Miniature Precision Components Inc. was born of innovation - Jay Brost's plastic check valve back in the early days of automotive pollution controls - and nourished by the steady ownership of the Brost family.
``Steady'' in a family-owned, rural Wisconsin sort of way. Leaning toward the conservative business model. Don't take that to mean stodgy. Brothers Jim and Dan Brost, and the other long-time executives, come across as direct and plain-spoken, in the way that running a big factory in a small town can make you.
Local emergency squads rely on volunteers, so MPC lets several of its people serve on-call. That includes Lawrence Austin, the vice president of finance and a 27-year company veteran. When he gets a call, he goes.
MPC's debt is microscopic. But steady sales growth averaging 10-12 percent a year, along with consistent profit, have allowed the company to invest millions of dollars regularly to expand its factories and get into the exotic technology of suction blow molding.
President Jim Brost said: ``Our growth chart sort of indicates that we're always growing enough and we've remained profitable enough to always have a little bit of money in the bank to buy next year's machine, or whatever it is - next year's building.''
MPC is low-key, but a solid leader in its sector, with 1,600 employees and 2004 sales of $167 million.
Now, low-key is about to become loud. MPC has won Plastics News' Processor of the Year Award. The newspaper presented the award March 1 at its Executive Forum in Phoenix.
The firm is based in Walworth, a rural town surrounded by farms in Wisconsin's Lake Geneva resort area, but just an hour or two away from Chicago and Milwaukee. MPC is a major plastics supplier of emission-control parts, injection and blow molded fluid reservoirs and tubing assemblies.
The company pushed the envelope by adopting suction blow molding to make air ducts, oil fill tubes and other hollow parts with complex bends. MPC is one of only two U.S. processors to use the process; the other is Cascade Engineering Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., which won the 2001 Processor of the Year Award.
The judges - who are Plastics News reporters and editors - gave MPC high marks in all of the seven award criteria. Consistently strong financial performance, technological innovation, public service activism, solid employee and customer relations, quality and environmental performance - MPC brings them all together in a bedrock plastics processor.
Jim and Dan Brost are sons of the founder. Dan is vice president of sales and marketing, and he oversees nonautomotive markets, which are important to MPC as it diversifies. The brothers also are formalizing lean manufacturing and Six Sigma, hiring new people to coordinate those efforts.
Six Sigma quality improvement shows how to solve problems by collecting and analyzing information. For a company like MPC, closely held and with older top managers, it's also a way to recognize leading employees.
Jim Brost said expansion is ``important not just as a financial model, but to provide opportunities for people.'' And in the merciless automotive-supply world full of givebacks, employees are one variable a business can improve.
``Our plan is to grow, and allow that growth to create opportunities,'' he said.
MPC runs two factories in Walworth and one each in the small Wisconsin locales of Prairie du Chien and Richland Center. MPC opened a subsidiary factory in Santa Ana, Mexico, in 1988 to assemble tubing harnesses and do molding and extrusion.
MPC has added locations and expanded plants steadily - but other than Mexico, the company has kept its manufacturing within Wisconsin.
That could change. In a Jan. 28 interview in Walworth, leaders described themselves as cautious about adding new debt, but open-minded about adding locations or even making an acquisition.
Prudent, yet ready to leap
``The company was always built on very little, if any, debt,'' said Austin, who joined MPC in 1978. MPC never has made an acquisition but, ``We can go in any direction we want. So if an acquisition comes along, we could move on it,'' he said.
Jim Brost said the preferred choice is always internal growth. But some aggressive diversification goals may prompt the company to borrow money.
Some new business will come from within MPC's existing automotive stronghold. For example, by 2010, MPC wants 25 percent of its automotive sales to come from Japanese transplants - what Brost calls the ``new domestics.''
MPC also wants more appliance work, so the company may decide it needs to open a plant, or buy one, in the Mexico/Texas border area, Brost said. A European plant also might make sense.
All of those options would mean taking on debt.
``We're not used to it, not `in favor of it,' necessarily. You've got to do your homework,'' said Brost, speaking in the flat accent of the Midwest. ``Nobody wants to put their company at risk having debt that they're afraid they can't pay off. We would have debt if we needed it.''
Brost said the principles of his father and mother, Jay and Shirley Brost, created a strong company.
``It's a 30-year history of doing what a business is supposed to do, which is to make money. And I don't think we really turned down many expansion opportunities,'' he said.
Shirley Brost died in 1999 from cancer. MPC started a college scholarship in her name.
Jay Brost has retired from day-to-day management. But he left behind more than a major employer. An accomplished sculptor, Brost created large cast-bronze statues of animals and historical figures, donating them to local communities.