns.
The Akron firm had its first-ever layoffs last year, cutting four salaried employees and 10 in its fabrication and handicapped area.
``That hurt,'' President Alan Robbins admitted during a recent interview at his company's headquarters. ``Those are agonizing, hard decisions for a business owner because these are people who have been personal friends. I can't tell you how hard that is.''
But Robbins, known throughout the industry as the type of guy who can make it through anything, is seeing brighter days ahead for his $6 million operation, where he employs about 40. He's added rotational molding operations and beefed up existing production lines. Likewise, the firm is focusing on new products while enhancing existing ones.
``We're fighting to make sure we're present in the marketplace so people know us and they like our product and have a chance to buy it,'' Robbins said. ``I don't have any preconceptions that we're going to feed the world. I prefer being smaller and more nimble. We would just like to have really nice, long-term sales growth and run a nice, well-positioned, privately held company.''
Now, he's begun hiring employees in extrusion. He added one rotomolding machine in the 6,000-square-foot mezzanine of his 120,000-square-foot facility to make components for spa products and waste receptacles on a McNeil three-arm turret. Robbins also has begun quoting custom rotomolding work.
``It's a great way to do low-volume part counts,'' he said. ``We find with this, we can add a style element we couldn't get otherwise. With squares and rectangles, you just ran into a restriction on how creative you can be from a style component standpoint. With rotomolding, you can get a granite-color look. You can mix material systems together to get a very attractive look to it.''
Robbins also is doing platform products like spa garden designs, where PVC foam latticework is used to enclose a hot tub. His company does not make the latticework.
``We're getting a good response,'' he said. ``It will be interesting to see how these things grab hold.''
This year the company is working on an 8 percent growth rate, based on 6 million pounds of throughput last year. Of that figure, nearly 20 percent will be virgin content.
``We've tried so hard to use recycled plastic in everything we can,'' he said. For instance, 60 percent of the content in the firm's jumbo waste receptacle is recycled content. ``I think that's a real high percentage content. It's not 100 percent, but it's our goal, if we could make that product out of recycled and be competitive, then we would.''
In those core extrusion operations, the firm is focusing more heavily on continuous extrusion, which has helped triple its production capacity among five lines.
In all, officials had invested about $310,000 through last year. Robbins took a line out of service, rebuilding it to focus on things ``nobody else is doing.'' He did give one hint: It involves structural products.
He is beginning to market his decking product under the Leisure Deck trade name.
Robbins began his company by serving the parks and paving maintenance market. After last year's struggles, that segment now represents less than half of the firm's total business. His other segments actually grew last year: Spa products were up 43 percent, lumber products climbed 27 percent and sales in the sign segment increased 15 percent.
``The growth pattern of parks and recreation was never going to be the high-growth area,'' he said. ``We kind of went through that part of the cycle. Just by growing your other sales, this percentage was going to shrink out. You don't like to have a market segment have a negative growth rate.''
Plastic Lumber's competitors include publicly held U.S. Plastic Lumber Corp., based in Boca Raton, Fla. That firm expects nearly 23.5 percent sales growth in 2003 over 2002, when it restructured its balance sheet and sold off its Clean Earth Inc. soil-cleaning unit to focus on plastic lumber. Another competitor is privately held Bedford Technology LLC, based in Worthington, Minn.