Noel Cuellar and Ethan Barde launched Primera Plastics Inc. in 1994 as a lean, bare-bones injection molding operation intended to operate primarily as a prototype house.
For the first six months, it was an intense, two-man operation.
``When [Barde] was running the machines and inspecting parts, I was delivering and picking up raw materials, sleeping for four hours and then coming back to relieve him,'' Cuellar said. ``Then he would go deliver parts and pick up materials and sleep for four hours and relieve me.''
Ten years, 115 employees and a business-plan change later, Primera now is a $12 million-per-year operation ready for aggressive growth and already expanding, less than a year after moving into a new building in Zeeland.
``It has exceeded what I ever thought it would be,'' Cuellar said. ``I never thought it would be this big. I never did.''
From the second-floor conference room, Cuellar, Barde and third partner Pete Wagenmaker can look through a window down on the manufacturing floor with 25 presses, including three added since Primera moved into its new home in July.
On the other side of the room, a second window overlooks the ``bullpen,'' where engineers and technicians can hash out molding options.
Outside, construction crews are raising the structural outlines of a 35,000-square-foot expansion that will house a warehouse and a small metal-forming operation to make brackets and other parts needed for completed assemblies. There is space for silos once Primera grows large enough to warrant larger resin purchasing.
``To this point, we've been a little bit afraid of too much growth because we didn't have the room,'' Barde said during an April 16 interview with the three partners. ``A year ago we had an opportunity to take $2 million worth of business. If we were in this building then, it would have been no problem, but we had to pick and choose and take just a small amount of it because we simply couldn't bring it in.''
Cuellar, who is Primera's president, and Barde, the vice president, spent a year preparing to launch the firm before leaving steady jobs at Prince Corp. in nearby Holland.
The company began with two presses in a 5,000-square-foot building. For six months, the partners handled all the work.
They had planned to run a small prototype and sample production house, Cuellar said. Wagenmaker, who then was an accountant at an outside company, convinced them they needed to think bigger.
``When we did our first $250,000 in sales we were all geeked,'' Cuellar said. ``We were looking at a quarter of a million dollars, but then, boom. We had only $1,000 left after we paid all our bills.''
So Primera began focusing on precision molding, working with automotive supply and office furniture companies concentrated in southwest Michigan, making parts such as mirror housings and interior trim. The firm steadily invested in new equipment and hired workers with technical expertise.
By 1996, Wagenmaker was sold on the company, joining as a partner, chief financial officer and vice president of administration.
``I had advised a number of startups,'' he said. ``These two guys came in and when I suggested that they do something, they actually did it. One of the things I had told them right off the bat was they couldn't look at just being a garage shop. They had to diversify their customer base.
``Within a year, they had done that. They had the financing for more equipment. I was very impressed. They had the guts that I don't have.''
Primera is doing well because it has found a strong, specific focus in precision molding and attracted a solid customer base, said Kim Korth, president of IRN Inc., a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based consulting group.
``They're not just chasing revenue dollars,'' she said. ``They're optimistic in that they've figured out what their position needs to be, and how to achieve that.''
Primera is a certified minority supplier, with Cuellar, who is Hispanic, at the helm. Even with the increased emphasis on minority content in the auto industry, though, Primera has not had an easy road winning new contracts.
Early on, Cuellar noted, the firm had to fight to get financing and to get potential customers to take it seriously.
``When we were growing, I would have buyers come in, and after they did the tour, found all the systems we have in place and saw how the company was run, at the end of the day, they'd look at me and say they never thought it could be like this,'' he said. ``I didn't know how to take that.''
``It's meant to be a compliment, but it's not,'' Barde said. ``It's like saying you've done a great job, but they didn't expect a minority company to be this good.''
Instead Primera has stressed its ability to deliver anything its customers need - on time and with the demanded quality. It added cut-and-sew operations to make an automotive center-console part for one customer at a competitive cost, they said.
When a supplier to another customer refused to work on a Saturday, Primera brought in the tool, ran parts through the weekend and delivered the tool back to the original supplier by the start of business Monday.
``You can build a big company with contracts and paper. You can definitely do that,'' Barde said. ``But can you be successful meeting the customers' expectations and goals for the actual product? We know you can because we've built our company from actually knowing and molding.''
Primera has mentored other minority-owned firms, and participated in community projects such as this year's excursion to a hockey game for middle school students who managed to bring up once-failing grades.
Its owners consistently stress feeding cash back into the business to bring in new technology, so much so that Wagenmaker said his wife, a third-grade school teacher, was bringing home more cash than he was until recently.
Investments in new robotics brought direct labor costs down to 12 percent of sales from a high of 18 percent.
But the company had to wait until 2003 to really grow.
It had expanded from its first leased operation to occupy two sites - one 20,000 square feet, the other 24,000 - about two blocks apart. Primera needed more space, more equipment and more employees. It was preparing for a new building in late 2000 when the economy slowed, and the expansion plans were put on hold.
When the environment improved, Primera came back, building its 66,000-square-foot building at the foot of an industrial park. It owns a total of 18 acres with capacity to expand to 264,000 square feet - enough space to house equipment for $60 million to $70 million in annual sales.
Primera added two presses with 720 tons of clamping force to its line of machines that had ranged from 40-400 tons.
Barde laid out a manufacturing footprint with a central materials- handling system. Pipes and electrical connections run down the center of the building, tucked into a narrow passageway between two rows of presses. The hallway also serves as a central storage area for sample parts, instructions and specifications that keeps them easy to access, but neatly out of the way.
Cuellar said he can see a point when Primera will run 60-75 presses - more than double its current fleet.
``Now that we're in this building, our customers can come in here and see our potential,'' Barde said. ``We're starting to see a change where they're looking to us for bigger projects.''