In the 10 years since extrusion firm Preferred Plastics Inc. stepped out on its own as a private company, it has been playing under a whole new game plan.
The company has diversified, changing its focus from automotive - where 95 percent of its sales were to auto suppliers - to a broader customer base - where business from bowling alleys now represents its largest niche.
It also has doubled sales and purchased two factories from rival Fabricated Extrusion Co., in a move to expand even further.
``This is a first for us in stepping up and acquiring these facilities,'' said Michael Howes, president of sales and marketing during a July 22 interview at Plainwell-based Preferred Plastics.
The June 27 purchase of Fabricated Extrusion's plants in Hagerstown, Md., and Louisville, Ky., for an undisclosed sum, brings Preferred another $9 million in sales and 37 employees. Preferred will continue to run the businesses with the existing staff, customers and suppliers. But the firm expects those plants, as well as its own, to reach their potential by sharing expertise, Howes said.
``They have a different way of looking at things, a way of running materials that is going to be to our advantage to tap into,'' he said.
Fabricated Extrusion, part of RJF International Corp. of Fairlawn, Ohio, retains operations in Modesto, Calif., and Fresno, Calif. RJF has been focusing more closely on its commercial wall covering business, and it made sense to seek another buyer for its two eastern extrusion plants, said commercial development director Jeff Peck.
``Preferred was a very good fit and it's their core business, which it isn't for us,'' Peck said.
A team led by Plainwell businessman Tracy Tucker acquired the extrusion business in 1995 from United Technologies Automotive Inc., seeing a business opportunity that also let the community retain jobs.
The operation specialized in extruding PVC trim for auto seats - the narrow strips of material marking the line between a seat back and side, for instance.
Preferred still is a big player in that market. Its lines, operating at up to 250 yards per minute, turn out 90 percent of the seat trim used by North American automakers. The auto industry accounts for 30 percent of its overall business.
But as an independent firm, it also began casting a wider net for customers, Howes said.
Preferred extrudes components for vinyl windows, tubes for air-powered toys and trim for gym bags and purses. It makes a protective boot covering electrical systems on New York's subway system and pipes used in waste-water treatment systems.
Seven years ago, the bowling industry came calling when a customer was having problems with a part in a ball-return system. Preferred solved that issue, and has gone on to supply extruded elements used throughout bowling alleys - everything from gutters to the trim on scoring tables.
The company now ships out PVC gutters for 3,500 bowling lanes annually.
Preferred now has about $11 million in annual sales and 56 employees running 28 different extrusion lines from the 160,000-square-foot Plainwell head- quarters. It also has in-house compounding and toolmaking.
The firm's executives began targeting potential acquisitions three years ago, in search of an expansion that would help Preferred grow.
The two Fabricated Extrusion plants bring new technology, capabilities in different materials and new customers to its mix, Howes said.
``We're seeing advantages going both ways,'' he said. ``They're bringing things to the table for us, and we're bringing new things to the table for them.''