Stephen Hasselbach started his career at the top - the top floor, that is, of a building in the Bronx making patterns for model airplane kits.
Working in the confined space of a squared-off office building in New York, stripping down to boxer shorts in the height of summer had its merits. Hasselbach not only learned the value of work but he also learned what he liked to do best: designing and crafting something from scratch.
``It was an interesting place to grow up,'' said Hasselbach, named 2004 Thermoformer of the Year in September by the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division. ``The machines were hot, and we had no air conditioning back then. My grandmother would push a button from downstairs when people were coming up. And we'd quickly put our pants back on.''
Hasselbach, who just turned 60, has come full circle since starting in vacuum forming in the back room of a hobby shop started by his father, Art, in the late 1940s. Today, Hasselbach is preparing for another generational change. He is gradually turning over the reins of his thermoforming company, CMI Plastics Inc. of Cranbury, N.J., to his three sons.
In the interim - after starting in his father's nascent business and then spinning off his own company in 1980 - Hasselbach has established some firsts for the industry, especially in medical clean room technology. And he has helped lead the SPE division to the prominent place it now holds within the Brookfield, Conn.-based association.
Yet, while he's helped thermoforming move to more sophistication and broader uses, Hasselbach has not become a suit-and- tie kind of guy. He wants to leave business expansion to his sons. He's content to design products and travel frequently to New York to work with personal-care customers.
``I'm more of a thermoformer than a businessman,'' he said during SPE's Thermoforming Conference, held Sept. 18-21 in Indianapolis. ``Now, I have my boys, and I'll help them turn the business loose.''
Hasselbach's thermoforming career path started in high school. His father received a contract from the Boy Scouts of America to make hobby kits for race-car derbies and balsa-wood airplanes. That evolved into thermoformed signs and dust covers for paper dollars and eventually into blister packaging for cosmetics and medical parts.
Hasselbach would work a regular night shift, being careful not to shock himself with the 110 volts of electricity running through the ovens' valves and switches. Late at night, he would prepare the patterns and molds for the kits. The plastic material, mainly acetate and later high-impact polystyrene, was trimmed by hand on paper cutters.
Hasselbach, who loved the work, opted to skip entering New York University to take over when the shop foreman left for the summer. That was the turning point in his career, he said. He never went back to school, instead opting to learn through experience at his family's shop.
By 1980, Consolidated Models Inc., or CMI for short, had grown into blister packs, trays and displays. Customers included medical-products giant Johnson & Johnson, and products became specialized in areas such as packaging for implant devices.
CMI also expanded to a host of other items from its 30,000-square-foot plant in New Jersey.
``We have satellite parts on the moon in battery packs,'' Hasselbach said. The company even thermoformed molds for popular sculptor George Segal, who died in 2000. ``I have thermoformed limited editions of the back end of a woman that is signed by [Segal],'' Hasselbach said. ``Each one is probably worth $25,000-$30,000.''
And CMI dabbled in the movie business, at least as close as New Jersey allowed. The company worked with movie makeup artist Dick Smith, who worked on the Star Wars films, to make molds for a series of masks. The company never knew what projects were coming in next, Hasselbach said.
Art Hasselbach decided to focus solely on the model end of the business. So in 1980, the father and son split the company in two, with Steve taking over the newly christened CMI Plastics and becoming president and chief executive officer.
Hassebach already had made some inroads in light-gauge thermoforming. Several years earlier, he had started one of the first clean rooms in the business. His clean room included high-efficiency Hepafilters, sterilized chambers, shower stalls and gowns for the workers. ``It was just like going into an operating room,'' he said.
He had learned some things about equipment and materials from spending time with other thermoforming pioneers. Traveling to Europe introduced him to automated equipment and controls, Hasselbach said. He added three full-time programmers soon after taking over the business.
The shop also grew its tooling and development department. Resin companies began sending new materials for a workout at the CMI shop to see how well they responded to thermoforming applications, Hasselbach said. The company started looking at making coffee-cup lids in polyethylene instead of the more-traditional styrenic materials.
CMI also focused on processes. Hasselbach worked with industry veteran Stan Rosen - who nominated him for the Thermoformer of the Year award - on a thermoforming press that would melt the sheet during trimming. That would cut down on slivers and scrap, he said. He also designed new methods to vent tools.
Hassebach served on the SPE Thermoforming Division board for 20 years and spoke on medical-device packaging during the group's first meeting in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. Since then, he has served as technical chair of a growing conference, which drew more than 1,000 attendees in Indianapolis.
He became division chairman in the mid-1990s and now serves as an advisor for the group. He has seen many changes in the industry, both at CMI and through SPE, he said. But the biggest change might be in tooling and advances in aluminum molds, he said.
``There've been some really nice improvements in equipment, but it's still basically conveyors,'' Hasselbach said. ``The heaters are better, the platens are better ... I always thought the area growing the most is tooling. Tooling [for thermoforming] used to be considered cheap in quality, but not anymore.''
In blister packaging, tamper resistance has moved to the fore, he said. If a package takes less than 20 seconds to open, it does not serve its purpose, he said. ``You don't want someone taking a $60 bottle of perfume, slitting the package easily and sliding it into a purse,'' he said.
Now, Hasselbach is prepared to let his sons take CMI into the future. He gradually has slid all three boys into management roles and plans to exit his position slowly during the next five years. Oldest son Steve Jr. runs operations. Mark, the youngest, manages finances. And Jeffrey handles shipping, receiving and inventory.
The three are in the process of changing out old machinery and cutting overhead costs. And there is talk about finding a larger location in the Northeast and hiring an outside salesperson, he said.
CMI employs 44, except in peak seasons, when the number climbs to about 60, Hasselbach said.
He is working on patents for a new coffee-cup lid, one that seals from the inside and does not leak easily. If that product takes off, it could become another part of the business, he said.
He does not sound ready to retire. His father, Art, made craft kits until age 89, a year before he passed away in 2003. Hasselbach said he is excited to get back to product design.
``I've always liked working with my hands,'' he said. ``It's a passion, and I'm always happy doing it.''