New Orleans injection molder Intralox LLC not only survived Hurricane Katrina but has bounced back with a vengeance. The 35-year-old firm turned in its best sales quarter ever in 2005's October through December period, according to plant manager Paul Horton.
The company, which describes itself as the inventor and world's largest manufacturer of modular plastic conveyor belt systems, is in the midst of a $4 million building expansion. It also recently added eight Krauss-Maffei injection presses to an existing stable of 96 presses at its headquarters in Harahan, La., just outside the hard-hit Crescent City.
Intralox, a subsidiary of Laitram LLC, expects to complete its 25,000-square-foot plant expansion in March. The firm plans to shift a couple of the new presses into the new facility when it opens, but otherwise leave the space to accommodate future growth, Horton said.
In the confusing, wrenching days immediately after Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, Horton wondered if the eight new presses - on order but not yet delivered - might be Intralox's only remaining molding machines. With all of the company's employees evacuated from the immediate area, Horton, who was in Baton Rouge, La., had no way of making contact with anyone who could tell him if his plant remained intact.
The next two days were ``48 hours of terror,'' he said. ``We didn't know if we had a house, a building or if any of our employees had died.''
Horton returned to check out the 100,000-square-foot plant two days after the storm, and he discovered it had suffered only minimal damage but was without power. It remained that way for nine days. A partial staff - many of whom slept at the plant on company-provided air beds - was able to get the plant running Sept. 8.
Some of the 1,000 workers lost their homes and belongings. The company has lost track of a few, but ``we don't believe anybody died,'' he said. Horton assumes they simply left the area and got on with their lives.
Today, employees also occupy nearly all of 50 or so trailers the firm bought to provide temporary housing.
Due to lack of power and staff, Intralox output suffered badly for a few weeks. An evening curfew, implemented by local authorities until Sept. 19, further cut into productivity by limiting the night shift. But Horton said the plant's assembled square feet of belt - one of its primary metrics - ``was not too bad'' in September. Its European operations took up the slack in product assembly. By October the molding and tooling operations in Harahan were back up to full staffing of about 350. That proved to be ``the best month in our company's history in terms of booked sales, invoiced sales, and square feet of belt built and shipped, both out of New Orleans and worldwide,'' Horton said.
``By far the worst thing that happened to us was being out of our customers' view for nine days,'' he said.
A competitor began spreading rumors that Intralox was out of business and, given the challenging communication circumstances, it was difficult to rebut the message quickly. In an informational vacuum, Horton recounted, ``people think the worst.'' It was a tough lesson learned the hard way.
``There is zero chance of that ever happening again,'' he said.
But the company regrouped, and strong business for its modular belts - widely used in the food-processing, beverage, automotive, tire and materials-handling industries - now is driving the expansion. Intralox took delivery of the eight new presses with clamping forces of 35-250 tons by the beginning of December. It also bought a used, 850-ton Milacron machine that should arrive by mid-February. That equals the firm's largest press.
While the molder has some vertical Van Dorns, as well as some older horizontal machines from Milacron, Husky and Van Dorn, Horton, a 17-year Intralox veteran, said Intralox has bought mostly Krauss-Maffei machines during the past 10 years.
The company also runs three large and two small extrusion machines, to make the hinge pins for its modular belts. It extruded more than 100 million feet of plastic rods last year for that application.
The firm also makes the majority of its own injection molds.
Today, Horton said, Intralox is running around the clock, seven days a week, just trying to keep pace with demand. But given the events of the past five months, that's a nice problem to have.