John C. Orr has a penchant for organization and clear-cut strategy.
Orr, president and chief executive officer of plastics and rubber product maker Myers Industries Inc., has been reshaping the company in the year and a half since he took charge.
Gone is its concept of 13 different companies representing 13 brands with 13 general managers each heading in different directions, unlinked to other units of the parent firm.
That format was replaced by a much tighter one featuring five operating groups: automotive and custom; lawn and garden; distribution; and materials-handling groups in North America and Europe.
Basically, the company spread its 13 operations among the operating groups and installed managing directors, all veterans of the firm, to oversee each segment.
``It gives them responsibility for their entire segment, not just the businesses they used to run,'' Orr said during an interview at Myers' headquarters in Akron.
``They were all internal people that we promoted, the best operators we had.''
Each segment director then set up a management team, and the structure was in place.
The five groups were recently reduced to four when the European materials-handling group was sold to Linpac Materials Handling in Georgetown, Ky.
Three of the remaining groups manufacture rubber or plastic products. The fourth - distribution - supplies tools, equipment and other products to the tire, wheel and vehicle underbody industries.
The 55-year-old Orr arrived at Myers Industries in August 2000 after a 28-year career with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., where he had been vice president for the firm's North American Tire division since 1996.
He brought with him a diverse background in production and plant management in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Latin America, along with fresh ideas.
Orr said he left Goodyear because he was interested in running a company, and the opportunity came when he met Steve Myers, then the CEO of Myers Industries, and they discussed at length the company and its needs.
The firm's board of directors was looking to create a succession plan for Steve Myers, who was nearing retirement.
Orr initially served as general manager of the company's Buckhorn Inc. subsidiary, a manufacturer of plastic materials-handling containers and pallets. ``I brought a rubber background to the business,'' he said. ``Plastics is something I've been learning over time.''
In 2003 Orr was named president and chief operating officer. In May 2005, he became CEO, replacing Steve Myers, who remained as chairman.
``I don't think it was difficult [being the first nonfamily member to lead the diversified firm] because Steve certainly did everything he could to make sure I understood and was aware of everything that was going on in the business,'' Orr said. ``The transition was relatively smooth and well-planned.''
Since taking over the operation, he's been pretty much a hands-on executive, but that's normal for him, he admitted.
``As I get more comfortable with our operating people, I tend to get a little more distance,'' he said.
``John lets you go out on a limb but never cuts it off,'' said Don Thomas, managing director of the firm's North American materials-handling group. ``He is there to help you back to reality when needed. He lets us think and make our decisions, infusing his guidance only when needed.''
Orr's leadership can be summed up in one word: communication, according to Dave Grider, managing director of the distribution group. Grider said Orr's ``clear and decisive direction has been the biggest factor with regards to our growth and success.''
Setting the course
Orr didn't inherit a business in trouble. The firm was successful. But dark clouds were appearing in the distance, and he was aware that the company needed to change.
His prime focus was setting a strategic course for a firm that featured lots of solid parts and had grown in leaps and bounds, but needed direction.
Orr's plan for the company focuses on sustainable, profitable growth and features five principles: customer satisfaction, business growth, cost control, organizational development and positioning the business for the future. Orr said he has used those principles for 30 years.
``It's pretty simple stuff. I call them blocking and tackling rather than running the West Coast offense.''
Restructuring the business units has ``allowed the managing directors to work closer together to grow within our business segments,'' Grider said.
The approach is designed to provide better products and services, better use the firm's resources and open new opportunities to drive growth, Orr said.
Myers Industries strives to be a low-cost producer, and its sales are strong. But it doesn't sell products just to sell them, Orr said. Each unit is expected to make a profit.
To do that, the company has to control costs continuously, Orr said.
For instance, shortly after Orr took over as CEO, resin prices shot up, and at the end of the year were at historical highs. The company cut its spending, tightened its manufacturing operation and consolidated factories in an effort to offset the hikes.
It wasn't enough.
Even though officials were reluctant to pass those cost increases along to customers, eventually they had to face facts. ``We were so good to them, we were losing money,'' Orr said.
``We went to them, told them we weren't profitable [producing goods for them],'' he said. ``Costs for both rubber and plastic raw materials were going up. ... We were honest with them. If we can't make money, we can't stay in business.''
Many customers said they would pay the increases while others balked. Some waved the China flag and threatened to take their business to Asia. Myers Industries' officials wished them the best, thanked them for their past business and moved on, Orr said.
Some did go to China, and within six months a number came back when they could not get what they wanted - timely delivery or the quality they expected, according to Orr.
Into the future
The company focuses on niche, big-margin markets and invests heavily in new technologies and processes to reinforce the strengths of the firm's business groups.
Orr constantly stresses greater product innovation, with 10 percent of Myers Industries' business coming from new offerings, and paying greater attention to customers. That won't change in the future, he said.
The company's expectations are that 2007 will be better than 2006 because of improved internal management, a stronger focus on key segments, growth in niche markets and future acquisitions of companies that fit with the firm's present operations.
``We just finalized our planning sessions for 2007 and 2008, and I'm very comfortable with the plans that we have and the numbers we have,'' Orr said, although he didn't pinpoint the company's expansion plans.
With a strong management team in place, Grider said, the firm's biggest gains in the next five years will come from acquisitions that build on its strong brands.