Leominster, Mass., isn't called Comb City much anymore, after most of the work was lost to China. But three comb molders are upholding the tradition.
“I do get a few comments like, 'Gee, you're still molding combs? They're U.S.-made?'” said Rick DiMarzio, president of Krest Products Corp. DiMarzio recalls newspaper headlines calling the high school basketball team the “Comb City Five,” or for baseball, the “Comb City Nine.”
Yes, they still mold combs in Leominster, at Krest, Cardinal Comb & Brush Mfg. Corp. and Jumbo Plastics Inc. Plastic combs and Leominster go way back. Most historians credit Foster Grant Co.'s comb as the first commercially marketed, injection molded product in the United States. Foster Grant's plant in Leominster pioneered the cellulose acetate comb in the early 1930s.
Before the injection molding era, comb workers in Leominster used industrial saws to cut teeth into blanks of cellulose nitrate, or Celluloid, born in 1870 when John Wesley Hyatt got his famous patent. Less-flammable cellulose acetate came along later.
Before plastics, craftsmen fashioned combs from metal, wood, animal shells, horn, hooves and ivory. From bone to injection molding, technological advances led to the Comb City mantle. Amedio DeFelice became known as the “comb king” because his company, Banner Mold & Die Co. Inc., turned out comb molds.
In 1969, when Aldo J. Mazzaferro began making combs at Cardinal, there were 10 or 15 companies making combs and brushes in Leominster. He rattled off some names: Diadem, Tilton & Cook, Standard Paroloxoloid, Lifetime Comb Co. and Goody Products Inc. At the time, Goody owned a stake in Foster Grant.
But competition from China cut into the available comb jobs. The industry shrank in Leominster.
Today, Aldo's son, Tony Mazzaferro, is president of Cardinal Comb. Cardinal makes combs and brushes for sale at retail stores and private-label brands for beauty supply shops — 60 million to 70 million of them a year.
Mazzaferro declined to provide the company's sales, but he said combs and brushes account for about two-thirds of the business.
Tony Mazzaferro has a background in accounting. The economics of U.S. combs is brutally simple, he explained, sitting at his desk, cluttered with production sheets and sample runs of combs and brushes.
When Chinese-made family packs of combs began flooding the market, Cardinal was forced to cut back. Family packs are relatively labor-intensive, since several types and colors of combs, molded on different presses, must be blister-packed together. That means China's low labor costs are a big advantage.
“I had to lower my price by 20 percent to be competitive, between the early 2000s and today,” Mazzaferro said. That eats away any profit.
“We still do some of that, but not as much,” he said.
Every day, Mazzaferro checks the exchange rate between the dollar and the Chinese yuan. A stronger yuan means products exported from China are more expensive. Even a small change can swing the advantage back to Cardinal.
Cardinal Comb uses speed to its advantage.
“We have very fast service. We can make quick changes in products,” Mazzaferro said.
Technology also helps the company win business. Five of the company's 14 injection molding machines are all-electric Roboshot presses from Milacron Inc. “They are energy efficient and give better processing,” he said.
Cardinal bought the Roboshot machines after it bought the former Home Products International plant in Leominster in 2001, nearly doubling its space. Cardinal also developed a high-speed machine that applies the little black ball-tips on its one-piece brushes. In China, workers dip each brush by hand.
Changing business conditions have pushed Cardinal to adapt. The HPI building had four presses with 700 tons of clamping force. The company was busy, and Mazzaferro anticipated filling the big machines with custom molding jobs. But custom work dried up, and business was declining in 2002.
To diversify, Cardinal bought Pro-Pak Inc., a contract packaging company, the following year. Pro-Pak is run as a separate company. During a visit in June, high-speed machines were folding and packaging Christmas cards and rolling cylinders of gift wrap.
Together, the two operations employ about 80.
Krest has taken a different approach, by focusing only higher-end combs used by professional hair stylists. No brushes. No custom molding.
Pat DiMarzio worked at Banner Mold as a tool-and-die maker. Then he and his wife, Esther, started their own mold shop in nearby Fitchburg, Mass., called Model Mold. The company got into custom molding, which led to Krest Products nearly 50 years ago.
Pat died in 1999, but his mother still comes in every day, said Rick DiMarzio.
Located in a low-key building down the road from the National Plastics Center, Krest doesn't give plant tours, or release information on sales, employment numbers or details about machinery — except to say the presses are Engels.
Krest faces some competition from China. DiMarzio has a simple mantra. “I think my quality has kept us strong. We've always served professionals. I always maintain my quality. Quality has been my hallmark, my corner.”
Krest makes several lines of combs. The Cleopatra and Krest lines are molded from ABS. The Goldilocks & Silver Edition combs, molded of DuPont's Delrin acetal, are designed to withstand the heat of blow drying. Other types are molded from phenolics and compression molded rubber.
In a town like Leominster, the family tree is rooted in plastics. Rick DiMarzio's son, Dean, is vice president of Krest Products. Tony Mazzaferro's brother, Ed Mazzaferro, is president of Leominster custom molder, First Plastics Corp.