When RheTech Inc. announced plans to open a compounding plant in South Carolina, the phones at its office outside the tiny village of Whitmore Lake began ringing constantly.
Emails poured in from workers eager to attach themselves to an expanding compounder moving into an attractive area.
We've been flooded with resumes, said President and Chief Operating Officer John Levinson during a Feb. 17 interview at RheTech's headquarters. We haven't been hiring bodies yet because we have to get the plant established and the equipment installed, but there's obviously lots of availability to pick and choose from.
The family-owned company finds itself in a good position both expanding and renovating existing facilities while also bringing new compounds onto the market during the past year. But Levinson is quick to note that it has only been able to do so because it has strong ownership and was able to jump when the industry changed for good in 2008.
You look at the way things are today, and you can throw all the old historical ideas out the door, he said. You can start by looking right at the top line in sales. Automotive went to lows that we never thought we would see in our lifetime. You look at the energy costs, and none of us have ever seen it this high. You look at the predictability of feedstocks, and that's gone. All the ratios, all the things you used to be able to count on not one of them in the last three years has held out to be true.
With so many companies forced to focus on survival, a lot of funds normally targeted toward innovation and development were pushed aside for use elsewhere, so every step forward since then has had a big impact.
For RheTech, which specializes in filled and reinforced compounds based on a variety of resins, the company has returned to its pre-2008 employment level at its established operations in Whitmore Lake, Fowlerville, Mich., and Sandusky, Ohio. The firm added another compounding line in Whitmore Lake. It has added development capabilities and more engineers.
Even the office has new wallpaper, noted Andy Hopkins, executive vice president.
The new operation in Blacksburg, S.C., is just the most visible sign of the firm's renewal, he said. It also is part of an important strategy to expand its presence.
We needed this because there's been a lot going on there not just in South Carolina, but across the Southeast, Hopkins said. It makes good sense for us that if we're going to invest in a new facility, to put it in that neck of the woods.
The new plant will be able to tap into a growing automotive base in the Southeast along with business from large-truck manufacturers both groups anxious to invest in lighter parts.
The changed business environment overall since 2008 is continuing to have an impact as the company goes forward. RheTech is putting increased emphasis on its business in recycled resins and natural fillers, even launching its natural fiber RheVision line in 2010.
When he was first hired at RheTech in 1987, Levinson said the company owners did not want to talk about recycled materials at all. Now it has product part numbers that begin with RCP, for recycled plastics. It is looking for ways to position the lighter carbon footprint of recycled materials.
The company's engineers are designing new blends to meet expectations for weight, strength, and scratch and mar resistance for the auto industry.
At the same time, however, molders and OEMs have cut back on the number of employees who understood material science, and companies like RheTech cannot rely on familiar routes to sell its materials.
Even the strongest companies are facing new tests.
While there are a lot of people willing to listen, they lack the resources to actually execute.
Both men are convinced, though, that the industry is working toward more understanding of what materials and engineering, and even part reduction, can bring them.
It's incumbent upon us to explain how using our materials helps out, Hopkins said.
The first people who figure out how to sell something like recycled plastics, the way that you can sell safety now, that's going to be a heck of an opportunity for them.