About 40 years ago, while visiting the former Foster Grant Co. thermoforming plant near Sandusky, Ohio, young Craig Rathbun asked the plant manager, ``Dad, what's that smell?''
John Rathbun replied, ``That's the smell of money.''
Fast-forward to the present: Craig Rathbun is president of Encore Plastics Corp., a $32 million paint sundries supplier based in Sandusky, with plastics processing facilities in Ohio, Minnesota and as of Aug. 15 Utah.
During the past year, Encore has spent about $5 million on improvements, including six new Husky Hylectric 550 presses and a dozen 110,000-pound resin silos at its injection molding and extrusion plant in Cambridge. The company recently split the cost of a $300,000 wind turbine at its Sandusky headquarters with the state, as it explores cheaper power sources.
What's in the wind for plastics today? ``It smells like opportunity,'' Craig Rathbun said during an Aug. 7 tour of the Cambridge plant with his brother Tim, chief executive officer, and John Wilson, vice president of manufacturing. With John Rathbun's daughter Jodi, who is Encore's secretary-treasurer, the four are partners in the company.
Over the years, Rathbun and Wilson worked at Venture Packaging Inc. of Monroeville, Ohio, which John Rathbun founded and Berry Plastics Corp. of Evansville, Ind., bought in 1997. Shortly after the acquisition, the Rathbun brothers left Berry, took over Encore Paint Sundries in Sandusky and reorganized it from a distributorship into a manufacturing/ distribution concern, with Encore Plastics Corp. (Ohio) and Midstate Plastics Corp. (Minnesota) divisions.
``When you're a distributor, you don't have that control over your suppliers,'' Craig Rathbun said. ``As a manufacturer, you take control over production times, quality, shipping and you set the agenda.''
In addition to making and custom-printing buckets, pails, trays and liners, Encore distributes brushes, caulking guns and other paint sundries.
The company's operations include its Sandusky head office with about 20 employees; the 192,000-square-foot Cambridge plant with 180 workers and 28 injection molding lines; Encore's original injection molding plant in Byesville, Ohio, which has been converted to a 40,000-square-foot warehouse; a 30,000-square-foot thermoforming plant in Remer, Minn., that employs about 20; and the new PacWest division plant in Clearfield, Utah.
Company officials would not give details of the new operation, other than the plant's size: 60,000 square feet. ``It's a facility that is capable of handling all our needs,'' Craig Rathbun said. ``We are still hiring employees for that facility.''
Encore processes about 20 million pounds per year of polypropylene, polystyrene, PET, and high, low and linear low density polyethylene.
At a time when high resin prices and down end markets are causing many plastics processors to hold off capital expenditures, Encore is surging ahead and expanding its customer base of regional and national paint suppliers and home-improvement stores.
``We take commodity items and produce products that stand out for their quality,'' Tim Rathbun said. ``In a market that's down over 17 percent, our sales are up 5 percent.''
Part of that accomplishment is due to speed. Encore claims 99.8 percent on-time deliveries and company officials boast of the speed with which they can custom-build prototypes to customer specifications as little as one week in the case of a 7-inch-wide paint tray a national customer requested. But people are the key ingredient to Encore's success, officials said.
``If you take care of your people, they're going to help you grow,'' Wilson said. Encore has firm policies toward workplace efficiency including random drug screening and workstation fingerprint-recognition technology that replaced the traditional time clock. But but it also offers frequent on-site employee training, as well as cookouts and other team-building events.
``We realized when we bought [the Byesville plant] we had people who didn't miss a day of work,'' Craig Rathbun said. ``We want to encourage people in our towns to say, `Hey, I know someone who works for Encore and they're treated very well.' Those people are potentially the next generation of employees.''
Tim Rathbun said Encore pays employees $100 for each cost-saving idea that is adopted by the company.
``We can't control the cost of plastics, but we can control efficiencies,'' he said.
Company officials acknowledged the biggest obstacle to growth remains resin prices.
``We're paying our resin bills every 15 days because our credit lines haven't been expanded,'' Craig Rathbun said.
Encore uses all recycled PET flake in its thermoforming operations. The firm recently installed high-efficiency fluorescent lighting in Cambridge. A company Web site promotes its EcoSmart line of pails, lids and liners made from PET and low-melt HDPE.
``We were green before it became fashionable,'' Craig Rathbun said. ``We are continually searching for uses for regrind, because it's good for the environment and for us.''
Rathbun said the company acted contrary to conventional wisdom in its capital spending because it expects the housing market to recover in the next one to two years.
``Now is the time to strike. When the market rebounds, we're going to be positioned,'' he said.