As head of St. Louis blow molder Alpha Packaging Inc. (www.alphap.com) since 1985, Dave Spence has directed its growth from $500,000 in annual sales to $100 million this year. The manufacturer of HDPE and PET bottles and jars operates 85 blow molding machines in five U.S. plants and has reported average annual sales growth of 14 percent since 2000, spurred in part by several acquisitions. The firm — with plants in St. Louis, Mo.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Bethlehem, Pa.; Ypsilanti, Mich., and Salt Lake City — also offers tool-making and in-house design capabilities.
Founded 1969, Spence acquired Alpha in 1985 when the company made only about 35,000 bottles a day. At that time, Alpha specialized in extrusion blow molding of HDPE bottles for pharmaceuticals, and also made niche products including blow molded wheels for barbecue pits and gym rings for outdoor swing sets. But in 1989, Spence moved into injection blow molding, offering high-quality packers to his growing list of customers. Then, in 1998, Alpha invested in injection stretch blow molding for PET. The move positioned Alpha as a resource for packaging distributors who served not just pharmaceutical and supplement customers, but also the fast-growing personal-care (health & beauty) market.
With in-house design and a willingness to create custom-colored packaging for relatively small quantities, Alpha quickly emerged as a leader in the personal-care packaging sector. In 2006, it introduced more than 42 new products (primarily PET) and added 17 new blow molding machines in a 12-month period. Currently, Alpha produces more than 900 million bottles annually.
But growth did not always come easily for Spence. Twelve banks turned him down before he finally got a Small Business Administration loan to buy the company. But with the addition of several key employees during the early years — many of whom remain with Alpha now — Spence set his sights on establishing a reputation for being a nimble and responsive company willing to invest in new technologies.
In 2005, Spence sold a stake in the company to private equity firm Stonebridge Partners, to facilitate growth. With Stonebridge in its corner, Alpha has accelerated its growth through the acquisition of two companies and the opening of an additional plant in the southeastern U.S.
Alpha earned the No. 36 spot in last year's Plastics News annual ranking of North American blow molders based on fiscal 2005 sales of $67 million.