Loss of 30 percent of his firm's business. A layoff of at least 60 employees. One consolidation.
That was Steve Nichols' first year as president and general manager of injection molder Western Plastics, based in Portland, Tenn.
``It was an exhaustive challenge,'' Nichols said in a June 19 telephone interview. ``We've got a lot of nice people that are no longer with us. That's the hard part.
``You grow up fast. You have resources within you that you don't realize are there. And you have to have great people. I wouldn't trade any one of them right now.''
Now, the name of the game is automation and an approach Nichols calls ``infectious customer service.'' The firm also is moving into niche areas, such as bulk molding compounds for high-heat applications.
``We lost nearly 30 percent of our business last year in the appliance industry,'' Nichols said. ``That was strictly on pricing. I was told I had to reduce my price greater than 10 percent. We elected to forfeit that business. That really started what I call a retrenching process for us. We are sitting here today a much better company than we were last year.''
Most recently, the firm added two 330-ton Bucher presses to process materials from Bulk Molding Compounds Inc. of West Chicago, Ill. (Booth N7535). Western, a 140-employee firm, started production in mid-June with those machines.
Right now, Western is serving the electric motor industry.
``There are a number of others that we're exploring. We've got nice sales with the motor industry,'' he said. ``We're looking at another technology now that is even going to differentiate us more from the competition.''
The retrenching process has included equipping Western's 55,000-square-foot manufacturing site with a new MCS-124 multistation, PLC-controlled materials-handling system from Novatec Inc. (Booth S1402). Western shed its second, 30,000-square-foot facility during the third quarter of 2002, integrating the best of 12 presses into its current plant. Now, with 27 injection presses with clamping forces of 200-800 tons, officials are seeking to reduce production costs as much as possible.
Western was able to remove 48 gaylords of material from the production floor to a central location, officials said. Moving each 1,000-pound gaylord manually was inefficient, and the gaylords consumed a large amount of space around the press area that could have been used for automation and secondary operations, officials said. The firm also was maintaining one drying system for each press. Now, it has three main dryers.
It's one of Western's steps toward making itself competitive with China and Mexico.
``Understanding the competition is the way to compete against it,'' Nichols said. ``It's not just about molding anymore. It's not enough to be a good supplier. You have to be a great supplier. We have to be the epitome of cost reduction.''
By the end of the year, the firm plans to have a computer-integrated manufacturing system in place as well.
``We're not by any means done with automation,'' Nichols said. ``You never will be. We're a work in progress.''
Western has been in operation since 1978, serving several industries, including automotive, lawn and garden, and consumer products. It is owned by Cleveland-based Scott Fetzer Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., based in Omaha, Neb. The firm expects $17 million in sales for 2003.