As a child growing up in China, Alfred Teo Sr. was beaten and nearly drowned.
As a young man, roughly 40 years ago, he arrived in the United States, a poor immigrant with $70 in his pocket.
Today he's a multimillionaire in control of one of the largest North American plastics processors. But in a few months, he'll begin a 30-month prison term for securities fraud and insider trading.
Teo's resume reflects the hardscrabble fight to the top, working as a waiter, washing dishes and loading trucks.
Teo, 60, first got into the plastics industry in 1978, but today his tendrils run deep in the plastic film sector. With Sigma Plastics Group of Lyndhurst, N.J., Teo has structured a business with $1.3 billion in film and sheet sales, employing 5,000 with 31 plants in North America and 1,000 manufacturing lines. The group processes 1.2 billion pounds of resin annually, and it ranks second on Plastics News' listing of top film and sheet manufacturers in North America.
Now, as Teo prepares to go to prison, colleagues and competitors are pondering the impact of how his company, Lyndhurst, N.J.-based Sigma Plastics Group, will fare without him in charge, and what changes are in store for the industry.
One change might be in merger and acquisition activity. For example, the stretch film market in North America is plagued by overcapacity, and in need of consolidation. Across different aspects of flexible packaging, Sigma has been an active buyer, acquiring six companies during the last few years.
Three of those companies were in bankruptcy, and the other three were within months of filing, according to Mark Teo, one of Alfred's sons, and now his replacement as Sigma's president and chief executive officer.
According to Benjamin Deutsch, president of bag maker New Mercury Plastics LLC in City of Industry, Calif., the Teo family helped his company emerge from bankruptcy protection in 2005.
``Alfred's a very smart guy and he's very experienced. We work closely with all his sons, and his whole group has been great to work with. He's got a big organization there. We're not worried about anything happening. I don't expect any negative influences from this,'' Deutsch said in a Feb. 7 telephone interview.
Teo drove Sigma to gobble up companies, creating market mass while driving efficiency to keep Sigma healthy domestically.
``The industry is shaky enough, and he was a consolidator,'' said Menash Oratz, chief operating officer of film extruder Allied Extruders Inc. of Long Island City, N.Y.
``He was helping to clean up the industry. Not having him around to manage continued consolidation means that the industry loses a player who was a father of the industry. There's a little bit less leadership in an industry that needs leadership,'' Oratz said.
``We're fighting China daily,'' Oratz added. ``Business is extremely difficult. Here is someone who was consolidating. He's Chinese and he's fighting to keep manufacturing alive here. He fought hard and he appreciates people.
``On a personal level, I'm very saddened and disappointed because he was a great person and friend and a pure pleasure to deal with.''
Teo team at the top
While Alfred Teo Sr. was starting to build his business, he and his wife Annie had four sons. The boys now are well entrenched and trained in the rigors of running a film company and its affiliates.
Court documents obtained by Plastics News and letters from the sons reveal some detail about their time spent learning the ropes from their father, and Teo's management style.
For example, colleagues say Teo delegates decision making to Sigma's operating managers.
``He put the bullets in my gun, but I'm the one who had to shoot straight,'' said Stephen Redlich, president and chief operating officer of Poly Plastic Products in Delano, Pa., a custom manufacturer of bags, sheeting and bundling film.
Teo bought a 50 percent share of the company in 2000, partnering with Redlich.
``We have at this point, formulated our strategy for years to come,'' Redlich said in a telephone interview. ``His wealth of knowledge, his aggressiveness, his business insight, all those things have had tremendous value to me. I'm certainly going to miss our ability to strategize.''
Mark Teo, who answered Plastics News' questions via e-mail, said he considers his father's time away as a short period, and he will be back to lead the company that he spent his entire life building.
``Nevertheless, I look forward to leading the company in the same fashion that my father has done since 1978, and that is with hard work, honesty and integrity,'' Mark Teo wrote.
``Our companies are as financially healthy as ever, and our banks, suppliers and customers have stood by us unwaveringly in this difficult time,'' he said.
Competitors, speaking on condition of anonymity, have mixed opinions on whether Alfred Teo Sr.'s jail sentence will impact the business.
``He's been extremely successful and he deserves success,'' one source said. ``Long term, I don't think anyone will even think about it.''
But another said Teo is a micro-manager who has been involved in every aspect of Sigma.
Without his daily input, ``Something has to happen to the dynasty he created,'' the source said.