James Popela's American dream began in 1968, when he fled communist Czechoslovakia as a 21-year-old medical student.
The journey led first to Switzerland, then to Cleveland, where his grandmother's sister had immigrated in 1897.
“I missed the boat that time,” Popela said jokingly during an Aug. 4 tour of the firm he founded, North American Plastics & Chemicals Co. Inc., in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid.
Originally set up in 1975 in Garfield Heights, another Cleveland suburb, NAP — which also markets its products under the Noramco name — manufactures high and linear low density polyethylene trash can liners with virgin and recycled resin.
Its customers include industrial supply vendors such as Joshen Paper & Packaging Co. Inc., M. Conley Co. and Xpedx.
“I started in custom extruding. We evolved into sheeting and we started incorporating [recycled materials],” said Popela, who is NAP's president and CEO, and a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“At first, we were making sheet for pre-stressed concrete structures, a coating for cables used in the concrete. We were one of the first companies in the ‘70s to see actually the value of the recycled product.
“We became one of the largest suppliers to the steel companies. Our product is in the Atlanta airport, it's in McCormick Place in Chicago, in high-rises and elsewhere,” Popela said.
Patents the company held on sheathing for the tensioning tendons in pre-stressed concrete were set to expire in 1985, so in 1982, NAP retooled for blown film trash bags and moved to the 45,000-square-foot Euclid plant.
In 2000, NAP acquired a 90,000-square-foot plant in Carrollton, Ohio, from Huntsman Corp., which had acquired it from Wingfoot Films.
With 14 extrusion lines — a mix of Alpine and Gloucester machines and Gamma downstream equipment — the Euclid plant is NAP's HDPE manufacturing hub. The Carrollton facility, with nine extrusion lines, is its LLDPE center. NAP employs 100, split between the two factories.
Since NAP buys its machinery used, systems efficiency and scrap reduction are top priorities. In 2007, Popela hired Steve Marcum, then general manager at FlexSol Packaging Corp. in Pompano Beach, Fla., to be his vice president of operations.
“When I came on board, the first thing that impressed me was an owner who put every cent he made back into the company,” Marcum said.
“Jim is very dedicated to his own business, but by the same token, he believes in his people. I took that theory and we gave people what they needed to do the job, based on some of the systems that I had experience with [at FlexSol],” Marcum said.
NAP produces film rolls in widths of 17-120 inches. Its bags run the gamut from liners for 3-gallon wastebaskets to 65-gallon King Kan outdoor trash receptacles.
Product offerings include a line of oxo-biodegradable bags made with the E2S additive distributed by Toronto-based Green Club Inc. E2S allows for 90- to 120-day bag degradation in landfills where oxygen is present, according to NAP.
Since 2007, NAP has gone from processing 20 million to 25 million pounds of resin to nearly 50 million pounds this year, Marcum said.
The 15th extruder in Euclid — a 90-millimeter Reifenhauser machine — is scheduled to be operational by the fourth quarter of 2011, and the Carrollton plant's 10th line also is set to be installed later this year.
Marcum said the firm averaged 21 on-the-job accidents per year when he started; that figure is now down to three.
The company does not release sales, but Popela said it has grown about 20-25 percent annually since its founding “although the last couple of years, we've slowed down to a healthy 15 percent — that's how it goes.”
NAP might add a third plant to serve customers in the South; that investment would come in the next three years, he said.
Among Popela's interests is one with a unique personal angle: employing disabled people, both those with physical and societal handicaps.
NAP has an ongoing relationship with United Cerebral Palsy, sending rolls of its bags to the nonprofit's Cleveland program and paying people with the disability to package them.
“Those people sincerely want to work, but they are wheelchair-bound and some of them cannot leave the facility. So we came up with the idea of some small rolls that they could package for us,” Popela said.
As a child, he suffered from polio that rendered him paraplegic for a time.
“The doctor told my mom, when I was 3, that I would never walk in my life again,” Popela said. Through therapy and willpower, he overcame the disease, but still has trouble negotiating stairs.
The painful process of learning to walk led to a determination to succeed that has served Popela well. “I took the attitude: I can do it,” he said. “On this earth, everything is made by human beings. If the other folks can do it, I can do it too,” he said, summarizing his business philosophy.
NAP employs a handful of deaf and mute people, as well as ex-convicts recruited through a partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, in which the state pays wages for the first 90 days for released prisoners before the company takes over.
“Those people [with criminal histories] are handicapped, in a way,” Marcum said. “Often times, nobody wants to give them a second chance.”
Popela said his way of doing business, including his support for the hiring programs, was formed by his own experiences.
“My American dream is to accomplish something — to be basically successful at what I'm doing. Once [I] leave this earth, [I want] to leave something behind [and] to contribute to society where it meant something,” he said.