For Dan McGuire, work was fun. He sold plastic in Detroit in the vibrant 1960s, then in the 1970s, he created a brand new industry of resin distribution, selling prime resin to small- and mid-volume processors.
Throughout his career, McGuire recalled, “I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
And at the time he was an Arkansas teenager, the right place was this: running a jackhammer busting up pavement.
McGuire, who along with partner Tom Mueller founded General Polymers Inc., is credited with being the “father of resin distribution.” They started by renting a U-Haul to deliver resin. When they sold the business 10 years later to Ashland Chemical Co., sales were $45 million from three locations.
When McGuire retired in 2000, the business had mushroomed to $1.1 billion and 21 district warehouses.
Now the “father of resin distribution” is going into the Plastics Hall of Fame. He calls it “my ultimate dream.”
“I worked in the plastics business for 39 years. It was in my blood, like you just can't imagine. I had fun every day of my life,” he said. “I pity my wife, because I traveled five days a week. But I loved every minute of it. I built that business. [Ashland] let us do our thing and it was just so much fun and I love everybody in the business. I don't know of anybody that could've enjoyed life anymore than I did.”
McGuire was nominated by some big names — Jack Welch of General Electric Co., Jon Huntsman of Huntsman Corp., and Robert Swain, founder of Chroma Corp. All three are in the Plastics Hall of Fame.
At his induction ceremony, it should prove hard to limit the 73-year-old McGuire to a two-minute acceptance speech. He loves to tell stories. And it starts with his childhood in Dardanelle, Ark., where his father ran a general store.
After graduating from high school, he could not decide want to do next. He recalls his dad saying: “‘If you go to college and maybe become something like an engineer, you can make money and you won't have to work as hard as I do.' So he said, ‘I'll get Mr. Batson next door to give you a job during the summer. You work on the highway department and they build bridges.' “
His first day, the teenager was handed a 90-pound jackhammer breaking concrete for road repairs. It was 100 degrees. On the highway. In Arkansas. He did that for four months.
“At the end of that session, I looked my dad straight in the eye and I said, ‘I will get a college education. I will not do this for the rest of my life,'” McGuire said, interviewed in a more pleasant setting, his beachfront place in Naples, where he lives with his wife, Darlene.
He entered Arkansas Polytechnic College, which had a two-year engineering program. Although he struggled with the math and chemistry, he stuck with it and made decent grades. Still dreaming of building bridges, he wanted to become a civil engineer. But he hated a surveying course, so he hit on business and sales.
That was the right choice.
McGuire enrolled at the University of Arkansas in industrial engineering. He joined ROTC and the National Guard, becoming a distinguished military graduate. He wanted to be a jet pilot but failed the physical, because of an inability to hear high-frequency sounds.
After graduating in 1961, he joined Eastman Chemical Co. in Tennessee. He joined the small plastic unit. But after four months, he left to serve his Army commitment — which was lengthened by the Cuban missile crisis — assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina training National Guard troops. He ended up getting a job as a sports officer for the fort's 50,000 troops. “I was put in charge of three bowling alleys, a golf course, 20 swimming pools, all intramural sports, with a $7.5 million budget and 300 people working for me.” Tremendous management experience for a 21-year old!
Southern boy moves north
McGuire came back to Eastman. About three months into sales training, the personnel director called him in and said they needed help in Detroit, where the district sales manager had some health problems.
“Now you're talking about a country boy going to town? At that time, the largest city I had ever been to in my life was Little Rock, Ark. So with a child and my wife, we load up and we head to Detroit in 1963. And I've been there ever since,” said McGuire, whose Razorback accent has no hint of Motown.
His boss in Detroit, John Slater, had come there in 1932, and is in the Plastics Hall of Fame.
McGuire said the early 1960s was the beginning of “the burgeoning plastics business in automotive.”
Slater gave him the Sheller-Globe Corp. account, and he sold Eastman's butyrate. He also got Ford Motor Co., handling color matching of what in those days was all pre-colored resin.
“Those two things kind-of put me on the map of learning the automotive industry,” McGuire said.
Eastman added polyethylene and polypropylene. McGuire ended up leaving Eastman, on what he called good terms: “I was very aggressive. And I wanted to do more than what Eastman would let me do.”
He went to Thermofil in 1968 as automotive sales manager, then was promoted to vice president and general manager. They were making a new reinforced PP — used in a flurry of new plastics applications like radiator fan housings and heater ducts.
“We couldn't make the stuff fast enough,” he said. The right place at the right time.
He and Mueller left Thermofil and started General Polymers in 1973.
Birth of an industry
McGuire and Mueller knew their strategy right away: serve the little guy. At Thermofil, part of McGuire's job was to find non-automotive customers, “the new itty bitty processors” as he calls them.
