Being debt-free helps
Mack's move into medical would be a good model for other molders - but it helps to start by being debt-free.
``In fairness, there's a lot of people who would want to do what Mack does,'' Somple said. ``It's easier to do this when you have no debt, when you have money in the bank and when you're not saying, `How are we going to make next week's mortgage payment?' We were in a unique situation.''
Kendall said the company doesn't pay dividends to its family stockholders: ``We take all of our profit and reinvest it back into the company.''
The Kendall family has been involved in plastics for nearly 90 years. His grandfather, Donald S., co-founded the company in 1920 to mold thermoset bottle caps. Another early product was a plastic handle for Otis elevators.
Mack moved to Vermont in 1939.
Kendall was thrust into the company's top post after his father, Donald S. Kendall Jr., died of a heart attack in 1973. Donald III was just 26 years old and green, having only worked for six months as production manager at Mack.
The Arab oil embargo meant nobody could get resin. ``It was not good timing,'' Kendall said.
But Mack stayed true to its old-fashioned Yankee fiscal conservatism and survived. And in the go-go 1990s, when computer and cell phone dollars lured many molders into a debt-fueled party of acquisitions and global manufacturing, Mack held back - and later avoided the crushing hangover that put many companies out of business.
Mack finances its own acquisitions and capital investments.
``If you look back on the history of injection molders, two things ultimately kill them. Either they get too dependent on one customer, or they carry too much debt during the good times and in the bad times they get hurt,'' Kendall said. ``We learned from it ... because we know this business is very cyclical, it goes up and down.''
Kendall is 58. He didn't want to talk about succession planning, but said: ``Our plan is for Mack to continue as a family-owned company for as long as possible. It'll be a family-owned business for the foreseeable future.''
Large parts, presses
During Mack's transition, the northern division invested in people experienced in its new markets, especially medical. The southern division inverted too, but more in machinery - new, much larger presses.
Before the new strategy, the company already had big machines, some as large as 2,000 tons. ``But being limited to that tonnage size excluded us from a number of opportunities,'' southern division President Ray Burns said.
``We already were involved in the heavy-truck industry, and we saw a lot of opportunity for exterior cab parts with larger-tonnage requirements than we had.''
Officials saw a chance to use Mack's skills in gas-assisted injection molding to win work molding truck-cab parts that had been made from sheet metal and other plastics processes like reaction injection molding of polyurethane, Burns said.
The southern division plants also diversified into other areas such as utility vehicles, golf carts, all-terrain vehicles, lawn and garden products and big-screen televisions.
Mack built a 25,000-square-foot addition to its Inman plant to accommodate presses of 2,500 tons and larger. Today, Inman's smallest press is a 700-tonner. Its largest one yet - a 3,350-ton Toshiba - will be delivered in May, Burns said.
The new Toshiba will be the 21st press at Inman. Mack runs a total of 12 presses at 1,000 tons or higher, which puts the company in a very select group of processors with such huge-press firepower in the Southeast.
In Statesville, Mack runs 22 presses, from 150-1,100 tons.
Mack couples technology with size to win new business. Mack's engineers use both internal and external gas-assisted molding to make an external refrigeration unit for semi-trailer trucks, a very large, flat part measuring 76 inches long, 22.4 inches wide and just 0.18 inch thick. The novel process allowed Mack to injection mold a part that had been made by twin-sheet thermoforming but experienced impact failures and cracking, according to Ken Kincaid, technical engineering manager at the southern division.
Internal gas pushes material through the long, thin part and reduces internal stress. External gas makes it flat and smooth. Mack believes this is the first time both gas-assist technologies have been used to make a large panel that is structural and requires a highly cosmetic finish.
The northern division uses gas-assist too, for parts such as handles for medical devices.
Mack also specializes in structural foam molding and overmolding to put soft-touch sections on surgical instruments and other products.
``The products we're making today are 10 times more complex than the products we made five years ago,'' Kendall said.
