CHICAGO (June 22, 10:35 a.m. EDT) — His 35 years at Monsanto Co. produced two blockbusters: the House of the Future, toured by 20 million visitors to Disneyland, and early plastic beverage bottles that predated PET. But before the glory, personal tragedy hit Michael Gigliotti.
“I tried to quit,” he said.
Gigliotti, 82, recounted the story of his first wife and high school sweetheart, Rita, as he sat in his cozy house on the water in Gloucester. They graduated from Hoboken High School in New Jersey in 1938. Using a full scholarship to Stevens Institute of Technology, he graduated in 1942 with a mechanical engineering degree.
Monsanto hired him. “They were the lowest of five offers of employment that I had, but I picked them because the Plastics Division was only three years old. It was full of eager, enthusiastic people who knew what they were doing was going to be important some day. And I wanted to be with them,” he said.
He married Rita in 1943 and they started a family.
He was only 25 when Monsanto made him supervisor of design engineering on an expansion that would double the output of vinyl, polystyrene and melamine resin complex in Springfield, Mass., the company headquarters.
Gigliotti (pronounced “je-LAH-tee”) said: “I was 'marked.' Monsanto had a program of moving people around who they thought would someday have talent. So I was pushed through jobs that today I don't think anybody could have at that age.” He oversaw 10 draftsmen and five engineers.
But then Rita came down with a terminal illness in 1949, and died in early 1950. Suddenly he was a single father of three children, ages 6, 4 and 2. A local family watched the kids, and Gigliotti rushed there for lunch, then picked them up at night.
The juggling act was stressful. By then he was maintenance superintendent of the huge operation in Springfield. One day, the personnel manager called and said: “Hey, we've got an employee for the summer who lives a block away from you. She needs a ride, would you do it?” She was Miriam Coombs, a skater from Springfield who was home on summer break from the Holiday on Ice show. He drove her to work. Took her to dinner once. In the fall, she returned to the show, which was leaving for a run in Brazil.
At Monsanto, he was starting to unravel. “I couldn't take the responsibilities of being a maintenance superintendent for a huge plant, getting up at 2 in the morning if there was a breakdown and having these young kids in the house.” So he decided to move back home with his parents in Hoboken.
On a Monday morning in 1950, Gigliotti walked into Fred Abbiati's office and handed in his resignation. The car was pack—ed, and he and the kids were bound for Hoboken. Abbi-ati, Mon-santo's new vice president and general man-ager, could relate, since he had had young children, too. He didn't want to lose a good man, so he offered Gigliotti a job at Monsanto's New York office.
He reported to work that Friday. But the job was a downer — recovering “lost accounts,” molders that Monsanto had cut off because of nonpayment. “It was a concentration of very, very good little plastics companies that were exploding. They were tough bastards,” he said. Translation: He got yelled at a lot.
Then came his 30th birthday, Jan. 31, 1951. He was on the road in Philadelphia, visiting a plastics company with a local salesman. “We got a really rough reception. The secretary told us that she had orders not to accept anybody from Monsanto, but she'd see what would happen. She made the call. The president of the company came into the lobby and bawled us both out, in atrocious language.”
They left and went to dinner, where Gigliotti mentioned it was his birthday. The sales guy wanted to celebrate! “I didn't know it, but he was an alcoholic. I had to bring him back to the hotel we shared, wash him up and put him to bed. It's midnight. It's my birthday.”
The guy had thrown up. “Oh my God. I said, 'God, what am I gonna do?' I picked the phone up and asked for the international operator.” He had a name: Miriam Coombs, Holiday on Ice, somewhere in Rio. It was midnight and the operator wasn't busy, so she agreed to try. At 2 a.m. the phone rang. “Miriam says, 'Mike, why are you calling?' and I said 'Miriam, would you come home and marry me?' And dead silence. It felt like an hour.”
Finally, she said, “Yes.” Then she hung up.
After they talked again to sort it all out, Gigliotti used some connections to bring Miriam home on an ocean freighter. A priest friend arranged to have them married in 1951 in Lady Chapel at New York's landmark St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Meanwhile, Gigliotti's career was back on the fast track. He was named project manager of a resin plant to be built near Cincinnati. “We started it on time and below budget, in 1953. I fully expected to stay there as the plant engineer, but it turned out Monsanto had other thoughts.”
The company again picked him as project manager, this time of a polyethylene plant under construction in Texas City, Texas. On time, under budget again.
Plastics meets Mickey Mouse
Again the phone rang — his boss said management was concerned. “They were worried about the fact that they had put all of this money into the Plastics Division, and the markets into which the products were going were what they called toys and flower pots,” he said.
Ralph Hansen, a market development manager, thought up the basic idea: to generate data to show engineers, architects and builders how they can use plastics. Monsanto launched the Structural Plastics Engineering Group (SPEG) in 1955. It targeted automotive, furniture, appliances and construction.
Gigliotti was picked to head SPEG because he had gained credibility on large projects after coordinating the resin expansions. His idea: build something dramatic to showcase each market.
In automotive, the composite-bodied Corvette had people excited about plastics. Monsanto commissioned Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to demonstrate plastics on all the little things like dashboards, knobs and seats.
In construction, Monsanto picked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design a plastic house. Pietro Beluschi, head of the school of architecture, and Al Dietz, who led the construction engineering department, were eager to build with plastics. They signed up a creative MIT architect, Marvin Goody.
“I told them: 'I don't want plastic bricks. I don't want plastic studs. I don't want plastic flooring. What I want is a house made out of plastics that can't be done in any other material,' ” Gigliotti said.
The MIT gang created something extraordinary. Four elegant wings cantilevered off a central pedestal, making the house appear to float in midair. The shell would be made of glass-fiber-reinforced plastic composites, backed with rigid urethane foam. They built a model.
