(March 8, 2004) — Consider, if you will, a rare and seemingly threatened species in the plastics processing industry: the hands-on, entrepreneurial owner.
Perhaps you've seen this creature. Usually male (how do they procreate?), this type of owner is equally comfortable troubleshooting a machine or mold or negotiating resin pricing. He frequently is seen at Society of Plastics Engineers or Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. division meetings, or being taken to lunch by investment bankers interested in making a deal for the company.
In the Jurassic period of plastics, these industry giants frequently were found roaming the streets of Leominster and the aisles of NPE. The industry once was a friendly habitat to thousands of these types of owners. But consider just some of the big names that have disappeared in the past few years: Mulay, Gilbert, Haas, Blin.
Where have they gone?
This week, which marks the 15th anniversary of Plastics News, kicks off a series of 15 columns that will explore key trends and issues that have affected the industry during our tenure. The package will culminate in a special anniversary issue June 21.
Although the industry has experienced incredible change in 15 years, most of it has been the result of external forces. For example, issues like international competition and customer consolidation, and major technology improvements or automation efforts, have triggered massive shifts in the industry landscape. But the retirement of the pioneers and entrepreneurs who built the plastics industry during the past 50 years has produced changes that have been just as significant, although perhaps more subtle.
Although the plastics industry is nearly 100 years old, it has managed to maintain a modern image for at least three generations. Bakelite jewelry and radios were exciting flappers in the 1920s; nylon brushes and stockings were the rage in the 1930s; and polyethylene made radar practical on Royal Air Force airplanes in the 1940s, according to the 1996 book by Stephen Feni-chell, Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century. Yet the plastic-body Corvette still is an icon of modernism today, 50 years after its introduction.
Most of those innovations, and untold millions more, were the result of the efforts of the industry's pioneers, who helped plastics both replace “traditional” materials and find brand-new applications.
One common trait of the industry pioneers was that most were engineers, chemists, machinists or shop-floor operators who graduated to managing or owning their own company.
They wandered through life looking for parts and products that they could replace with plastic, and in many cases made a small fortune.
It's a heartwarming story, to be sure, and the best part for many of today's readers is the last line — you know, the part about “small fortune.”
These days, when you walk the streets of Leominster or wander the halls of NPE, you're more likely to find a generation of plastics industry owners and managers with backgrounds in finance, or professional degrees in business management.
They were attracted to plastics by the growth prospects. They saw huge opportunities to consolidate companies in a very decentralized industry. And they looked at the bottom line and saw the chance to bring processors' sometimes-backward business practices into the modern age.
For now, the change shows up in unusual ways. For example, it seems to be harder these days to find company owners at your average SPE or SPI division meeting, probably because they're more likely to be at home crunching numbers on an Excel spreadsheet or combing the Web for competitive research.
In the meantime, the old pioneers are more likely to be found prowling the golf courses in Fort Myers or Tucson.
But the future holds the really big questions: How will the institutions and traditions created by plastics pioneers adapt to keep a hold on this new breed of owners? How will business relationships change, with suppliers, customers and competitors? How will they react to “new” crises — resin shortages, environmental challenges, technology breakthroughs, credit crunches — that their predecessors already experienced?
And, perhaps most important: Who will be the first MBA in the Plastics Hall of Fame?
Stay tuned …