SHEBOYGAN FALLS, WIS. (June 30, 12:05 p.m. EDT) — Many terms could be used to describe Peter F. Bemis — business leader, innovator, activist, philosopher, maverick. The plain-spoken plastics veteran generally shuns the spotlight, but doesn't hesitate to prod or challenge his industry compatriots when given the opportunity.
The folksy, almost Colombolike demeanor of the Wisconsin native belies that he successfully runs — with his older brother Dick — a progressive, $220 million, family-owned company that had its beginnings 102 years ago as wagon maker White Wagon Works.
Bemis Manufacturing Co. of Sheboygan Fall compression molds, injection molds and extrudes custom and proprietary products. Though a leader in the coinjection and multilayer extrusion processes, the firm is best known for its wood and plastic, Bemis-branded toilet seats — so much so that in 2001 it humorously titled its centennial anniversary book “Be Seated by Bemis.” The same slogan graced the sides of the firm's delivery trucks for decades.
The holder of several patents, Peter Bemis serves as the company's executive vice president and corporate secretary, as well as president of Bemis Contract Group. That unit makes complex and demanding components — often combining core layers of regrind with Class A surface finishes — for such applications as Deere tractors, Polaris personal watercraft and Buell motorcycles. During the past two years, it has worked with machine maker Milacron Inc. to develop a massive, 6,600-ton coinjection press that Bemis uses to mold very large parts out of engineering thermoplastics.
A long-time member of both the Midwest Region and national boards for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., Bemis will receive the Plastics Academy's Frank Marra Plastics Industry Contribution Award June 26 at NPE 2003 in Chicago. He agreed to a rare interview April 1 in Nashville at the SPI Structural Plastics Division conference, where his firm won two awards in the event's annual new-product design contest.
He shared his views on such Bemis hot-button topics as industry competitiveness, technology adoption, industrial design and employee empowerment. Here is an edited transcript of some of his comments.
Q: Given your 34 years in the industry, can you put the current state of affairs into some sort of context?
A: I think we're going through some extremely challenging times right now, not only as an industry, but obviously as a country. And there's been a certain effect on the American psyche that has really changed us. Now … we're trying to figure out how to recover. I'm confident that we will, and [that we'll] re-emerge as a stronger country with a stronger I>esprit de corps. I think the challenge to the industry is to position ourselves to be globally competitive through technology and innovation, in the spirit of the history of our country. That's how we've responded in the past … not to abdicate, or resign ourselves to the fact that we're going to lose our plastics-industry base in this country.
Q: Do you ever remember a time when it was tougher to plan six months, a year ahead?
A: Well, I think it's tough to plan, but I don't think you can afford not to. We have a tendency to be drawn toward short-term issues. And periodically we have to remind ourselves that we have to get a balance between the short-term, tactical issues and strategic issues that are ultimately going to guide us in the direction that we want to continue to go. … And I'd say today, our customers and our suppliers, to an extent, are doing more short-term thinking than I've seen [in a long time]. But I think it's a phase that we're going through.
Q: Is part of the problem that U.S. plastics processors are lagging in efficiency and productivity?
A: When our industry, or any industry, is challenged, that's sort of a call to respond. So I think that … as an industry, we have to accelerate embracing new technologies that differentiate ourselves from overseas competitors and also incorporate technologies that allow us to lower our costs.
Q: Have North American firms done a good job at that, generally speaking?
A: I think there are pockets throughout our industry that have responded. But I think we need to accelerate our response rate. We have to move faster now.
Q: How does one do that?
A: It [requires] a heightened awareness of the challenges of global competition, a recognition by the leadership within our companies that America's plastics industry should be in the throes of re-engineering itself. Part of it depends on our ability, as managers, to get out into the real world and to get exposure to other people's ideas and to benchmark best practices … so we don't become so myopic in our view by staying inside of our companies. We have to get out and see what the rest of the world is doing — not only in the United States, but also what's happening in Europe and Asia.
Q: How well does this industry react to the challenge of implementing new ideas, and taking risks?
A: There are some excellent examples of the plastics industry responding in a very positive way to change. And I think the best example probably is our industry's reaction to the challenges from Japan in the area of automotive. We had fallen asleep at the switch a little bit, and had sort of a call to arms and responded by building some of the finest automobiles that are made in the world now. But it took that wake-up call to say, “Oops, we better get moving.” To me, China is a second wake-up call. And I really believe our industry can respond to this as we did the first time around by going through that process of re-engineering ourselves, redesigning ourselves, increasing our receptivity to change.
Q: Those that don't buy into that will find change thrust upon them, or find themselves in another profession, probably. It's Darwinian, isn't it?
A: It clearly is. It's a classic example that, if you don't change, you really shouldn't be surprised to find someone's cleats on your back. Just because you stop doesn't mean the world's going to stop.
Q: Do you see markets such as China and Mexico as having good promise for you to sell to?
A: I think it's a very solid corporate strategy to create manufacturing sites throughout the world to serve … emerging markets. It has to be done carefully … and with a lot of pre-investigatory work. You have to be sensitive that the products you design are designed incorporating the personal preferences of the markets that you tend to serve.
Q: Bemis' reputation is very good for working with the design community. I'd like you to expound upon the relationship between a manufacturer and an industrial designer.