But where to build it? MIT wanted the house at a university to attract the respect of architects. Monsanto's sales department liked New York or Chicago. But it was Edgar Queeny, Monsanto's chairman and president, who called his friend Walt Disney.
Monsanto had already committed to putting in a Hall of Chemistry at Disney's new theme park in Anaheim, Calif. What about this plastic house?
Gigliotti still has Walt Disney's telegram from February 1956, asking for a meeting. Gigliotti took the plans to Burbank and explained the concept. “We would use the house as the vehicle by which we would display everything new that could go into a house: toilets, showers, refrigerators, washing machines, chairs, walls. All that sort of jazz,” he told Disney.
Monsanto began lining up partner companies.
Gigliotti and a Monsanto lawyer began negotiations with Disneyland. During the day, they would reach agreements with creative-man Walt, which were later changed by his businessman brother Roy Disney.
Finally they hammered out an agreement. The House of the Future was erected near the entrance to Tomorrowland in June 1957. Arlene Francis and Hugh Downs interviewed Gigliotti about it on NBC's Home show.
The house was built to hold up to 75 people on one of the wings, while simultaneously being hit with a 50 mph wind, a roof temperature from the sun of 185° F and an earthquake. So when it came time to tear the house down in 1967, the wrecking ball bounced off.
Monsanto finally had to cut the house into sections and haul it away.
Now a recognized expert on construction, Gigliotti played a key role on early efforts by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. to make U.S. building codes more plastics friendly. He helped create SPI's Building Code Committee, and Appliances Committee. He became chairman of a new plastics study group at the National Academy of Sciences' Building Research Group.
From 1961-68, Gigliotti was director of process engineering and technology for Monsanto's Plastics Division. Then he got another fateful call with another new assignment called Lopac.
Enter soda bottles … but not from PETM
PET gets all the headlines, but the first plastic soft drink bottles were by Monsanto from acrylonitrile — specifically the copolymer, polyacrylonitrile-styrene.
Monsanto hired McKinsey & Co. in the 1960s to study how it could coordinate its resources better. The consultants found that six or seven separate projects were working on the issue of permeation. Their advice: Develop a plastic beer bottle.
In 1968, Monsanto executives assigned Gigliotti to lead Lopac, or Low Oxygen Permeation Packaging. He quickly contacted Allen Heininger, who was head of Monsanto's food flavoring and ingredients business. He went to the experts at Plax Corp., which Monsanto had purchased 10 years earlier, to check their ability to make sample bottles in a hurry.
Heininger took Gigliotti on a whirlwind tour meeting top beer executives Augie Busch and Jeffrey Coors, and Robert Woodruff, president of Coca-Cola Co. and others. His proposal to each was Monsanto would send them small bottles to test, but would not identify the material.
“I had a handshake agreement and I went off,” he said. Monsanto tested and sent out bottle samples from a number of resins, including PET, polystyrene, ethylene vinyl alcohol and acrylonitrile.
Monsanto decided PET and acrylonitrile offered the best combination of properties and cost.
Coke called and requested a meeting. Coke's product manager reviewed opinion research that showed that if Pepsi had a plastic bottle and Coke did not, Coke would lose significant market share. Other research showed consumers wanted a plastic bottle, but were concerned plastic would impact the taste.
Woodruff announced Coke was ready to buy Monsanto's entire plastic bottle capacity. He had a check for $1 million.
After caucusing for a few minutes, the Monsanto officials proposed giving Coke rights to 85 percent of its nameplate bottle capacity in exchange for Coke's financing of research and experimental work.
Coke rolled out a big consumer research program. People snapped up acrylonitrile bottles in New Bedford, Mass. Coke gave the go-ahead for commercial production in 1972. Monsanto would set up three factories to blow mold bottles in three sizes: 10- and 16-ounce in the signature contour bottle and a wide-mouth 32-ouncer with flat sides for labeling. According to Gigliotti, Coke rejected the larger family-sized bottles, which Monsanto had proposed in PET.
“They wanted to compete with Pepsi down in the hand-held drink,” he said.
Monsanto officially rolled out its Cycle-Safe in 1975. Coke called the bottle the Easy-Goer. Gigliotti said the resin made an excellent bottle that was both recyclable and refillable.
Then it died.
Monsanto had 100,000 of the 32-ounce bottles ready to hit the Chicago market in early 1977. Later that year, the Food and Drug Administration stepped in to ban the bottle.
Explaining what happened gets complicated. Gigliotti said the issue stemmed from a turf battle between FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, still a fledgling agency. The bitter battle between Coke and Pepsi also played a role, he said. Also, an environmental group sued FDA over a test bottle using Sohio's Barex resin, which Gigliotti said was acrylonitrile styrene modified with butadiene rubber — ABS. FDA issued a news release saying material migrating from Barex would someday be found to be harmful.
“It was a different material. We were guilty by association,” he said.
But it didn't matter. Gigliotti said environmentalists began picketing supermarkets holding signs with Coke's slogan, Coke Brings Life To Your Party. “They had crossed out 'life' and put a skull and crossbones. Death.”
Monsanto shuttered its bottle factories in 1977, putting 800 people out of work. Gigliotti said it was two years before large-volume PET soda bottles came out.
He took early retirement and went on to co-found TopWave Instruments Ltd., which makes laboratory and testing equipment for plastic food and beverage container. He also started a consulting company, MGA Inc.
Ironically, seven years after killing it, the FDA in 1984 approved the Cycle-Safe bottle. The agency said the bottle's acrylonitrile content had been reduced to safety levels, but Gigliotti said the bottle was safe all along. FDA earlier had said nothing harmful could come out of the Monsanto bottle.
Things could have been different, he said. “We could make a beer bottle for less than a nickel.”