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 Falls, Wis., 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 longtime member of both the Midwest Region and national boards for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., Bemis received 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 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.''