At age 96, Roy Weikert is still attracted to plastic film.
On a March 25 visit to the Covington plant of General Films Inc., the custom films company he founded in 1947, Weikert darted among the extrusion machines to greet workers and check out the films they were making.
This is what it's all about, he said.
Since it installed a Battenfeld Gloucester nine-layer film line in 2007, General Films has focused on that capacity, said Tim Weikert, the company's president and Roy's nephew.
We've developed new films to pretty much supplant most of our five-layer film capabilities, typically for downgauging applications, for higher barrier, better performance and better sealants, Tim Weikert said. We've added thermoforming films to our barrier line. We've done a lot of work with peel seals; that's a relatively new product that been customized for us and incorporated into the barrier line.
General Films makes coextruded films of three-, five- and nine-layer thicknesses for various applications of polyethylene, nylon and ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymers. It also manufactures bag-in-box systems and modified-atmosphere packaging for food and dairy applications, as well as converter films, custom bags and industrial packaging such as box and barrel liners, pallet covers and shrink-bundling films.
All of it started in 1938, when the young Roy Weikert, then a five-and-dime-store assistant manager for F.W. Woolworth Co. in Davenport, Iowa, decided to start making hat liners out of Pliofilm, a rubber-based plastic used in rainwear and other applications. He got the idea to use Pliofilm when the store received a shipment of rain capes and bonnets at about the same time he soiled a new felt hat by wearing it to church on a head of hair covered with Brilliantine.
Weikert traveled to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, to learn the process of molding Pliofilm. I think I hitchhiked up there that time, he said. He then took that Pliofilm knowledge back to his hometown of Covington, where he built his own press from locally sourced components including a steam tank he bought at a local junkyard for 25 cents.
Weikert's first customer for the hat liners was a men's store in Dayton, Ohio. General Films still makes men's hat liners using cast polyethylene film for Asian markets on a 1949 press made in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
After serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War II in England, Weikert returned to Covington. Facing a decline in the men's hat business, and learning of a new plastic, PE, that had properties superior to Pliofilm, Weikert decided to give the new material a try.
Polyethylene films were more economical and much more durable. We could see unlimited applications for [them]. So we were interested in getting in on the ground floor and helping permeate opportunities that were there in the marketplace as rapidly as we could, he said.
Roy Weikert and his brother, Wayne (Tim's father), developed a PE bag-in-box system for the dairy industry that was expanding by leaps and bounds with the advent of the postwar baby boom. By the late 1960s, the company was extruding its own films. In the early 1970s, the firm opened a second plant in Sidney, Ohio, but closed that facility during the economic doldrums of the late 1970s.
During the 1980s, General Films reorganized to eliminate debt, and the torch of running operations day-to-day passed from Wayne to Tim Weikert, who had begun working at the family business as a teen, cutting the grass outside the offices.
[The firm] was always around the dinner table. Roy was always at important events. At an early age I took an interest in the business, Tim Weikert said.
General Films now has eight blown film extrusion lines making film from 9 inches to 120 inches wide, a profile extrusion machine producing food-grade tubing, and four bag/pouch machines. The firm employs about 80 and has annual sales of nearly $20 million.
Tim Weikert said he feels the firm has turned a corner and is emerging from the economic downturn as strong as ever in large part due to its workforce.
'We're blessed here, because the folks here were willing to buckle down, work hard maybe not for the same amount of wages but to really see us through this process, and they've done a fine job, he said.
The elder Weikert echoed that praise for employees: I have been very fortunate in the devotion of the employees here. They have been very, very helpful. They would almost defend me to the last ditch to see [General Films] progress.
Tim Weikert said diversification also has helped, particularly when the company lost one of its major customers about a year ago.
We try to stay diversified to the point that we don't have to worry about too many individual markets' ups and downs. We have a wide mix of products, a wide mix of end markets and a very large number of customers for a company of our size [the loss of] no one customer has really been a serious blow to business, he said.
As for growing General Films' capacity, Tim Weikert said he is prepared to err on the side of caution for the present. But his uncle who still walks four miles a day for exercise and plays the stock market said with a twinkle in his eye that he's always on the lookout for new opportunities.
If you don't risk something, you're never going to accomplish anything. If you never take chances, you're not going to do anything, he said.
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