AKRON, OHIO (April 11, 10:35 a.m. ET) — You never know how a visit to NPE can change your future. Just ask Richard Landis, one of the new class of Plastics Hall of Fame inductees. In Chicago at the 1964 NPE, a Husky machine stopped Landis in his tracks. The 100-ton press whipped out plastic coffee can lids, four at a time, on a four-second cycle. Landis was floored. He bought four of them on the spot from Robert Schad.
Dick Landis had already met Schad at the prior NPE, in New York. He got a taste of true high-speed molding.
“Oh, I was amazed at the speed. The one in New York was running on a 1½-second cycle, making a 6-ounce tumbler out of clear styrene. And it was just mind-boggling that a machine could run that fast and kick out a cup,” he said.
But the story of Landis Plastics Inc. began a decade earlier. Suburbia boomed in post-World War II America. Houses were going up fast. Bulldozers dug out space for cul-de-sacs. And Henry Landis and his son Dick grabbed on to a piece of it in 1954, by launching an injection molding plant to make plastic wall tile in Chicago. The business soon evolved into Landis Plastics, an innovator of thin-wall plastic molding.
Plastics were becoming more common in the early 1950s. One of the adhesives company's customers was a Canadian, Harris McGilvery, who had started to injection mold plastic tile.
In his book, Dick recalls visiting the operation: “The future belongs to plastic,” Dad told me confidently. “Just think of all the things we could make in plastic!”
The two companies shared technologies, the Canadian learning how to make adhesives and the Landis team molding. In Chicago, they duplicated the operation, installing a Watson Stillman plunger machine with 400 tons of clamping force.
“We were making eight cavities of 4¼-inch tiles on about a 17-second cycle, which was really fast at the time,” Landis said.
They moved from a corner in the adhesives plant into a newly constructed, 5,000-square-foot factory in Chicago Ridge. In 1956, they installed a second 400-ton Watson Stillman, and went to three shifts.
Landis hired its first employee, Dart Cole, as foreman. Another important hire was Stan Grych, a mechanical expert who left his family's small molding business. The company was turning out marbleized polystyrene tile.
Unfortunately, the glory days of plastic tile were over. In the early 1960s, imported ceramic tile came in from Japan and Italy. The tile could be set with mastic, instead of the costly plaster work needed for U.S.-made ceramic tile. As prices fell, plastic tile lost its advantage.
But the coffee can lid came along just in time. In 1962, Jack Kyte, a Kansas City, Mo., manufacturers' representative for Landis, called on Folgers Coffee Co. The purchasing agent told him about a revolutionary can that required a plastic lid to seal in freshness.
For years, coffee cans had come with a key, and you would wind a metal strip to open the can. But suddenly, can makers were stuck with lots of unused capacity because of the switch of motor oil from cans to plastic bottles. And the coffee industry was looking for a less-expensive can.
The answer was the 401 can, which was still vacuum-packed but used a metal lid that could be opened with a conventional can opener.
Enter the resealable, plastic coffee can lid. It was a massive conversion.
“Folgers in Kansas City told our salesman they were trying to buy these lids but they couldn't find anybody that's making them, other than two companies, and they were out of capacity,” Landis said.
Wall tiles. Coffee can lids. Both are thin-wall products. “It was an easy transition for us because we went from eight cavities of 4-inch square tiles to eight cavities of 4-inch round lids,” he said.
To get cycle time down, Grzych machined beryllium core caps and soldered them to a steel core base. A spiral-cut water channel was cut close to the underside of the core cap for fast cooling. The result: a 12-second cycle to mold Folgers lids in an eight-cavity mold on the 400-ton Watson Stillmans.
They developed basic hot runners.
Plunger technology has limits, so Landis Plastics bought a retrofit injection screw unit from Sterling Extruder, removed the old plunger and attached it to one press. Later, reciprocating screw machines became widely used, slashing cycles.
The 1960s were free-wheeling times for plastics. Everything seemed possible. Plastic bowling pins? Why not? Landis tells the story: “The owner of the local bowling alley and my dad got talking, and he said, ‘Could you make a plastic pin?' We could try. What we did was cut down the wooden pin. They took a quarter inch of the wood off, and then put a bar through it, centered in the mold, and they injected Ethocel over the pin. And it worked beautiful. The pins looked great. We thought we were on our way to being instant millionaires!”
Dow Chemical Co., the maker of Ethocel, was intrigued. So was DuPont Co., which suggested nylon.
The bowling alley guy invested in the mold and the company ran pins for several weeks. “But the pin action wasn't there, and the sound wasn't there. The wood would smash in underneath the plastic and then it would spring back, and they didn't have the action or the sound. And that killed it.”
Meanwhile, Landis Plastics was adding the small Husky machines. The large Watson Stillmans could mold 2,400 lids per hour. The high-speed Husky injection presses, at 4-second cycles and with four-cavity molds, cranked out 3,600 lids an hour — a 50 percent increase.
Landis Plastics took on more big jobs, like the bowl and lid for Cool Whip, which debuted in 1967. Pringles New Fangled Potato Chips caused a sensation the following year.
“We made the first Pringles lids. They wouldn't tell us the name to engrave until the mold was ready,” Landis said. Mrs. Filbert's margarine launched reusable decorative bowls.
