Back in 1970, Canadian Ralph Noble broke new ground as the first president of the Society of Plastics Engineers who was not a U.S. citizen. These days, SPE and other trade associations are struggling to attract members.
Noble recalled a different era when he joined SPE in 1951 after graduating from college, and just four years after the society expanded into Canada by starting a section in Quebec. There was no Internet not even many good plastics textbooks. People got technical information by sharing information face to face.
People wanted the camaraderie of other people who were in the same line of business, he said. Today there isn't the same desire for camaraderie, the group activity, as there used to be. Everybody finishes off their meal and, by God, they're out of there like a rocket. People used to sit around after the meetings and talk.
At 81, Noble doesn't attend many plastics events. But this week in Chicago, he will go into the Plastics Hall of Fame at NPE2009 and be able to visit SPE's Antec conference, held at the same time.
He was nominated by Terence Browitt, SPE president in 2001. The men are neighbors in Hudson, Quebec.
Noble knows firsthand the value of industry meetings. That was how he met his partners to start Carlew Chemicals Ltd., which later became Synergistics Industries Ltd., a major vinyl compounder in Mississauga, Ontario.
A native of Oshawa, Ontario, Noble earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto in 1950. He worked in sales positions for the Canadian operations of B.F. Goodrich Chemical Co. for four years. After a short stint of less than a year at Sherwin-Williams Co., he joined CIL, the Canadian subsidiary of Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries plc.
He quickly became a district manager, covering Quebec. I was heavily involved in sales support for polyethylene sales, he said.
Noble made the rounds of technical, SPE and also rubber industry events. That's where he ran into the other two co-founders of what would become Synergistics Wilford Jonah and James Creighton Gillis, two chemists who worked at Northern Telecom Ltd.
Noble, Jonah and Gillis founded Carlew Chemicals in 1961.
Carlew was a tiny company specializing in vinyl compounding and plasticizer production, wrote A. Nelson Wright, in documents supporting Noble for the Plastics Hall of Fame. Wright was a technology executive for Synergistics who also is active in SPE.
Noble said Carlew had about 50 employees. We were compounding flexible PVC for wire and cable, for footwear, for garden hose and other extruded products, he said.
Wire and cable was the biggest part of the business, in part because Jonah and Gillis knew that sector from their days at Northern Telecom, a Canadian phone company.
In 1966, the company expanded into the U.S. by purchasing Cary Chemicals Inc. in New Jersey. The firm also made other acquisitions, including Rochevert Inc., a Canadian supplier of rigid PVC.
Noble began as sales manager, then moved up to vice president and then president. The company was renamed Synergistics. Noble became CEO in 1983.
The compounding company grew to sales of about C$300 million (roughly US$240 million at the time), with six plants: four in Canada and two in the U.S.
Synergistics held an initial public offering in the mid-1980s.
Conservative and steady
Noble maintained a cautious, long-term approach to business through it all even as the head of a public company, according to his colleagues.
Noble admits that was true.
I'm careful. I don't decide easily, he said. I don't worry about mistakes, but I sure as hell try to avoid them if I can.
Noble's favorite phrase was I want to think about this, according to Martin Hofton, who held a technical position at another Canadian PVC company. He was often criticized as being a slow decision-maker, but his long experience had taught him that the chances of a better decision were increased by this approach, Hofton wrote in a letter supporting Noble for the Hall of Fame.
As the same time, Noble was very organized in dealing with customers.
In the vinyl industry, [he possessed] in-depth knowledge of the most technically sound and economically viable plasticizer use in flexible compounds, especially in the wire and cable business, Wright said.
He combined that strong expertise in polymers with good sales skills and an honest character. His word was better than any contract, Wright said.
The Synergistics owners were not afraid to take chances, however. The company pioneered the use of cross-linked PE in the wire and cable industry.
Noble said the challenge was intriguing.
It started with the fact that we had a few people who got very interested when a new technical challenge came along. And of course, moving from thermoplastic polyethylene to cross-linkable polyethylene, for most technically talented people, that represented quite a challenge, he said.
Noble also supported research on long-shot projects, like renewable feedstocks to make plasticizers, at the University of McGill in Montreal and Canada's National Research Council.
He also showed diplomatic skills when, in the 1960s, some Canadian industry leaders wanted to pull out of SPE, based in Brookfield, Conn., and create a Canadian SPE.
Looking back, Noble downplayed the controversy. In SPE, like in all such organizations, there's lots of people who like to raise a stink, he said. They needed talking to, and I did some of that.
Synergistics named Noble chairman of the board in 1996. The following year, Synergistics was purchased by rival PVC compounder Geon Co.
Noble recalled that, when he became the first non-American president of SPE, there wasn't a big a fuss made about it. Now this week, going into the Plastics Hall of Fame, that's the time to make a fuss.