In some ways, injection molder Moll Industries Inc. might be the poster child for the industry's downturn of the past three years. It spent the 1990s bulking up, then watched it all come crashing down, as debt led to bankruptcy.
For a sense of how that changed the company, consider what the firm looks like at the top.
Ron Embree, the new top executive at Moll, has what he calls a ``nitty-gritty'' operational focus. He came up through the ranks, spending 13 years running a company plant in Arkansas and serving as vice president of operations before being tapped to guide the firm out of bankruptcy.
It's a marked contrast to the old leader, George Votis, a New York deal maker who led the company with rapid acquisition growth - and significant debt - in the never-say-no 1990s.
Under Votis, the firm expanded into a worldwide molder with $415 million in sales, on its way to implementing a grand vision that seemed to mirror Votis' personal style. He owned a Manhattan townhouse featured in Architectural Digest, for example, and was written up in New York papers for a building dispute with his neighbor, Revlon chief Ron Perelman.
But when the economy wrenched into low gear in 2000, Moll's debt-financed growth proved unsustainable and its lenders forced it into bankruptcy in 2002. Not long after, Votis left.
Now a much smaller Moll is concerned not with building a global platform, but with surviving in an increasingly competitive North American market.
After disposing of much of its operations, including several plants in Europe and an industrial design wing, Moll has emerged from Chapter 11 a very different company. It is focused on North America, and its $120 million in sales, Embree said, puts it at about the same size as when it began its acquisition spree.
It may be too soon to say definitively if Moll has righted itself, but the company said it is profitable and is winning new work. Moll is investing in key facilities, including clean rooms to go after medical work, and some new presses.
``We're exceeding the plan that we had,'' Embree said. ``Our cash availability is probably better now than I've seen it in several years.''
Still, like much of the industry, its capacity utilization remains below the 75 percent level company officials would like before kicking off any major growth. And Moll is dependent on one customer, Whirlpool Corp., for about half of its business, Embree said.
At the moment, Moll does not see redeveloping a global platform, although it said it is open to manufacturing in low-cost locations.
``We believe we can grow and survive in North America,'' Embree said. ``We think there are opportunities here. We think that by becoming better, more cost-effective, using different technologies, [that] there's still work to be had here.''
In a sense, the company is returning to its roots. Moll's relationship with Whirlpool goes back more than 50 years, and three of Moll's four remaining plants in the United States are from the old Moll Tool & Plastics that started in Evansville, Ind., in the late 1940s.
It wants to modernize. Moll said it continues to apply lean manufacturing techniques, and like all molders, it is trying to find ways to add value. The company's board said in a note to employees that it tapped Embree because he improved profitability as Moll's vice president of operations, and he doubled the sales and production capacity at the Fort Smith, Ark., plant in less than 10 years.
Embree said the company is adding more-sophisticated assembly operations, and logistics and distribution operations. It spent $4.5 million on 18 new presses last year.
The company also is adding a few more sales positions, and recently finished moving its corporate headquarters to Dallas to be near its new owners, Highland Capital Management LP, an investment firm with about $8 billion under management.
Highland had been Moll's chief lender, but it forced the company into bankruptcy in 2002 when it was past due on $48.4 million in loans, and wound up taking control of the company in the process.
``I think in 2004, we'll get things lined up, [although] they're pretty well lined up now,'' said Embree. ``We'll get the current facilities running very effectively.''
About half of its work is in the large-appliance market, with about 20 percent in medical, 20 percent in consumer packaging and the rest scattered in longtime markets like office machines and smoke alarms.
Moll is trying to boost business with other large-appliance makers, and, prompted by announcements from Whirlpool and conversations with other customers, Moll is considering a plant in Mexico, Embree said. The company plans to retain its part-ownership stake in a Brazilian molding plant, its only operation left outside the United States.
In the appliance market, processors mainly supply components, while original equipment manufacturers do final assembly, rather than contracting out manufacture of entire devices, he said.
``They are defining their core competencies, and assembly is one of them,'' he said. ``Marketing and developing the product is another.''
The company also aims to grow in both of its other main markets. It recently spent $1 million to upgrade its Seagrove, N.C., facility for medical work, and it has three clean rooms there now. Its existing medical base mainly makes disposable products, but the firm is looking at medical packaging.
The company also wants to grow its consumer packaging business, which it broadly defines to include things from soap containers to industrial towel dispensers.
All that means Moll is eyeing 10 percent annual growth, with expansion or acquisition targeted for mid-2005, but possibly sooner, Embree said.
Highland, Moll's new owner, is interested in using Moll as a platform for other manufacturing investments, but it also is willing to take on debt to do ``focused growth'' for Moll, Embree said.
``One thing we don't do with businesses we own is rush things,'' said Joseph Dougherty, Highland senior portfolio manager. ``If it means slow and steady, we'll go slow and steady. The real objective is to build a good, long-term, stable, steady business.''
He declined to say how long the company will be interested in owning Moll, other than to say ``we intend on running it for a while.''
Moll is the first manufacturing company that Highland owns outright, he said. Highland has debt and equity in some others, Dougherty said.
Moll wants growth, and Embree hopes his diverse background in manufacturing - with a brush company, a plumbing fixture manufacturer and even a stint in the frozen pizza business - will provide the right experience to guide it.
As he observed, it's a different economy from the 1990s, when Moll was on a fast-growth path, with a stable of operations around the world.
Before the bankruptcy, the firm's philosophy was, ``we wanted to grow and sometimes we were growing for ... growth's sake, and not for the right industry or the right market,'' Embree said. ``I don't know if that's right or wrong. It's just different.''
But that was then. Post-bankruptcy, the goals aren't quite so grand, he said: ``It's a very different time in our economy and our industry.''