Evansville, Ind., is home to the University of Evansville Purple Aces and a full house of plastics companies.
The list includes Berry Plastics Corp., a leading packaging injection molder that employs 1,200 in Evansville and is spending $20 million to build a 600,000-square-foot distribution center near the airport. Overall, Berry, with 2006 sales of $1.4 billion, will invest $43 million on Evansville-area projects in the next three years.
The roster also includes GE Plastics, with 1,300 employees at a major resin-making and compounding plant in nearby Mount Vernon, Ill. DSM Engineering Plastics Inc. and Ferro Corp. operate major compounding plants in Evansville, employing 300 and 180, respectively. Plastic pipe and tubing maker Cresline Plastic Pipe Co. operates plants in Evansville and Henderson, Ky.
In the four-county area around Evansville, in southern Indiana, one out of every five manufacturing jobs is plastics-based — a total of almost 6,000 jobs. From 2001-04, the plastics workforce there grew 6 percent. The neighboring Kentucky counties of Henderson and Webster also are host to a number of plastics firms.
Evansville's plastics legacy dates back to 1935, when entrepreneur T.J. Morton launched one of North America's first injection molding businesses, at now-defunct refrigerator part supplier Hoosier Cardinal Corp. Morton introduced injection molding at Hoosier in 1935, adding three imported German presses and the second-ever U.S.-made press. Hoosier prospered during World War II by making plastic bubbles for gun turrets on bomber planes. The boom led many employees to spin off their own molding and compounding ventures in and around Evansville.
GE Plastics added to the momentum in 1960 by choosing Mount Vernon, a town of 7,000 about 15 miles west of Evansville, as a production site. That plant, on 1,000 acres, is now the world's largest production site for GE's Lexan polycarbonate. Berry traces its roots to Evansville's Imperial Plastics, founded in 1967 and bought by Florida real estate developer Jack Berry Sr. in 1983.
The area's population, with a boost from the plastics industry, has been able to hold its own. Although Evansville's population has dropped 5 percent since 2000 and now is estimated at under 116,000, the four-county area grew more than 2 percent during that time and claims almost 291,000 residents. In recent interviews, Evansville-area plastics veterans and economic officials said the region has continued to thrive because of its advantaged location and the quality of its work force.
“We're pretty central from a geographic standpoint,” said Keith Rodden, president of Evansville-based compounder Matrixx Group. “And there's so much history here, starting with [DSM's predecessor] Fiberfil Engineered Plastics Inc. in the 1950s and GE in the 1960s.
“Just about every plastic company in Evansville can trace its history to one of those,” he said.
Rodden has spent 23 of his 34 years in the Evansville-area's plastics industry. He worked at a Matrixx forerunner, Complas Industries, from 1973-86, returning to Matrixx in 1997.
“There's a lot of support in the community because plastics is such a significant employer in the area,” Rodden said. “It's an easy place to do business because of the talent pool available. There are experienced folks in the work force at every level from technology to the plant floor. That's conducive to keeping business in the area.”
For Steve Edge, his ongoing career in the region's plastic market has covered nearly half a century. With working at GE Plastics in Mount Vernon for 19 years, from 1961-80, Edge then began a 23-year stint at Ferro. Today, he is vice president of strategic planning at Lucent Polymers Inc., a compounder of engineering resins.
In 1961, a 19-year-old Edge was GE's 48th hourly employee in Mount Vernon.
“When GE popped up in Mount Vernon, they had a lot of really intelligent people who wanted to learn about plastics,” he said. “From there, it was a natural evolution of plastics people in the area.”
James Holderread, deputy director of the Evansville Regional Economic Development Corp., said the city's deep plastics labor pool “feeds on itself.”
“The labor factor is valued highly and Evansville rates pretty high on that scale,” he said. “We're also practically sitting on the median center of the U.S. population. In today's high-cost fuel economy that means a lot.”
GE Plastics and Matrixx recently have been acquired by other firms, but the new owners have indicated they'll remain in the area, Holderread said. The area also has drawn recent interest from auto molders in Michigan and other Northern states, he said.
“The auto industry is migrating to the south, and Evansville kind of splits the difference between Michigan and Alabama,” he said.
Other Evansville benefits include a plastics processing training program begun by Ivy Tech State College in 1992. Local firms hire many of the program's students, and the Evansville campus completed a $38 million expansion last year.
Local government agencies offer financial incentives for new projects. Berry's current expansion received $500,000 in tax credits and $100,000 in infrastructure grants from the Indiana Economic Development Corp.
Even today, Edge surveys the local market when Lucent needs new operators for extrusion lines. The executive just turned 66 and has no plans on leaving Evansville or plastics.
“I love this plastic business,” he said. “What else would I do?”