A: My feelings on that subject are really pretty simplistic. I think the manufacturing and engineering communities that are functional groups within Bemis need to do whatever they can, and take extraordinary efforts, to fulfill the dreams of the industrial designer. And then, in balance, the industrial designer has to develop a confidence … that every effort has been made to make it work and trust the engineer [enough] to say, “He's right, I may be going in the wrong direction.”
Q: I've never heard of another plastics processor whose mantra is “to fulfill the dreams of industrial designers.”
A: It's really a commercial question, in my mind, because if we support a vision of an industrial designer, the probability [increases] … of the product launch being successful and the volumes being successful. Then we as a processor end up being successful. It's a simple formula — if you hamstring the designer to the point where the product loses that sizzle that is needed to sell [it], then you've really shot yourself in the foot from a business standpoint. … If I were an industrial designer, I would certainly like to go to those people who are trying to make what I'm thinking happen, rather than giving me 32 reasons why it can't be done.
Q: With so much high-volume, small-part, high-assembly-content work going overseas, possibly never to return, where are the pockets of opportunity on the shores of North America, for both processors and tooling makers?
A: I think that in both cases, it goes back to this theme that toolmakers need, through technology, to increase their productivity [and] lower their costs so that they remain competitive. Processors, likewise, need to do the same thing. They probably have to select more complex and challenging types of business, whether it's toolmaking or parts, [since] clearly the simplest of parts and tools are going to be more vulnerable than the more complex parts and tools.
Q: Can we expect Bemis Contract Group to expand overseas anytime soon?
A: One of the things I would have more interest in … is to support our [original equipment manufacturer customers] on a more global basis, either with manufacturing facilities ourselves or [via] joint ventures with other molders in, for example, Europe and China. That would have more of an appeal to me — following our customers. [He mentioned, for example, places such as the Czech Republic and Hungary.]
Q: Can we expect any announcements in the foreseeable future?
A: Nope (laughs). We're busy … our business is growing very rapidly. As it relates to the OEM business, we're trying to maintain a growth rate in the neighborhood of 15-25 percent per year.
Q: Have you been achieving that — even in this economy?
A: Yes … by bringing value [to our customers] in product design and cost-effective technology, we've been able to do that. Of course, the challenge is to continue to attempt to reinvent ourselves, so we continue to bring that value going forward.
Q: Speaking of innovation, your 6,600-ton coinjection molding machine … what kind of doors has that opened for you?
A: The 6,600-ton has made available to us industry segments that before were just not injection molding applications, and can now be considered injection molding applications. One of the examples I can think of is the truck industry, for the skins and close-out panels on large trucks.
Q: Are you doing some of those now, or are you just targeting those?
A: We're targeting those right now, and investigating that industry segment and trying to learn more about this segment — what its needs are, what needs aren't being met today, so that we can fashion our strategy.
Q: That would take you into head-to-head competition with companies such as Mack [Molding Co.], on the large-part side, wouldn't it?
A: Right. But Mack does some pretty neat stuff. We sort of like the idea of competing with well-managed companies. It makes us better.
Q: Your company's progressive approach to employee empowerment is well-documented. Can you comment on this, and perhaps offer advice to others who don't have the same vision?
A: Well, to me, this seems so fundamental and so basic. But I feel that a manager is going to make the best decision when it's based on knowledge. So then it's a question of how do I acquire knowledge in order to make good decisions.
Well, I have to look outside of Bemis, but I also have to look inside and find out from our employees what decisions in the past have worked and which ones have not worked in order to improve the quality of the decision making. And it seems so intuitive, that it's hard for me to sometimes understand why people are not a lot more anxious to do that than they sometimes appear.
Q: How do you feel about the industry trade association leadership as it is now? You have had some strong opinions about the old Society of the Plastics Industry days.
A: My sense is that the various organizations that represent the industry … have a much clearer view today of the importance of working in a cooperative effort with one another, recognizing ... that we are all dependent on one another to succeed.
Q: Are they doing a good job of executing this?
A: It could always be better, but I think that, generally speaking, it's far and away improved, compared to as little as three to four years ago.
Q: Is there something more that should be done at the trade-association level regarding things such as the re-engineering proc-ess that needs to take place, or in dealing with the threat from China?
A: I think one of the things that can always be improved is that, as an industry, we need to have the government leaders understand the importance of maintaining a strong industrial base in this country, and to have them sensitive to the fact that the U.S. can be globally competitive, but needs the government's help to make sure that we're competing on a somewhat level playing field. [This] is a huge challenge for our government. But I think it's something that's essential to maintaining a lifestyle that we've become accustomed to in this country.
Q: That falls, obviously, to the industry to promote itself and to educate lawmakers. Is enough being done in this area?
A: A lot is being done, but I think a lot more could be done. And it's got to come from individual companies, it's got to come from trade organizations, it has to come from the media. So the responsibility … falls on our whole industry, to heighten the awareness of the importance of not only our industry, but of the whole manufacturing base in this country. Sometimes I think politicians may not recognize the ripple effect or the potential danger of losing our industrial base.
Q: What do you think of the plan for a plastics pavilion at Epcot in Disney World?
A: It's a neat opportunity for our industry. It's a chance to both strut our stuff to show the strength of the plastics industry, and hopefully improve the overall image of the industry, and make careers in the plastics industry more attractive. It's an exciting thing for us. We have to [seize the opportunity], and I think we will. There's been some tremendous leadership from some materials suppliers that really helped jump-start the whole concept. And I'm supportive of it, and hope others are going to jump on the bandwagon and support it, as well. It's a good excuse to go to Disneyland!