Thomas Brady, chairman of PET packaging research and development firm Plastic Technologies Inc., is full of creative ideas about plastic bottles — and the future of American education.
In 2009, Brady took a bold step for an industrialist. He accepted the invitation of University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs to become interim dean of UT's college of education.
That level of community activism comes naturally for Brady. He also is active in Toledo schools, both public and charter, and serves on the boards of the Regional Growth Partnership Board and Ohio's Third Frontier program.
Oh, by the way ... his company helped create the contour PET Coke bottle, and other landmark packages.
Now Brady reaches another landmark, as he joins the Plastics Hall of Fame. The native of Maumee, Ohio, explained his wide-ranging interests in an interview at PTI in Holland, near Toledo.
PTI is exhibiting this week at NPE2012, at Booth 7253.
Brady got in on the ground floor of PET soda bottles, joining Owens-Illinois Inc. in 1972 as senior scientist in plastic materials and processes. The three other PTI co-founders also worked at O-I: Scott Steele, named president earlier this year when Brady became chairman; Bob Deardurff, president of sister company Phoenix Technologies International LLC, a PET recycler; and Frank Semersky, who recently retired as vice president.
Steele nominated Brady for the Plastics Hall of Fame.
“I, along with Bob and Scott and a number of other people at Owens-Illinois, were literally responsible for starting up our manufacturing operations in the beverage business, between 1976 and 1984,” Brady said. “Remember, O-I had never made PET bottles. It was a whole new business.”
Brady earned a master's degree in materials science from Dartmouth College. After getting a doctorate from the University of Michigan in engineering plastics materials, he joined Owens-Illinois.
O-I was a whirlwind of activity. He helped set up its first PET blow molding plant, in Milford, Conn., followed by factories in Maryland, Alabama, California and Canada, all in a five-year period.
A major glass-container manufacturer, O-I was already into plastics, but it was all polyethylene, PVC and polystyrene bottles for household products. PET soda bottles were new and exotic.
“When I walked in, very quickly it was: How do you get stuff in machines and make bottles out of it? And that was the interesting thing. We went from being literally new engineers to experienced people in a matter of a few years, because there was nobody else. We went and did it. We invented the machines. We designed the bottles. We invented the processes.”
Brady rose to become vice president and director of R&D.
Meanwhile, led by John Dunagan, a Coke bottler in Texas, bottlers were setting up in-house blow molding. Eventually, several bottlers would become giants of self-manufacturing such as Western Container Corp., Southeastern Container Inc., Apple Container Corp. and FlorPak.
Dunagan offered Brady a job in 1984. Intrigued, he knew it was a pivotal moment.
“There were probably literally 10 people in the world that knew as much as I did about PET. How many times in your life do you end up to be in the right place at the right time? But I really didn't want to go work for somebody else again,” he said.
Instead, Brady decided to leave Owens-Illinois and start his own firm. The first client: Coca-Cola Co. and the bottlers. PTI was born in 1985.
Early projects were multilayer PET containers with an ethylene vinyl alcohol barrier layer and a plastic soda can. Lightweighting was a major push.
“We saved Coke millions and millions of dollars, just taking weight out of the preform,” Brady said.
PTI began a long-term relationship with Colgate-Palmolive Co., designing its new PET containers for consumer staples like liquid hand soaps, laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid.
Today PTI has more than 200 customers. The company employs about 200 people, 100 of them in the Toledo area.
“This is really the premier provider of package technology and materials-development services for the industry. And we work for everybody,” he said. PTI's walls are adorned with plaques detailing 140 patents.
Brady said PTI has kept its entrepreneurial roots. About 50 of the 200 employees have ownership stakes in PTI or its six sister companies, which include Phoenix Technologies, Preform Technologies LLC, PETWall LLC, Minus 9 Plastics LLC and The Packaging Conference.
The firm is active in bioresins and nanotechnology.
Education: Walking the walk
Lots of business executives complain about America's education system. Brady gets directly involved.
“My goal is to help anywhere I can to make education better,” he said. “If we don't educate our kids in this country, we're lost. Our only competitive advantage is being able to be entrepreneurs. The rest of the world can catch up in everything else, so we better figure it out. And if you hope you get a job at Chrysler, that's one thing. But if you educate people, they'll go out and create their own jobs.”
His grandfather founded the University of Toledo's college of secondary education. His mother, an aunt, his two sisters and both grandmothers all taught school.
Toledo is one of the leaders in Ohio in vocational education.
Brady was a founding board member of the Toledo Technology Academy. PTI welcomes interns from the school.
Brady said he feels strongly that not everybody needs to go to college. But young people do need some post-secondary training. “There are lots of jobs out there — welding, machine technology, process controls, electrical technicians, computer technicians, you name it — that don't require four years of college.”
He serves on the boards of Toledo Early College High School and the Toledo School for the Arts.
His wife, Betsy, is a trustee and past chairman of the Toledo Museum of Art.
Tom Brady is active in a major effort in Toledo schools to create a STEM program (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) all the way from kindergarten through high school.
Brady calls his two years as interim dean of UT's college of education “one of the most satisfying things I've ever done.” At first, he had some doubts. So did the faculty.
“I was an engineer, not a guy from education. And they said, ‘Here's a guy who's all about profit; we're about mission.' I mean, I had three strikes against me.”
Brady left PTI to become dean in 2009 and 2010. He spent time getting to know the professors personally. He worked hard to meet all the area school superintendents. He made connections with local business leaders.
Brady thinks education can benefit from fresh thinking. Too often, the education establishment gets “inbred,” he said.
“It gets to be very defensive about itself,” he said.
“One of the things that happens in the private sector is, there's lots of crossover. People go back and forth. You know what's going on in your industry and other industries. And what I became convinced of is, we need more people to get into education that haven't been in it.”