Executives at the Ohio Polymer Summit urged the plastics industry to change its mind-set about China and foreign competitors, and to rely on networking to build competitive strength.
``None of us can do all these things ourselves,'' Tom Waltermire, chairman and chief executive officer of Avon Lake, Ohio-based PolyOne Corp., told attendees.
``The whole magic of this gathering is the networking that takes place.''
That networking involved 225 industry leaders who attended the April 28 event in Columbus.
Ohio, like other states, is trying to foster high-technology industry - what Gov. Bob Taft called the ``knowledge economy.'' In a speech kicking off the meeting, Taft noted that plastics and polymers employ 130,000 Ohioans at 2,800 firms.
Part of the challenge is linking leading Ohio university polymer programs with industry.
In November, Ohio voters rejected a bond issue that would have raised $500 million over 10 years to help fund Taft's Third Frontier Project, designed to support research leading to jobs.
Taft said the loss was disappointing. But at the Polymer Summit, he stressed that most Third Frontier money already was in place - $1.1 billion over a 10-year period. The bond issue, billed as the ``third leg'' of funding, would have bumped up the total to $1.6 billion.
``The Third Frontier Project is alive and well. It would've been at a larger scale if the bond issue had passed. But more than two-thirds of it is in place,'' Taft said in an interview after his speech. State leaders may try another ballot issue in the future, he said.
Taft said the state is investing $11.5 million of Third Frontier money to develop and commercialize new polymer products. That includes $2 million for the National Composites Center in Kettering, Ohio; $2 million to Ohio State University for nanocomposite foams; and $1.6 million to Kent State University for flexible liquid crystal displays.
Global competition was a hot topic at the meeting. Panelists encouraged companies to view China as a place to do business, rather than as a low-cost competitor stealing U.S. business. Waltermire, for example, said 4 percent of PolyOne's sales come from Asia, and that's growing rapidly. Waltermire threw out another statistic: 75 percent of PolyOne's business in Asia is with European and U.S. transplant firms.
``In today's interconnected business environment, turning our backs on any part of the world isn't an option,'' he said.
Small companies can compete globally, but they have to get creative, according to another panel. Plasticolors Inc., a 140-employee company in Ashtabula, Ohio, that makes pigments and painting systems, has licensees in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and South America, said Steve Walling, chief executive officer.
To help smaller Ohio polymer companies compete, industry group PolymerOhio Inc. has created Purchasing and Shared Services LLC, an initiative for 1,800 polymer companies in Ohio that have fewer than 150 employees.
``We want to help lower their costs, and we want to help them have shared services, like research and development, administrative services and legal services, those types of services that are difficult to afford,'' said Wayne Early, executive director of PolymerOhio.
``We will do all we can to make these 1,800 companies look like a large company,'' Early said.
PolymerOhio also has money to help pay the cost of interns at Ohio plastics and rubber firms.
Robert Fry, DuPont Co.'s senior associate economist, surprised many with his news that the U.S. economy is nearly two years into a recovery. Moreover, U.S. manufacturing is growing again after hitting bottom last May. The long, drawn-out decline was due in part to that structural shift of production moving offshore.
``We're finally crawling out. Things are starting to pick up. We are going to grow, going forward,'' Fry said, noting that U.S. growth is becoming more balanced, spreading from housing and consumer spending to manufacturing. Economic growth has accelerated all over the world, with growth led by Asia and North America.