The plastics industry in North Carolina seems to be holding its own, in the wake of some high-profile manufacturing black eyes - closings of Pillowtex Corp. textile plants and the VF Jeanswear jeans factory, plus the steady erosion of furniture jobs from the Tar Heel State.
``There are plenty of good, general plastics operations that serve the medical industry and other areas. And generally, they're doing reasonably well,'' said Bob van Brederode, international development manager for plastic and chemicals industries at the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
Some sectors are hurting - for example, molders that supply bobbins and other parts for textile plants, he said.
Last summer, Kannapolis, N.C.-based Pillowtex announced it was going bankrupt, unable to compete against imported towels, sheets and comforters. The firm said it would close five plants in North Carolina, wiping out 5,500 jobs - the state's biggest-ever job loss from a single event.
But van Brederode, who worked for 25 years in the plastic resin industry before joining the government three years ago, is pushing exports and technology as a way to keep North Carolina's plastics industry healthy.
He pitched that message at the Commerce Department's booth at Plastics Encounter Southeast, held March 23-25 in Charlotte. The state has about 500 plastics companies.
``We had a fellow who came here in the booth. He has been injection molding for the textile industry. That was his business. He came here and said, `What can you do to help me find something else to sell products to?' I asked him if he's selling products to customers overseas. No, he hadn't. Also I said, `Do you do something unique?' He said yes and I asked him to consider outsourcing. So he is now looking at that,'' van Brederode said.
The export strategy seems to be working. After falling in 2002, North Carolina's exports of plastic products and molds rebounded in 2003. Exports of plastic articles to customers outside the United States hit an all-time record of $825 million in 2003. Canada and Mexico were the top two markets, but the state saw big jumps in exports to China, the Netherlands, Korea and Belgium.
Work also comes from the other direction - foreign companies moving to the region. Companies supplying BMW AG's huge car factory in Greer, S.C., have spilled over into North Carolina, van Brederode said.
Economic development leaders are promoting ``tolling'' opportunities, in which foreign companies contract with the state's plastics companies, he said. North Carolina will have a booth at the Chinaplas show June 29-July 2 in Shanghai.
Also helping to draw foreign companies is the weak dollar - though van Brederode prefers to say the dollar is ``down to more normal levels.''
Van Brederode also encourages plastics companies to take advantage of the state's Chemical, Plastics and Rubber Enterprise Team, which he chairs. The group includes representatives of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., the chemical and petroleum industries, electric utilities and colleges.
The enterprise team coordinates the state's resources to help companies already in North Carolina. ``Existing companies account for 80 percent of our employment growth,'' he said.