SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — Bill Kent flew 6 million miles in a 50-year career at Brown Machine LLC — where he began assembling thermoforming machinery on the factory floor for founder Gaylord Brown, an industry pioneer.
Kent became a pioneer himself, going to customers around the world to sell, and set up, thermoforming equipment. He retired in 2012. Now Kent, an unassuming man from small-town Beaverton, Mich., is the 2014 Thermoformer of the Year.
“It's quite an honor,” he said during a speech at an awards banquet Sept. 17 at the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Conference.
Last's years Thermoformer of the Year, Richard Freeman, said it seemed like Kent was everywhere. “I know Bill from always seeing him wherever I showed up,” he said. “All the major trade shows, Bill was always there. When I had the assignment of being program chair, Bill came and gave a nice presentation on what was new in the industry.”
Kent joined Brown Machine in 1961, just nine years after Gaylord Brown founded the company. Kent was a technician who put machines together, and helped customers install them. By 1965, he had worked his way up to sales engineer. Brown promoted him to vice president of advanced technology in 1985.
Gaylord Brown died in 2002.
“Bill's always been sort of quiet, except for what he did,” Freeman said. “What do you say about a guy who learned the craft of thermoforming from Gaylord Brown? What do you say about a guy who started out in the shop and ended up being vice president of one of the largest thermoforming companies in the world?”
Brown made all kinds of thermoforming machines — roll-fed formers for packaging and cut-sheet machines for industrial thermoforming. Kent's career was one of constant machinery innovation, as the equipment evolved from mechanical actuation to electrical and servo-actuated equipment, from calrod heaters to quartz and panel heaters, from pneumatics to electric power and from push buttons and toggle switches to advanced computer controls.
“Through the years I've seen many changes in our industry. When I first started at Brown Machine, all the equipment that we were manufacturing was for vacuum forming only,” Kent said. “But a short while after I was there, they were developing pressure forming. And at that same time, the commodity type products of cups, containers and the lids was growing dramatically. And it was just explosive growth for machines, for both packaging disposables and in the heavy-gauge side of the business. Many machines were going all over the world. And I was very fortunate also in selling — I started then to sell equipment after a few years of doing the startup of it.”
Kent was a founding member of the SPE Thermoforming Division, serving on the board in the early 1980s. He attended virtually every NPE show from 1966 through 2012 and every Thermoforming Conference from the first one in 1988 through 2011.
And he went to trade shows around the world. One year, he recalled, he traveled to six or seven shows in different countries.
The international travel did have its funny moments. Kent told the story of how he first met Kent Johansson, himself a thermoforming veteran, who was in the audience at Schaumburg. It was 1966 at a customer in Sweden.
“We had sold this equipment to a company in Sweden. And they knew I was coming. And there was a young engineer there and they said, ‘This big American is coming. He doesn't speak a word of Swedish. Who speaks English?' And this fellow put up his hand ‘I speak perfect English.' I arrived, and I think it was ‘hello' and ‘goodbye,' right, Kent? I never squealed on him,” Bill Kent said, drawing laughter.
Bill Kent's wife and three sons attended the awards dinner, sitting at the front table. They are glad Kent is no longer on the road so much, and back home in Beaverton, a town of less than 2,000 people.
Freeman got some laughs in his introduction when he said: “Interestingly enough there are cities and countries that Bill sold and installed machines in that no longer exist!”
Kent said all the travel wasn't easy.
“I want to thank my customers and coworkers that collaborated with me in serving our industry. Due to my time out of the office, it was very, very difficult at times. And I also want to thank my family for standing by me and supporting me even though I was gone 50 percent of the time for almost 50 years,” he said.