The compounding industry will lose one of its most tenacious survivors July 1 when Robert Schulz ends his 37-year career with LNP Engineering Plastics.
``I'm of that age,'' said Schulz, who turns 66 on June 28. ``I'm looking forward to going to NPE one more time. I usually can't walk 50 feet there without running into someone I know.''
If Schulz chooses to reminisce during his time at NPE 2003 in Chicago, he's earned it. Schulz has survived four ownership changes, including three that occurred while he was president of LNP, a leading engineering resins compounder based in Exton, Pa.
During Schulz's tenure, LNP went from being privately held to being owned by Beatrice Foods, Imperial Chemical Industries plc, Kawasaki Steel Corp. and finally GE Plastics, which bought LNP in early 2002. Under Kawasaki's ownership - and Schulz's guidance - LNP grew from $100 million to $300 million in annual sales during the 1990s.
``I don't know if it got any easier each time it happened,'' Schulz said of LNP's frequent ownership changes. ``I think what helped was that we were always in good shape each time we were sold.
``It was never a turnaround situation where someone was buying us for a song and bringing in someone to clean house,'' he added. ``We were never sold because we were a problem - we were sold because our parent company changed strategies.''
The two-site, 24-employee, Malvern, Pa.-based business that Schulz entered in 1966 is a far cry from the current LNP, which operates 11 plants globally and employs 1,000.
``I was basically a peddler they brought in to do thermoplastics,'' Schulz said of his start with the company. ``I had some plastics sales experience with Celanese, so LNP gave me sales responsibility for the entire eastern part of the U.S. LNP was doing about $3 million in sales then and about $2.5 million of that was in fluoropolymer products - not thermoplastics.''
In that early environment, Schulz and his thermoplastics colleagues had to convince molders and downstream customers to work with them on end-use development. That process is accepted today, but that was not the case in 1966.
``At that point, the idea of calling on a company that wasn't going to give you a direct order was impossible,'' Schulz said. ``But if we got to the engineers at a place like Polaroid and talked to them about resins, we'd get somewhere. We were trying to sell a systems approach years before anybody even called it that.''
Schulz and crew also had to deal with the company's history - founded as a liquid nitrogen processor in a New Jersey garage in 1948 - and its name. There were a lot of trucks on the highways transporting liquid nitrogen - but clearly those weren't all LNP trucks.
``We'd go into a place like IBM and they'd say, `Yeah, we see your trucks all the time with Liquid Nitrogen on the side,' '' he said. ``Half of the people we called on thought we sold fertilizer.''
After a decade of growing LNP's presence in thermoplastics - to the point where filled and reinforced thermoplastics made up half of its $25 million sales base - Schulz had been promoted to vice president of sales and marketing. Then, in 1976, LNP was acquired by an unlikely suitor: Beatrice Foods.
Schulz describes that era as ``the heyday of the conglomerate,'' a time when meetings with Beatrice executives would include ``one guy who was selling potato chips and another guy who was with Tropicana orange juice and another guy who was with Samsonite luggage.''
Beatrice's multifaceted nature was not always a good thing for LNP.
``The good news was that Beatrice left us alone. But the bad news was Beatrice left us alone,'' Schulz recalled.
``They had so many things going on that we couldn't get a nickel out of them for capital projects.''
Ten years passed under Beatrice, with Schulz assuming LNP's top leadership spot in 1981. In 1985, ICI came calling and LNP changed hands again. ICI knew far more about chemicals and plastics than Beatrice, but that also posed some challenges for Schulz and his staff.
``ICI viewed us as a route to market in the U.S.,'' Schulz said. ``The first few years went pretty well, but then they wanted to turn us into their resin sales force instead of being a specialty compounder. It took us away from our strength.''
After only six years, ICI opted out of specialty chemicals and plastics. At that same time, Japanese steel makers like Kawasaki were looking to plastics as more and more automotive applications were switching to that material. Kawasaki executives took out the checkbook, bought LNP, and Schulz again had a new boss.
It would prove to be a profitable union.
``We like to call the '90s our golden decade,'' Schulz said. ``The economy picked up in 1992 and Kawasaki was willing to invest in us.
``We had so many resources and so much talent that it all finally came together. We got all the wood behind a single arrow again.''
LNP always had enjoyed a sizable presence in the automotive market, via fuel pumps and parts for power doors and windows. With Kawasaki encouraging expansion, LNP now became more active in business machines - primarily computer peripherals like printers, scanners and disc drives - that were enjoying explosive growth.
Schulz compared that boom period to ``being shot out of a slingshot.''
But Kawasaki's interest in plastics also faded eventually, and once the firm sold its Asian plastics assets in 1998, LNP was not far behind.
GE Plastics' acquisition of LNP was announced during January 2002. LNP's compounding expertise was deemed a natural fit for GE Plastics' lineup of engineering resins, including polycarbonate.
Schulz already had informed Kawasaki that 2003 would be his last year with the firm. GE Plastics also was aware of his status when negotiating with Kawasaki. Schulz chose not to change his plans after the deal closed.
Over the years, Schulz has built a reputation for consistency and fairness among those who have worked closely with him.
``Bob's always been a great guy,'' said Gordon Lankton, chairman of Clinton, Mass.-based injection molding giant Nypro Inc. ``He comes here frequently to follow up on business and check on his materials.''
Nypro is a long-time LNP customer, but Lankton's association with Schulz goes back to the early 1960s when Lankton was running an in-house mold shop for Stanley Tools and Schulz was selling acetal resin for Celanese.
``Bob's a super customer-focus kind of guy,'' Lankton added. ``I consider him a really good friend.''
Admiration for Schulz extends to Exton, where Carlos Carreno, a 29-year LNP vet, has reported directly to Schulz for most of the past 15 years.
``One of the things about Bob that's kind of unique in today's world is that he's very consistent,'' said Carreno, who was LNP's long-time operations director and now serves as president of LNP Americas. ``His priorities are very clear and he's a very patient leader.
``Sometimes he would drive us crazy by getting so involved with people and personnel issues,'' Carreno added. ``But he had to let employees know that people cared about them and were concerned with how they were doing.''
Schulz's immediate retirement plans include a late-summer family fishing trip in northern Canada. He plans on staying in the Philadelphia area and already has turned down an offer to become chief executive officer of a small plastics firm.
One thing his plans do not include is consulting.
``It's not going to be `Bob Schulz Associates,' '' Schulz said.
Instead, Schulz said he would be interested in serving on the boards of smaller plastics and chemicals companies where he could offer guidance.
``I think I could bring a good range of experience to that table,'' he added.