In 1950, seven investors each kicked in $5,000 to buy the plastics thermoforming segment of Kalamazoo Paper Box Co. Robert Kittredge called his father, about 8 o'clock at night: “Hey dad, would you be willing to advance me $5,000? I got a potential purchase along with some other guys to form this company in plastics.”
Francis Kittredge said yes.
His son was a young ABS salesman for U.S. Rubber Co. The resin was mostly used for durable goods like radios, refrigerator door panels and parts for television sets. But U.S. Rubber also sold sheet for thermoformed packaging to Kalamazoo Paper Box, which had a small vacuum forming operation. Sears was a big customer.
The new owners bought the equipment, moved it to a former A&P grocery store in downtown Kalamazoo, and renamed the business Fabri-Kal Corp.
Today Fabri-Kal is a leading maker of thermoformed packaging like yogurt and pudding cups, single-serve cereal bowls and takeout containers. Fabri-Kal generates $300 million from three thermoforming plants that employ 850 — placing it as the eighth-largest thermoformer in North America, according to Plastics News data. The firm is a major user of recycled plastics.
Fabri-Kal is a pioneer in bioresins, through its Greenware line of cups and food-service portion containers thermoformed from polylactic acid, or PLA.
And Fabri-Kal has a decades-old program that helps employees pay for their childrens' college education.
Now Robert Kittredge is entering the Plastics Hall of Fame.
“Kit” Kittredge, 86, recalled the company's history during an interview at the Kalamazoo headquarters, in a residential area. A couple of miles away, its sprawling plant sits right next to I-94.
His role as chairman ends next February. He comes to the office for a few hours, four of five days a week. He has lunch once a month with Mike Roeder, the president.
Over the years, Kittredge bought out the partners. “I ended up with the whole thing. I've given it away, to all four kids,” he said. Two of them are involved in Fabri-Kal. Son Robert Kittredge II is executive vice president and manager of international business. Another son, John Kittredge, is vice president of sustainability. His two daughters, Nancy Stockdale and Marny Kittredge, are part owners and directors, but not involved in running the company. A granddaughter, Casey Kittredge, works in marketing for Fabri-Kal.
Kit Kittredge grew up in Andover, Mass., outside of Boston. He attended the Marines officer training school at Dartmouth College. They drafted him into an intensive program to learn Japanese at Oklahoma State University and the University of Colorado. He stayed there until World War II ended. Then he got a two-year business degree from Michigan State University.
He was based in Detroit for U.S. Rubber. One day at Kalamazoo Paper Box, his contact told him his boss wanted to get out of plastics to focus on the core paper packaging line.
“He said, ‘If you know of anybody interested in buying it, let me know,' “ Kittredge recalled. “ ‘Well, I don't know anybody but I'll ask around,' “ Kittredge told him.
He talked to some friends from Detroit, his boss in Chicago and pretty soon they had pulled together seven people and a total of $35,000.
Kittredge kept his job at U.S. Rubber. The guy from Kalamazoo Paper Box also invested in Fabri-Kal and was its first president. But because of management problems, the company quickly lost money. Kittredge ended up moving to Kalamazoo to run the business. He stayed as president until the late 1980s, when he hired John Michael as vice president of operations, then as president. Michael nominated Kittredge for the Plastics Hall of Fame.
“Building this company would not have been accomplished without the strong vision and insight that Kit carried with him through 61 years,” Michael wrote. “Kit was never afraid to take a risk. There were many setbacks in those years but his deep vision for the company kept us moving in the right direction. He walks among our true giants in the plastics industry.”
Two other industry leaders also nominated Kittredge: Frank Nissel, former president of sheet extrusion line maker Welex Inc., and Jerome Heckman, former general counsel of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Fabri-Kal has been an SPI member for 55 years. Kittredge served as SPI chairman from 1984-86. He also helped start the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division.
One step back ...
but two steps forward
Fabri-Kal did work through setbacks. After steady expansion, the company moved into a 25,000-square-foot building in Kalamazoo and opened a plant in Hazelton, Pa. Then officials decided to get into blow molding.
Kittredge was eyeing a potentially lucrative new market — PVC liquor bottles. Fabri-Kal bought a division from Tenneco Inc. in New Jersey, then followed by acquiring a second blow molding plant, in California. The business molded PVC bottles for products like dishwashing liquid. But liquor in vinyl didn't pan out.
“It was a lousy business,” Kittredge said. After about 10 years, they sold the bottle division.
In the 1980s, the firm built a plant in Piedmont, S.C., and converted Hazelton to in-line forming, from extruded sheet.
But it was gut-check time again in 1991, when Fabri-Kal closed its manufacturing operation in Kalamazoo. The loss of 125 jobs was big news locally. Fabri-Kal may not be the biggest employer in town, but Kittredge was a high-profile industrialist, who had served on the Chamber of Commerce and the boards of several local companies.
Kittredge recalled an incident while he watched the Kalamazoo Wings. “I had beer tossed at me at the local hockey game,” he said.
Fabri-Kal brought manufacturing back to its headquarters city — in a big way — in 2008, buying a 400,000-square-foot building. The company planned to spend $41 million over five years to convert a former Mead Paper Co. distribution center. One unique feature of the building: a huge enclosed rail spur that can hold 11 railcars.
Today Fabri-Kal employs about 275 people in Kalamazoo — 150 at the factory and 125 at its headquarters.
The factory, highly visible from the freeway, is certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The LEED designation fits with Fabri-Kal's green message, together with its plant-based products.
NatureWorks LLC contacted Fabri-Kal back in 2002 to develop PLA applications. Now the company extrudes PLA sheet directly into the forming line.
“I would say we had our eyes and ears open to the fact that the market probably would like something like it,” Kittredge said. “It's not a pure gamble. But you've got to fight through the first inning, the second inning, to get to where it runs right.”
Fabri-Kal Foundation: giving back
When you work at Fabri-Kal, your children get financial help for college. Kittredge said the company takes its motto seriously: “Fabri-Kal is a great place to work.” Founded back in 1969, the Fabri-Kal Foundation makes it happen.
To date, more than 175 young people have received $5.9 million in higher-education tuition assistance. The foundation also has contributed $2.6 million to community projects.
Kittredge recalled that in the 1960s, management wanted an above-board way to save for college. The program ended up covering all employees.
“All companies are asked to give money, pretty regularly. So we had a dose of that. Also, along the line, I started thinking about college for my own kids. It's big dollars. How could I work this out? And I found that most of my predecessors around the world had probably, in the company drawers — if they owned the company — found some way of writing checks for their kids,” he said.
“It wasn't necessarily legal and it wasn't necessarily illegal, but maybe it came out of the company checkbook. And that smelled a little bit.”
Eventually they found out from the Internal Revenue Service details on setting up a companywide college tuition program. “You can do it, but you've got to offer it to every single employee,” he said.
Kittredge said the college money helps draw good people to Fabri-Kal.
“As far as I'm concerned, that's the only reason I'm in here [the Plastics Hall of Fame]. I'm no different than a lot of people,” he said.