Plastics recycler and extruder Obex Inc. is out of business, ceasing operations at its Stamford, Conn., headquarters in early February.
The maker of landscape product NovaWood, started by entrepreneur Celeste Johnson, had been in business for 14 years, and had become known in the region as the place to take all types of plastics waste.
``One of the valuable things about her product is that it didn't splinter, so it didn't pose any particular threat of injury, [because] we also do a lot of work with children and volunteers,'' said Jack Hale, executive director of Knox Parks Foundation in Hartford, Conn., which builds community gardens. ``What we're going to do to replace that, I don't know.''
Johnson came from a background on Wall Street. She leased the site in Stamford, equipping it with two extrusion lines. Now the landlord has a lien on the equipment and Johnson is working to liquidate the business.
``How can you not be intrigued with plastics?'' said the affable Johnson in a Feb. 19 telephone interview. ``It's like the cat with nine lives. It's a great material. The problem is we have to be smarter with how we use it, how we create it and how we re-use it. It's a lot easier to blame an inanimate object than to blame the people that use it.''
While other plastic lumber makers work mostly with high or low density polyethylene, Obex took all types, bucking established beliefs about what could be done with recycled plastics.
``The more research I did, the less convinced I was that plastics had to be separated,'' said Johnson. ``What I had in the plan for 2003 was not only new products, but also the opportunity to take products down South to help de-seasonalize the business.''
By 1994, she had secured Home Depot Stores Inc. as a customer. Along the way, she added Burpee Seed Catalog, the Flaghouse Catalog and Green Culture Inc. Among its achievements, Obex received Connecticut's first Best Recycler Award, and the NovaWood Compost Bin was among the American Horticultural Society's top five products in America.
In a letter to customers announcing the shutdown, Johnson wrote that Obex had been undercapitalized since its founding.
``I have worked hard to create a company that does all the right things, for our community, our shareholders and our customers,'' Johnson wrote. ``But, in the final analysis, I could not create enough excitement about what Obex had achieved - from nothing - in order to make us `sexier' than the companies of the dot-com craze of the last decade that attracted so much of the available investment capital. Without the capital necessary, I simply could not leverage all the advantages inherent in the business that was Obex.''
The company ran into other problems, too. Several workers at the small company were arrested on charges unrelated to the operation of the business. Its second-largest customer stopped paying Obex, Johnson said. Last year Johnson was hurt on the job, when she fell 20 feet from a silo.
``That's what really crippled us,'' she said. Johnson suffered brain, neck and skull injuries, and was unable to do her usual sales duties during the peak season from April to September.
Ed Casper, a Connecticut engineer who wanted to invest in the business last year, said he urged Johnson to add color to her products and give them a more sophisticated finish.
``People want smooth fencing, flooring and decking,'' Casper said in a Feb. 18 telephone interview.
But Johnson said Obex had the product it wanted.
``I'm a landscape and garden company; I'm not a decking company,'' Johnson said. ``I want the light to be diffused, because you want it to be like natural light hitting natural wood. We were the color of expensive, durable cedars and redwoods. That is why we were able to create products that were sold to Burpee and Home Depot.
``My problem was not going to be solved by one investor. I needed someone who was going to be able to cash flow us for an 18-24 month period and build the internal staff strength to take advantage of all of the opportunities that I had created for Obex, all of the market, product and technology opportunities. While I was grateful for Ed's offer, I realized that he would not be able to provide that to us,'' she said.