A chance summer-camp meeting more than 40 years ago has turned into a long friendship and business partnership for Robert Lebeaux and Michael Rosenthal, co-owners of compounder Plastics Group of America in Woonsocket.
Lebeaux and Rosenthal weren't even teenagers when they met at a camp in Marshfield, Mass., in the mid-1960s. The two stayed in touch after Rosenthal's family moved to New Jersey and even after Lebeaux started his own firm — plastic scrap reseller Ralco Industries Inc. of Manville, R.I. — in 1973, fresh out of high school.
Plastics were in Lebeaux's background, as his father owned and operated Rhode Island Polymers, a plastic scrap broker and compounder in Cranston.
Ralco began recycling plastics in 1978 and entered the compounding market in 1980. Rosenthal came on board in 1979. The firm switched over to its current name in 1988.
Today, PGA's line of Polifil-brand filled polypropylene compounds make up more than half of the firm's sales, estimated at around $25 million for its fiscal year ended April 30. Polifil, which can be filled with glass, minerals or other materials, “is [PGA's] bread-and-butter,” according to Rosenthal, the firm's executive vice president.
PGA generates the remainder of its sales from regrinding and reselling resin, as well as from brokering plastic scrap. The company also does some toll compounding work.
Polifil is sold into numerous markets, including food packaging, medical and trays.
PGA also added $20,000 in lab equipment last year. Since January, an increase in business has led PGA to operate two 12-hour shifts seven days a week, Lebeaux said during a recent interview in Woonsocket.
PGA is just about out of space at its plant site, a former textile mill building that's at least 100 years old. Later this year, the firm will lease 15,000 square feet of space at a nearby warehouse to use for storage. Doing so will free up space for PGA to install a possible fifth production line, a twin-screw extruder that could be in place by 2012. A new line is needed because of growth in PGA's core Polifil line, said Lebeaux, who serves as the firm's president.
“We had one hiccup — in June ‘09 — and we've been flying ever since,” Lebeaux said. “Our sales were up 10 percent in this last fiscal year.
“Most of our customers seem very busy, so we're doing pretty well. We're seeing some customers make last-minute deals so they don't tie up inventory.”
PGA also has developed a PP-based flame-retardant compound, but Rosenthal said the material hasn't been commercialized yet.
Currently, PGA operates two twin-screw and two single-screw extrusion lines as well as two blenders in Woonsocket, where it employs 42. The firm has added 15 employees in the last year and may add one or two more by the end of 2011.
Any expansion would require PGA to test the 65,000-square-foot building's electrical system, which it upgraded in 2008 when the firm installed its fourth line.
In spite of that challenge — and of being limited geographically at the site by the adjacent Blackstone River — Lebeaux and Rosenthal said PGA isn't interested in a new location. The firm had operated a recycling plant in Blairsville, Ga., for about 10 years before closing it in 2008, partly because of staffing issues there, they said.
“I've seen competitors get delusions of grandeur and then make expansions that led to foreclosure,” Lebeaux said.
“I've seen a lot of those projects blow up. So I think we're doing OK.”