On a recent tour of the Arlington headquarters, plant manager Carl Bickford pointed out some highlights of the facility:
* A complete assembly operation for Pitney Bowes Inc.'s W-o-W (Weigh-on-the-Way) mailing machine. Using plastic and metal parts made in-house, plus about 200 purchased components, employees first build all the subassemblies, which then go to the adjacent assembly line.
``We make approximately 70 a day in an eight-hour day,'' Bickford said. The subassemblies then are tested and sent directly to distribution.
* Injection molding operations to make 14 parts for the Chadwick office chair from Knoll Inc. Mack uses gas-assisted molding to make several of the structural parts to reduce weight and cut cycle times. A suspension seat and fabric are bonded to the frame in a two-step injection molding process.
First, the fabric is manually hung in the press and overmolded with a glass-filled copolyester frame. Excess fabric is trimmed away. Second, the seat encapsulation is loaded into another tool and overmolded with glass-filled nylon. Finally, a Ranger robot removes the finished part - a process that used to be done by hand - in a move to improve safety.
The Chadwick chair netted Mack five awards in the furniture and best single part categories last year at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Alliance of Plastics Processors conference. Mack submitted 14 parts, its most ever, in those two categories plus medical and scientific, appliance and material handling.
Mack is a frequent winner of new-product-design awards from APP, formerly SPI's Structural Plastics Division. Company executives treat teams from its customers to lunch and present the awards.
Mack also serves thank-you lunches to other important customers throughout the year. And Kendall means it when he says Mack is customer-focused: the annual employee bonus is based on profitability and customer satisfaction. Customer feedback is measured quarterly, and the results are posted in all plants.
``We figure if our customers are happy, everything else works out. But a lot of people say the same thing. We actually really mean it,'' Kendall said.
Mack scored high in the customer-relations part of the Processor of the Year Award. ``They have been willing - are not afraid - to take risks. Mack comes to us with ideas,'' said a group manager at a customer in the heavy-truck sector.
Another customer, in the medical market, said Mack brings ``some considerable amount of development and designing, molding and metal forming. We play ping-pong with designs.''
A maker of automated teller machines said Mack helped develop a lightweight front fascia using external gas-assist molding.
Mack also has strong employee programs that encourage physical fitness. Four manufacturing sites have fitness facilities that are free for employees and their families. The most impressive, at the Arlington headquarters plant, has a racquetball court, a squash court, a workout room and a large room for aerobics classes, which are sometimes led by Kendall's wife, Nancy.
Employees in Arlington also can take yoga classes - practicing their Mountain Poses while looking at Vermont's tree-covered mountains.
A full-time nurse in Arlington develops wellness programs, including monthly blood-pressure and cholesterol screenings and annual hearing tests. Mack also employs a part-time occupational therapist. The company spends $40 per employee for hospital screenings to create a personalized wellness strategy.
Proof that Mack is a good place to work came in April, when Mack received the Governor's Workplace Safety Award from Vermont.
Another way Mack creates a good work environment is through quarterly housekeeping inspections at all plants. Employees in the winning plant get two extra vacation days; the runners-up get one day.
In Vermont, Mack is famous for its Christmas party, on its Arlington grounds. The event includes horse-drawn wagon rides, sledding, a visit from Santa and fireworks.
Mack has even made its own snow. In 2004, the Arlington Fire Department hooked up a pumper truck to a snow-making machine. A year later, Mack said thank you by donating an all-weather ``snowbulance'' to handle emergencies in wilderness terrain.
Arlington is a town of just 2,500 people, so Mack is a giant force. Arlington Memorial High School has just 235 students in grades six through 12. Principal Kerry Csizmesia said Kendall's door is always open.
Mack donated $200,000 to build the new 140-seat Mack Performing Arts Center at the school, the first time the community has had such an auditorium. The company also has donated a technology laboratory with 17 computers.
Kendall grew up in Arlington. He put it plainly: ``We're a family company. We like to know our employees. We like to see them, do things with them. It's real hard to do when you have plants in China.''