At Thermofil, he had seen firsthand how raw material suppliers didn't show much interest until the volumes grew to bulk trucks and rail cars.
The timing was good. Chemical companies were building mega-plants for commodity plastics in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, Dow Chemical Co. announced it would only serve customers that bought at least 40,000 pounds of a single resin.
“They'd make 300 million, 500 million pounds and those plants needed to sell rail cars. They didn't need to sell 50-pound bags and 1,000-pound boxes,” McGuire said. They would not send a salesman for these small amounts.
“But there were hundreds, literally hundreds of little guys popping up all over the country that needed somebody to call on them,” he said.
Brokers and resellers were on the scene, but they dealt with off-spec and wide-spec resin. Nobody was approved by the resin firms to sell prime, virgin materials. But getting that approval wasn't easy. It had never been done before.
“When Tom and I quit [Thermofil], I borrowed $25,000 from my father. My father got the $25,000 by selling cows. He owned a bunch of cattle and he sold cows to give me that money. Tom's father ran a shoe store in downtown Detroit. Tom borrowed $25,000 from his father.”
They rented a 1,200-square-foot warehouse in Troy, Mich., and a U-Haul truck by the week. They paid the owner of a neighboring company $10 each time they borrowed his forklift. They loaded and unloaded the truck, and changed clothes to make deliveries and sales calls.
“We started working hard to convince suppliers to let us officially resell their products,” McGuire said. “Trying to get the suppliers to let us represent them was the single hardest thing we had to do.
They shared everything. “We told the resin supplier, if we're gonna be your distributor, we want you to know everything. We will tell you who the customer is, how much he's buying. And if you want to, we'll tell you the price.”
Selling to processors was easy. “Here's your sales pitch: Mr. Customer, you've got six molding machines and you need eight different kinds of material. You can make eight phone calls to eight producers who do not want to talk to you. Who will not give you credit. Who may take your order and ship it in a few weeks. And will never make a sales call. Or I got a warehouse 22 miles away. I've got your product in my warehouse. You can make one phone call, get all eight products put on my truck, delivered to you tomorrow. And I'll give you the combination pricing of all eight.
“Now, who would you like to buy from?”
General Polymers hired technical service engineers to help customers with molding challenges. “Lord, business just started flowing into us, because we were giving these people help. And we never charged a penny for any of this.”
Twice a year, the firm held technical seminars, again for free. “There was no sales person ever there. We were not putting on a sales pitch.”
In another educational effort, McGuire worked with three fellow Plastics Hall of Famers — Frank Marra, Fred Schwab and Carl Whitlock — to help set up Ferris State University's plastics curriculum.
For the new distribution industry, there needed to be guidelines. McGuire worked with Rudy Stewart of Monsanto Co. to draft the “Principles of Resin Distribution.” He said the basic ideas are still used today.
General Polymers was growing quickly, adding warehouses in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago and buying a business in Minneapolis. “Tom and I had been running General Polymers and we were the happiest two little kids in the world,” he said. The business was profitable.
Then the banker called in 1982. “He said look, you guys are a wonderful customer. You're a cash cow. We love you. But you're growing too fast.” The bank would not loan General Polymers more money until it caught its breath and built up its net worth.
“Broke mine and Tom's heart. Because, if you can imagine, we had opened those [warehouses] up, and we needed to open one in Atlanta. We needed one in New Jersey. We needed one in New England and we needed one in California. And the people pushing it were the suppliers,” he said.
A few months later, Phillip Ashkettle called from Ashland Chemical, a major chemical distributor that wasn't in plastics. Ashland wanted to buy General Polymers. “Phil said ‘We want to use your people as the nucleus, and we want to grow this plastics business throughout all of North America. And we want you guys to manage it.' And we had just been told [by the bank] ‘you can't grow,'” McGuire said.
It came together after six months, and the deal happened in 1983. After a few years, Mueller retired. McGuire stayed to run General Polymers as a division of Ashland Distribution. Using Ashland's resources, McGuire expanded dramatically, opening warehouses across the country. “We were just growing by leaps and bounds,” he said.
To keep up, General Polymers instituted an innovative hiring plan. Management did not want to hire people away from resin suppliers, of course, so they hired college graduates with an aptitude in sales — even if they didn't have a background in plastics.
The new hires learned about processing and materials. They drove trucks and worked in the warehouse. They could not sell until a year of training was completed. And McGuire insisted they all join the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Salespeople had a choice of locations for work. General Polymer developed an incentive-based bonus. Regions competed against each other. So did salespeople. “But it was all in an atmosphere of fun and reward. We were able to develop a family atmosphere in this fast-growing business.”
After seeing his “baby” reach $1 billion, McGuire decided to retire. He does not serve on any boards and does no consulting. Last year, he was elected as the president of Plastics Pioneers Association — a good job for a people person like Dan McGuire.