The California Film Extruders and Converters Association usually honors someone with strong California business ties with its annual Leo Shluker Award.
This year, however, the group picked Larry Johnson, 67, of Ponte Verda Beach, Fla., acknowledging the contribution of someone who has played a wider industry role.
Ill health kept Johnson from attending CFECA's Jan. 9 meeting in Cerritos, Calif. Johnson is undergoing cancer treatments.
The Shluker award is Johnson's second honor in the past year. In April, the Film and Bag Federation honored him with a special commendation during its conference in Tampa, Fla., particularly praising his advocacy for recycling plastics. Johnson is a longtime FBF director.
Business associates, industry leaders and an environmentalist lauded Johnson's contributions in telephone interviews, noting that he has raised the awareness level of the plastics industry and national trade associations and responded adroitly to critical situations.
``Larry's strongest attribute is his extraordinary leadership ability,'' said Johnson's former business partner William Seanor. ``He can develop long-term relationships and cause people to perceive his empathy.'' Seanor now is chairman and chief executive officer of flexible packaging converter Overwraps Packaging Inc. of Dallas.
Kevin Kelly, CEO of Emerald Packaging Inc. in Union City, Calif., said: ``It is really impossible to overstate the important role that Larry has played in the last few years in the industry. Larry's role is indispensable.''
Johnson's force of personality has pushed communication with environmentalists and zeroed in on the industry's critical issues, said Kelly. ``He has the legitimacy, knowledge, personality and willingness to do that.''
``CFECA could not have chosen a more appropriate and deserving individual for this award,'' said Jack Riopelle, president of Wisconsin Film & Bag Inc. of Shawano Wis., and chairman of FBF, a business unit of Washington-based SPI.
``Larry has given tirelessly of himself'' in working with CFECA, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the industry to present the industry's position ``with professionalism, great passion and an extraordinary comprehension of the issues and the challenges the industry faces,'' Riopelle said.
``Larry is not at all bashful about speaking to the fact that our industry as a whole needs to do a better job of environmental stewardship. That took a great deal of courage, but it brought Larry a great deal of credibility with certain agencies trying to tax or ban plastic bags.''
Donna Dempsey, executive director of Washington-based FBF, said Johnson's knowledge, credibility and compassion showed local governments and environmental groups that industry could do the right thing.
Prior to Johnson's vigorous involvement, ``I don't think industry truly had the spirit to want to partner'' with agencies such as the California Integrated Waste Management Board and the California Coastal Commission and groups such as Californians Against Waste, said Dempsey.
CAW leader Mark Murray said he has ``a tremendous amount of respect'' for Johnson and his forthrightness.
``Larry wants to solve problems,'' said Murray, executive director of Sacramento, Calif.-based CAW. ``He is definitely not someone who rolls over'' or easily yields ground.
Over 2½ years, Johnson and Murray have worked to craft solutions to problems with plastic bags without getting into the more common rhetorical battles.
``I found him a thoughtful and reasonable advocate for his point of view,'' Murray said. ``He was willing to sit down, roll up his sleeves and find a solution.''
Johnson is an activist with FBF, but he, Seanor and Leon Farahnik recognized that the industry in California needed a more powerful and reasoned vehicle to respond to various anti-plastics initiatives. ``We decided the FBF was not the right vehicle,'' Seanor said.
As a result, five plastic bag manufacturers including Vanguard and Farahnik-led Hilex Poly Co. LLC formed PBA in early 2005 to address proposed bag bans, taxes and related issues.
Johnson, who was appointed and continues as PBA chairman, took the assignment seriously and worked through numerous regulatory and legislative situations while simultaneously performing his regular duties as Vanguard president and a managing partner.
``He took on additional responsibilities with PBA,'' Seanor said. ``He focused a high percentage of his time on issues confronting PBA, and he used his leadership and organizational skills to bring that effort together to represent industry in a convincing manner. That resulted in successes in California.''
The founding firms funded PBA with $500,000 on its first day and have ``raised upward of $1.5 million,'' mostly for recycling awareness and implementation programs, said an amazed Laurie Hansen, a lobbyist in Sacramento. The PBA retained her services.
``They wanted to know what it would take for the industry to get us out of this'' downward spiraling situation, Hansen said.
``We actually put programs into place,'' she said. ``That was all Larry. He gave environmentalists and local governments his word, and he kept it.''
Among other things, those efforts led to an agreement between San Francisco officials and grocers to reduce usage by 10 million bags; that avoided a proposed 17 cent-per-bag tax. ``Los Angeles [also] was moving that way and threatened a 10 cent tax,'' Hansen said.
Johnson evangelizes about his recycling experiences, encouraging others to take responsibility for controlling resin pellets in manufacturing environments, Hansen said.
Hilex of Hartsville, S.C., acquired Vanguard in October 2005. At that time, Vanguard's seven plants had annual sales of about $350 million, and Hilex's five facilities had sales of about $300 million.
As a consequence of the sale, Johnson further increased his focus on environmental issues. He disengaged from hands-on daily management duties and became a consultant to Hilex owners with a primary responsibility to pursue the PBA agenda and focus on initiatives potentially affecting the bag industry.
In his spare time, Johnson uses his significant creative and mechanical skills in woodworking to make furniture and help with home remodeling and room additions, including at his daughters' homes. He and his wife, Charlene, have three daughters and nine grandchildren.
Mike McGuiness of St. Louis proudly counts himself as being among Johnson's proteges from their days at Ivex and Vanguard.
He recalled Johnson's lesson about turning off the proverbial light switch at the end of a work week and leaving the switch off during weekend time at home with family members.
``My approach to interacting with people mirrors the approach I learned from Larry Johnson,'' McGuiness said.
CFECA of Newport Beach, Calif., began the Leo Shluker Award in 1985 in recognition of the group's founder and first president.