Jack Vresics has learned the importance of safety, international business, process control and quality from a series of executive positions making everything from Lenox china to products for public restrooms.
Now he's applying that know-how to the toy industry, as the new president and CEO of Step2 Co. LLC in Streetsboro and he brings enthusiasm for manufacturing. Vresics said he talks regularly with Step2 founder Tom Murdough, who lives in nearby Hudson.
I share his passion. I think when you do something, you've got to go in all the way. You've got to love the businesses. You've got to get in, and [not at] arm's length, Vresics said.
Step2 is the largest rotational molder in North America, with an estimated $148 million in 2009 sales, according to Plastics News' recent ranking, published in this issue. The company makes toys and lawn and garden products. Step2 maintained its lead over the second-largest rotomolder, Toter Inc., a maker of wheeled refuse carts.
Vresics took the top spot at Step2 in February, replacing Scott Levin, who left the company. When Step2 founder Tom Murdough retired in 2007, he brought in Levin to run Step2. The year before, Liberty Partners LP, a New York private equity investment firm, had purchased Step2 from Murdough.
Vresics, who had held CEO positions at two Liberty Partners companies, became a director of Step2 in September 2009, replacing Murdough on the board.
But he's still actively involved, Vresics said. I still talk to Tom a lot.
Vresics, 50, talked about his background and the state of the toy industry during a July 26 interview in the toy showroom at Step2 headquarters, surrounded by ride-on toys, playground sets, and sand and water tables.
Step2 employs seven product designers, who dream up future toys and garden products, and three model makers.
We're very proud of the fact that we're making durable toys that are going to last, and people are going to get value out of this product, he said. It's our responsibility as a manufacturer to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to make sure they're safe and to have that long-term viewpoint, because that's what our brand rests on.
Vresics earned an MBA in 1986 from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined Brown-Forman Corp., the Kentucky distiller that makes Jack Daniels whiskey. Brown-Forman put him in charge of a strategic team to study its Lenox chinaware unit, which suffered from uneven quality. Asian-made china such as Mikasa was taking market share.
We had 30-year-old technology making china, he said. One out of every two plates we had to throw away, because they didn't meet Lenox standards. The team recommended selling off some related businesses and using the money to modernize Lenox. In the late 1980s, Lenox built a new factory in Kinston, N.C., with process control and state-of-the-art kilns.
We got our yields up to 96 percent, Vresics said.
Management got workers involved in the new plant design, from a clean slate. That's one of the things you learn in life. No matter how smart you are, you have to learn how to work with people. And get them all together on a project, he said.
Vresics met Robert Pritzker, a Chicago industrialist who started the Marmon Group of manufacturing companies. Pritzker hired him to run Trackmobile Inc., a company that makes railcars that also can run on a road.
Then he moved to another Marmon company, Colson Group, a global maker of industrial casters and wheels. He left to become CEO of a company owned by Liberty Partners: Technical Concepts LLC, a maker of touch-free devices that flush toilets, dispense soap, turn on faucets and sanitize restrooms.
Vresics went to Component Hardware Group, another business owned by Liberty Partners. He later became general manager of Infantino LLC, a maker of toys for infants that Step2 bought in 2007, before moving to the Step2 board.
Step2 will continue to invest in new technology to make rotomolding as efficient as possible, Vresics said. You want to make sure you build the right process controls on the equipment and give the operators the training and proper feedback so they can make the adjustments, he said.
The toy industry remains highly competitive. Rival toy rotomolder Little Tikes Co. is just a few miles away, in Hudson, Ohio.
Earlier this year, Step2 closed its factory in Fort Valley, Ga., cutting 104 jobs and leaving the company with two factories, in Streetsboro and Perrysville, Ohio.
Vresics said the three plants were running at less than capacity, so moving the work into two plants will make the company more efficient.
Step2 also cut about 20 headquarters jobs in Streetsboro.
Another challenge is to design toys that increase their play value, using grow with me features. You can flip the legs up on Step2 sand and water tables to make them higher. The Double Play Basketball & Football Set has a basketball hoop that folds down, creating a football goal post and throwing target.
You have to decide how you're going to add value and how to extend the play life of these toys, because kids are going to grow, Vresics said.