Peter Bemis has a reputation as a hands-on owner of Bemis Manufacturing Co., a plain-spoken but restless man who loves to push technology forward while maintaining the company's integrity in the small Wisconsin town of Sheboygan Falls.
That could also describe his father, F.K. Bemis, or ``Pete,'' as he liked to be called. Shortly after joining the family business in 1935, he made a decisive move. He instructed workers to feed wood remnants of the company's old line of novelty furniture into plant boilers. That symbolized the demise of Bemis as a furniture factory, and a move in a new direction - toilet seats - that would save Bemis during the Great Depression.
``He loved manufacturing,'' Peter Bemis said. ``He felt that it was critical to a long-term success from a strategic standpoint, to innovate. He felt it was the responsibility of a company to pay responsible wages, and as a result, he needed to automate and to innovate, so that we could continue to be competitive.''
Peter Bemis, 59, has many of his father's traits. The company is an early adopter of technologies.
Under his direction, the company has become one of the premier U.S. injection molders. Bemis Manufacturing pioneered the process of coinjection molding, where scrap plastic can be buried inside an outer skin of more-expensive virgin resin, including engineering resins. Today, the company runs 23 coinjection molding machines - including a Milacron press with 6,600 tons of clamping force, which is believed to be the world's largest coinjection press. It produces mammoth, 8-foot-long hoods for John Deere farm tractors.
This week at NPE 2006, visitors can see lots of six-axis articulating robots, the newest thing for U.S. custom molders. Well, in one building in Sheboygan Falls, six-axis ABB robots run on all 52 injection presses - installed back in the early 1990s.
Coextrusion. Gas-assisted injection molding. Sequential molding. MuCell. Tri-injection. Overmolding.
Bemis doesn't like to put limits on what can be manufactured, said Steve Kolste, a veteran of Bemis Manufacturing who nominated him for the Plastics Hall of Fame. Company officials want to make a part faster, or make complex parts nobody ever thought of before.
``We'll go through the `why not?' scenario, and if we can't find any real reason to not do it, then we assume we can. Then we just go ahead and do it,'' said Kolste, manager of market and business development.
Recognition for legacy of leadership
Bemis is a recognized leader of the plastics industry, active as a board member of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the National Plastics Center in Leominster, Mass. He just got named to head the Society of Plastics Engineers' technical advisory board, which helps SPE keep tabs on technologies of the future.
That leadership culminates this NPE week, when Bemis gets inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
In late April, Bemis discussed his career, seated in his modest office at the sprawling manufacturing complex in Sheboygan Falls.
He co-owns the company with his brother, Richard. Both men are third-generation owners. The fourth generation is also represented, as Peter's son Jon and Richard's son Jason work there.
Bemis is executive vice president of Bemis Manufacturing and president of its Contract Group. He is scheduled to assume the titles of president and chief executive officer of Bemis Manufacturing on July 1, when his brother retires and relinquishes those titles.
Bemis Manufacturing employs about 2,400 at seven plants in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. The company does not release sales, but Plastics News estimates it generates $280 million in total corporate sales.
Of that total, an estimated $200 million comes from injection molding, as 140 injection presses turn out a wide range of parts for agricultural, motorcycles, medical, telecommunications, office furniture, appliances and other diverse markets.
Bemis holds 13 process patents, covering methods to manufacture products such as an extruded raceway for an office partition, or a part for a blood collection system.
The love of tinkering goes back to his childhood. ``I'd spend hours in the workshop in the basement at home, building stuff, burning stuff, whatever. I was one of those kids that loved their chemistry set,'' he said.
Making stuff runs in the family.
The colorful history of Bemis Manufacturing is detailed in the book ``Be Seated by Bemis,'' a humorous nod to the Bemis-branded toilet seats, that was published in 2001 when the company turned 100 years old.
Family's business surpasses 100 years
The family company started out as White Wagon Works, maker of wooden wagons for children. Nine-year-old F.K. ``Pete'' Bemis - who would later lead Bemis Manufacturing - helped out during the 1919 Christmas rush. He also pitched in at his father Albert Bemis' business, Bemis-Riddell Fibre Co., which made popular wickerlike porch furniture using a woven paper process.
Al Bemis bought a majority share of White Wagon Works, which was in decline after the death of his brother-in-law, who was part-owner and an executive. He founded Bemis Manufacturing Co. in 1925, to handle sales for the toy wagons.
For several years, Al Bemis and his partner in the furniture company, George Riddell, juggled management of both companies; then in 1928, Bemis took over ownership of the Wagon Works. Riddell took the furniture business - which ended up closing.
Al's Wagon Works diversified into small furniture items like magazine racks and ashtray stands. But the Depression turned those products into an unaffordable luxury. Sales dried up. So the grandfather of Peter and Richard Bemis turned to an essential product used every day - toilet seats.
His employees had the woodworking skills. A nearby Wisconsin company, Kohler Co., was a major toilet manufacturer. Bemis Manufacturing bought seat-making machinery from a defunct furniture maker and hoped to gain the Kohler account. The Kohler business went to another company, but Bemis later won it back, and the relationship continues today.
In 1935, Al's son, Pete, graduated from law school. Back in Sheboygan Falls, it was tough going. Most of his work involved foreclosures. Pete entered the company business, then assumed the role of president and chairman after the sudden death of his father in 1946.
It was time for the second generation. Soon Pete would buy a farm on the outskirts of town, a gradually expanding site that is the home of Bemis headquarters today.
As he enters the Plastics Hall of Fame, Peter Bemis' thoughts are turning to his father, who died in 1987. He remembers the lawyer's love of logic and philosophy, and spirited debates at the dinner table.
``My dad was a really neat man. To begin with, he had a set of core values that he really maintained throughout his life. He felt that, for example, honesty was an important part of doing business, and telling the truth was an important part of doing business. So he had strong ethical standards.''