Plastics News has selected three finalists for its annual Processor of the Year Award: grating producer Fibergrate Composite Structures Inc.; Innovative Injection Technologies Inc. (i2Tech), a custom injection molder that serves agricultural and recreational equipment and other markets; and automotive molder U.S. Farathane Corp.
Last year's winner was Miniature Precision Components Inc. of Walworth, Wis.
Plastics News will announce the winner March 7 in Tampa, Fla., during its Executive Forum 2006. The finalists and winner will be honored at a ceremony and reception that evening, and the following morning a senior executive from each finalist company will participate in a best-practices breakfast panel discussion. The winning processor also will be profiled in the March 13 issue.
The award, which began in 1996, aims to honor excellent, well-rounded companies by looking at seven criteria: financial performance, quality, customer relations, employee relations, environmental performance, industry and public service, and technological innovation.
The PN editorial staff does the judging. Ernst & Young Corporate Finance (Canada) Inc. once again is co-sponsoring the award and helped analyze the nominees' financial performance.
Here is a look at the finalists, in alphabetical order:
Dallas-based Fibergrate specializes in grating made from fiber-reinforced plastic composites. Its products also include platforms, ladders, handrails and no-slip stair coverings commonly seen at corrosive work areas such as chemical plants, paper mills and offshore oil rigs. The products, which compete against steel, hold up for decades under harsh conditions.
Fibergrate's plant in Stephenville, Texas, uses the pultrusion process. The plant also houses the largest molded grating operation in the United States - as veteran crews alternate layers of resin and glass roving into cross-hatched molds.
Molded grating is labor-intensive. But the plant's quality products, coupled with the flexibility of the workforce and Fibergrate's ability to design complete grating systems, have kept the company strong in the face of grating imports from China, which have increased in recent years.
Fibergrate's markets grow more diverse every year, company officials said. Its grating and handrails have been used for amusement park rides and water parks, fountains, waterfront structures and aquariums. Using hand-layup, Fibergrate even makes one-of-a kind structures to hide cellular phone towers - including church steeples and silos. That diversity smoothes out the bumps faced by individual markets, and has led to double-digit sales increases in the past several years. In 2005, Fibergrate generated sales of $50 million, a 22 percent jump over 2004 sales.
Fibergrate was founded in 1966. In 1995, Fibergrate bought competitor Chemgrate Inc., later closing two plants and consolidating production in Stephenville. Two years later, Fibergrate itself was acquired by RPM International Inc., a Medina, Ohio-based holding company that makes specialty coatings that fight corrosion.
Working with other RPM companies helped Fibergrate develop nano-sized additives that suppress smoke and fire in its grating products.
In 2002, Fibergrate created a marketing alliance with Vadodara, India-based grating giant Kemrock Industries and Exports Ltd. Last year, Fibergrate bought the FRP Division of IKG Industries in Queretaro, Mexico.
Fibergrate employs 270.
In the judging, the firm scored high in technology, customer relations and quality, employee relations and public service.
Fibergrate was self-nominated for the award.
The custom molder generated $26 million in sales for 2005 and employs about 145 in West Des Moines, Iowa. The company has a storied history - and the men who led a management buyout in 2003 plan a dynamic future.
Founded in 1960 as Mid-Central Plastics Inc., the factory became one of the top molders in Iowa. Mid-Central made its first shipment to Deere & Co. in 1971 - marking the beginning of 35 years of service to the agricultural equipment maker.
Morton Industrial Group Inc., a larger maker of metal and plastic parts, bought Mid-Central Plastics in 1998 and ran the plant as part of Morton Custom Plastics. Robert Janeczko, a Morton executive who once headed Morton Metalcraft, became general manager of the Iowa plastics plant in 2001.
In 2003, Janeczko, his son Josh, and General Manager Stuart Oxer led a management buyout. (Earlier this year, the Janeczkos bought out Oxer's stake.)
In 2004, the owners invested $3 million in new equipment and infrastructure improvements, raising the ceiling to accommodate several large-tonnage presses from Husky and Nissei, and adding a new chiller system, plumbing and electrical lines and air compressor. They invested about $750,000 in 2005.
In addition to opening the purse strings, management has moved to diversify i2Tech's customer base. Deere remains the biggest customer, but it no longer accounts for more than half of total sales. The molder moved into the building products market last year, and also serves the industrial and office furniture markets.
For a small molder, i2Tech pushes technology hard, including twin-shot molding, molded-on graphics, gas-assisted injection molding and sequential valve gating. In addition to technological innovation, the judges said i2Tech scored points for customer relations, quality and environmental performance.
I2Tech was nominated by Gary A. Foote, president of Technical Polymers LLC, a compounder of engineering plastics and thermoplastic elastomers in Buford, Ga.
A Processor of the Year finalist last year, this Sterling Heights, Mich.-based automotive molder and extruder returns to the finalists' circle as an even stronger contender.
One big moment came in October, when General Motors Corp. invited the plastic processor, with $80 million in sales, to be one of six suppliers to show its wares at GM's TechWorld. USF showed 36 technologies, many using two-shot molding, designed to save the automaker big money.
Earlier in 2005, GM named USF one of its top 250 global suppliers, which gives Farathane access to quarterly supplier meetings.
Also in the past year, USF's information technology department developed an in-house manufacturing resource planning system to tie each location together. That's important as USF expands from four injection molding factories and two extrusion plants, all in Michigan, to a new Southern plant set to open this year in Jackson, Tenn.
USF expects sales to top $100 million this year. Employment should increase from 575 to more than 650 when the Tennessee plant begins production.
Farathane runs about 100 injection molding machines. The company makes a range of parts, including window-latch assemblies, headrest guides and brake reservoirs.
Under President and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Greenlee, USF has invested selectively in new technologies that give more bang for the buck - meaning profitable molding, which in the brutal automotive world is a tall order. Two-shot molding has grown steadily, now accounting for about 40 percent of total sales and making Farathane one of the largest U.S. multicomponent molders. Two-shot parts such as side seat panels, head- and taillight housings and interior trim parts come out of presses fully done, saving customers assembly costs.
Now Farathane is moving into large-tonnage molding, acquiring several presses with 1,500 tons of clamping force, with rotating platens for two-shot molding and two 2,000-ton machines for traditional molding. Until now, Farathane's largest press was a 720-tonner. Robots run on more than half of the company's presses.
By moving forward to get rid of shoot-and-ship work and add new technologies, USF earned high marks from the judges in the technology category.
USF also won points for solid financial performance, since it has been consistently profitable. After staying in the mid-$60 million range for several years, as the company rid itself of shoot-and-ship molding, sales jumped up in 2004 and 2005, with a big jump projected for 2006.
The company also gets credit for quality, customer relations and employee relations.
U.S. Farathane was created in 1971 by Cy Edwards when two companies, U.S. Plastics and Farathane Corp., merged into one entity. The company was self-nominated for the award.