Jack Pregont got hooked on thermoforming as a young man in the 1950s, as he tinkered with plastic birthday cake decorations for the Pregont family bakery in Janesville, Wis.
He never lost the thermoforming bug and, in 1967, finally founded Prent Corp., which has become a major, global custom thermoformer and a leader in packaging for the medical and electronics markets.
Pregont was named the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award on Sept. 17 at the 2007 Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Conference.
During an awards dinner in Cincinnati, he got introduced by a Prent veteran, Walt Walker, executive vice president of operations and chief operating officer. Walker called Pregont ``a pioneer leader in our industry.''
``He's responsible for numerous thermoforming innovations. And he has a tenacious fire in the belly and the entrepreneurial drive to take a dream and turn it into a multinational corporation recognized by its excellence throughout the industry,'' Walker said.
Jack Pregont is retired and now serves as chief executive officer emeritus. He turned day-to-day operations over to his son, Joseph Pregont. Both father and son have already won the SPE Thermoforming Division's top honor, Thermoformer of the Year, Jack in 1989 and Joseph in 2001.
Pregont said he was ``kind of overwhelmed'' to pick up the Lifetime Achievement Award. The industry has evolved from the days he heated up plastic sheet in his mother's oven, he said.
``I always think of our industry as being one that started as a craft, or a trade. But today, I look at it as a profession,'' he said. ``And a lot of that, we can thank the SPE.''
Walker told the history. Pregont's introduction to plastic came in 1948, when a neighbor gave the teenager a stack of Popular Mechanics. One story caught his attention, one on making Ping-Pong balls.
``As far back as he could remember, he was scrounging pieces of plastic that he could mold,'' Walker said. He started a side business in the basement of the bakery that made cake decorating novelties sold by mail order.
He dreamed of opening a thermoforming business.
Pregont developed a mold for a merry-go-round horse cake. A local box company let him use its forming equipment in exchange for developing plastic packaging for the firm. The company expanded into plastic packaging and he moved up to become an executive.
He left, and started to plan his thermoforming business. But the dream was interrupted again, when he took a job at Parker Pen Co., where he became sales manager.
``Soon Jack mothballed his equipment in the basement of the bakery,'' Walker said. He traveled the world for Parker Pen. ``During those years, however, Jack never lost his dream of starting a thermoforming company, and he continued to moonlight in the basement of the bakery,'' he added.
By 1966, Pregont made enough money in the cake products to buy a 10,000-square-foot building. He bought two beat-up thermoforming machines from Rubbermaid Inc. and fixed them up. The following year, Prent was open for business.
Prent began to extrude its own sheet when Pregont could not find enough good-quality sheet for a major customer.
In 1981, he helped found the Thermoforming Institute of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and served as its first chairman.
Today, Prent has facilities plants in Janesville; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Yauco, Puero Rico; Johor, Malaysia; Singapore and Shanghai, China. The company is the 10th largest thermoformer in North America, according to Plastics News' most recent ranking, with estimated sales of $134 million for fiscal 2006.
Prent is an advanced thermoformer. Under Pregont, Prent developed several firsts, including radio-frequency welding of rigid PVC plastic.
``He's one of the modern era's thermoforming pioneers, who pushed the envelope on every process and technique, and even invented a few himself,'' said Walker.