In a white, nondescript, concrete-block building on the west end of town, Keith Swinehart started extruding vinyl shapes for the aluminum window and storm door industry in 1958.
His fledgling operation, Consolidated Plastics, was the first plastics manufacturing firm in the east-central Kansas town of McPherson — a town with a one-of-a-kind name, a town that takes kindly to strangers and a town that has improbably become a manufacturing mecca of sorts, particularly in plastics.
Swinehart learned early on that Consolidated shared its moniker with another firm, so he switched the name to Plains Plastics.
As the story goes, Swinehart was just going about his business when one day he saw a semitrailer truck hauling PVC pipe.
“I thought to myself: There are more pounds of PVC on that truck than I make all month. I'm in the wrong business,” Swinehart, 90, said by phone from his home in Hilton Head, S.C. “That's what changed the situation.”
He added small-diameter PVC pipe to the Plains Plastics portfolio. It was used in the oil industry and gained favor among those living in rural environments.
“PVC pipe became major very quickly,” he said. “There was such a growing demand in the rural water districts. That was the thing that really made us go.”
It didn't take long for Valley Forge, Pa.-based CertainTeed Corp. to take notice. CertainTeed bought Plains Plastics in 1965, forever putting McPherson — the only U.S. town with that name, residents said — smack dab in the middle of the nation's plastics manufacturing map.
Plastics officials in McPherson point to CertainTeed's arrival as the impetus for the industry's growth locally. McPherson has a population of about 14,000. The plastics industry there employs around 1,300.
Why McPherson? Why central Kansas? Those questions, asked of industry officials in McPherson, tended to yield the same answers over and over again:
* The people. McPherson is loaded with nice, loyal, industrious people, they said. Every company official interviewed credited the local economic development team with fostering growth.
* Economics. In addition to relatively low-cost labor, McPherson benefits from a relationship with the regional power company. The town is home to a small electric plant that only goes into service during peak demand. In exchange, the town and its residents benefit from significantly reduced electricity rates. Companies there pay about half of the industry average, they said.
Plus, they said, it's just a really nice place to live.
In addition to CertainTeed, other plastics processors, machinery and tooling companies in McPherson include cross-linked polyethylene pipe extruder Viega LLC, custom profile extruder Central Plastics Inc., injection molder Ferguson Production Inc. and extrusion machinery maker American Maplan Corp.
“It just sort of spread,” Swinehart said of the plastics industry in McPherson during the 1960s and 1970s. “It seemed like a good place for it to happen. Companies just came flocking in over a period of years. I was astounded.”
It transformed a quiet farming community into a vibrant center of commerce, but not without sacrificing any of the small-town charm for which McPherson is so adored by its residents.
Three brothers — Dennis, Mark and Kent Houghton — own and operate Central Plastics, started by their father and a couple partners in 1968.
Upon entering the plant floor from the corporate offices, the first machine one sees is the original extruder that launched the company, still spitting out profiles four decades later. Central now has 41 extrusion lines and is preparing to add three more.
The Houghtons, like most of the people you meet in town, were born and raised there.
“You'd be hard-pressed to find a town with a more can-do attitude than McPherson,” said Marvin Peters, executive director of McPherson Industrial Development Co.
Evidence of the town's go-get-'em nature is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more than in Ferguson production Vice President Scott Ferguson's story about building the firm's plant in 2000.
During the early days of the project, company officials agreed to take on a job that required equipment they did not own. In the middle of a field on the north end of town, the officials had a concrete slab poured to accommodate a new, 1,500-ton injection press they had no way of housing in their existing operations.
The field eventually was to be the site of Ferguson's new manufacturing plant but they had to fill orders long before the plant would open. So the company put up a large tent over the machine and, soon after, a temporary structure to house the new press, while a construction crew built the plant around it.
American Maplan President Kurt Waldhauer points to all of the tooling and support businesses in McPherson: screws, dies, chroming work and general manufacturing expertise.
“The workforce is here, the skill set is here. All the auxiliary components for manufacturing are here,” he said.