The head of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., Don Duncan, is stepping down early next year after nearly five years leading the group.
Duncan's retirement as president means one of the industry's largest trade groups will have to find a new leader, at a time when plastics companies face tremendous challenges in an economy that cut 100,000 plastics jobs since 2000, and as members push the group for a stronger role globally.
Duncan, 62, took over SPI in early 2000 after retiring from a 34-year career with DuPont Co., including running the $1 billion DuPont Dow Elastomers joint venture. SPI announced his retirement Oct. 8.
He arrived at a tumultuous time in SPI's history, when the group had lost significant membership and was, in the words of one current SPI board member, in a ``civil war'' with the American Plastics Council, the industry's other big trade group, over failed merger talks.
SPI board members credit Duncan's diplomatic style with helping to restore the group to solid financial footing, mending some fences with APC and raising funds for a high-profile, $6 million plastics exhibit at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
But it was not all smooth sailing during Duncan's tenure. The group's former top lobbyist said SPI's government affairs profile in Washington faded - and SPI officials say they do want to beef up their political presence. SPI's worker-training initiative struggled to be self-sustaining, and the trade association, with an $8 million budget for its core programs, has a lot fewer resources than it did in the 1990s.
Still, SPI board members praised Duncan.
``Don's been very helpful in turning the SPI in a positive direction for the entire industry,'' said Robert Ackley, immediate past chairman of SPI and president of extruder maker Davis-Standard Corp. in Pawcatuck, Conn. ``He's done a very good job.''
SPI said Duncan will retire in the first quarter of 2005, and Ackley said the group hopes to name a new president by early 2005. Ackley and other SPI officers are on the search committee, along with executive search firm A.T. Kearney Inc.
Duncan said the decision to step down was a personal one.
He said his wife, Betty, retired from DuPont last year, and he said that since the Disney project now is running, it is a good time to leave. He said he will remain in his job until the group finds a new leader. Duncan said in a brief Oct. 14 interview that he had not had time to reflect on his tenure,
Several SPI board members interviewed said they would like to see the group choose Duncan's successor from the industry, rather than a trade association professional or Washington politico.
Maureen Steinwall, president of injection molder Steinwall Inc. in Coon Rapids, Minn., said the industry is complicated, with material suppliers, processors and equipment suppliers sometimes having divergent interests. That can be tough to navigate, and it's probably easier to teach an industry professional about Washington than the other way around, she said.
She said Duncan had a diplomatic style, which was needed when he arrived ``because emotions were running pretty high, with the APC thing, and we had run into a recession.''
``I think the new leader will want to be conscious of that successful style, because it's still an industry that is healing,'' Steinwall said.
Both Steinwall and Ackley said the new leader will have to take SPI in a more international direction.
``I think what we need to look at is how are we going to help what used to be a relatively United States-based trade association make a positive impact on their members as it relates to the global competitive situation,'' Steinwall said.
Board member Jim Buonomo, corporate vice president at molder Nypro Inc. in Clinton, Mass., said SPI has much stronger member involvement now, and he said one of its challenges will be balancing demands to do more on trade and federal manufacturing policy with its more-limited resources.
The new leader is not likely to face quite as contentious an internal environment as Duncan walked into.
Before Duncan was hired in 2000, various members of SPI publicly pushed for candidates of their choice and questioned the group's relevance. The materials industry, for example, strongly advocated hiring a candidate with a background in the resin side of the industry.
Duncan's resin experience let him ``balance the portfolio'' and keep the resin industry involved at a time when it was abandoning SPI for APC, said Lawrence Galpin, an SPI board member and executive vice president of fluorochemical manufacturer Daikin America Inc. in Orangeburg, N.J.
``He started to raise the profile of the materials council ... otherwise the whole materials group would have migrated elsewhere,'' Galpin said.
While internal strife may have eased, Galpin said intermaterial strife will be a key issue for the new president.
Daikin, for example, is part of another trade group that advocates fire safety issues by using fluoropolymers in cables, in direct competition with vinyl.
``Now we have polymers replacing polymers,'' he said. ``There are potential internal conflicts.''
Duncan was paid $254,000 in 2002, according to SPI's most recent financial filing with the Internal Revenue Service. That filing covered seven months of the year, but it was not clear if that was a full- or part-year salary. SPI officials declined to comment.