The Pillsbury frosting can posed a technical challenge.
“Nobody thought we could make a straight-sided can, because you always had to have a draft on a part. A minimum of three degrees draft was always the standard to get them out of the mold. And so to get a straight-sided can with no taper out of the mold — everybody said it [couldn't] be done. But we did it,” Landis said.
The customer wanted a rim on the bottom edge, just like a metal can, making it even harder.
Landis Plastics molded the frosting can at its new plant in Monticello, Ind., which opened in 1978.
McDonald's provided Landis Plastics with a gigantic molding job for seven years in the 1980s: a pumpkin-shaped pail to give away with Happy Meals around Halloween.
“The last year we ran that, we ran 28 million pumpkins,” Dick Landis recalled. “And we started in February or March molding them. We had to find warehouses for all of it. They were shipped out the month of September, in preparation for Halloween.
“There were as many as 40 trucks lined up at the Monticello plant to come in and get those, every day.”
The expansion continued. Landis built a third plant, in Richmond, Ind., in 1988.
In 1993, the company built an ultramodern, 522,000-square-foot plant in Alsip, Ill., with 38 injection presses and 29 high-speed printing machines. The plant turns out yogurt, sour cream and other dairy containers, and large industrial pails.
The very next year, Landis opened a plant in Solvay, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse.
And there was one more factory to come: in Tolleson, Ariz., for customers in the Southwest. It began production in 2000.
The Landis children had roles in the business. And they got along, Dick Landis said. Bonnie Landis made sure they all came to dinner, promptly at 6 p.m. “We wanted all our children to be there,” she said. “Each one worked in a different department and they all had a different story to tell.”
Dick explained the process: “Greg was slated to be a salesman. No matter what job he would have had in life, he'd-a-been in sales, so that's what I had him in right off the bat. And then Henry was always the mechanic, tinkering with cars or bikes,” he said. “And so I got him into the molding department. And then David, when he got out of school, he was always the most conservative guy. By then we needed a quality-control manager — we still had only the one plant, but were putting out a lot of parts. And then Jimmy came along, and he went into sales.”
Through the years, the processor kept a good relationship with Husky. In the 1970s, when Husky only made small machines, Landis began ordering large Impco presses to run 16-cavity molds.
Husky later started making larger presses, with insights from Landis. Bob Schad helped out with advice on plant layouts and equipment for orienting parts.
Landis also expanded into thermoforming.
Dick Landis holds 16 patents. He developed a tamper-evident tear strip for 5-gallon containers, so the lids would come off easily.
Another patent covered a design for lids that kept them from nesting too tightly together in a stack.
Two Plastics Hall of Famers nominated Landis: Plastics designer Glenn Beall and Robert Swain, founder of Chroma Corp.
In defense of chasing arrows
Landis played an active role in developing the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol in 1988 for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., as a leader of the Rigid Plastic Container Division. He became the most outspoken defender of chasing arrows when critics, just a few years later, wanted SPI to dump the code, saying it would lead consumers to think that recycling markets existed for all types of plastic.
Landis said the huge uproar was started by a couple of recyclers in California. When SPI President Larry Thomas appeared ready to change the symbol or drop it, Landis invited Thomas to a meeting attended by 60 chasing arrows supporters.
SPI stuck with the code.
It would not be the last controversy in which Landis Plastics was involved. In the mid-1990s, Landis survived a punishing organizing drive by the United Steelworkers of America at its Solvay plant in New York. The union played up several injuries at the plant, including hand injuries and partial finger amputations. The New York Times reported the story. Bruce Springsteen devoted half the profits from T-shirt sales at his Syracuse concert to a pro-union group on behalf of Landis workers.
After nearly two years, the union eventually called off the organizing drive when it became clear it would lose an election, according to Landis. He said he worked behind the scenes to improve safety at the Solvay site, but ended up paying some significant fines.
Dick Landis insists the plant was clean and safe.
“[The union] tried every trick in the book,” he said. “It aggravated us, but we hired this law firm to handle it, and they actually sent a lawyer in and she was there full time. It costs us millions of dollars to fight that.”
Landis Plastics officials did not talk much with the media, on the advice of the lawyers, he said. “We wanted to go the newspaper and tell our side of the story, but they advised against it. I think that was bad advice, even today,” he said.
Selling the family business
Dick Landis said selling the company to Berry Plastics was a “difficult decision.” How did it feel, to sell the family packaging maker he started with his dad back in 1954?
“I don't know how to describe it, when we finally signed on the dotted line and Ira [Boots, Berry president and CEO] and the people from Goldman Sachs came. That this was it, you know,” he said. “When I walked out the door, I thought, wow, what did I do?”
He said it started when Berry and Goldman Sachs & Co., one of its owners, approached the family about buying Landis Plastics.
The family wasn't very interested, but the suitors called back and, after a series of meetings, made an offer. But Landis said the offer was too low, so they hired Robert W. Baird & Co. as an adviser. Baird gauged interest, and about a dozen companies wrote back.
Berry/Goldman was the high bidder and ended up purchasing Landis for $228 million.
After 50 years of all-internal growth, Landis Plastics got snatched up by acquisition-hungry Berry Plastics, which was rolling toward sales of $1 billion.