CHICAGO — Bob Kleckauskas had a front-row seat at the dawn of blow molded plastic shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles and other consumer products, as a young engineer at Walgreen Laboratories in Chicago.
“I got a job with Walgreen as a plant engineer back in '68. And around that time we ran into problems with the supply of glass bottles. We needed glass bottles and we couldn't get them,” he said. “So we started looking at substituting plastic bottles for the glass bottles.”
Kleckauskas went on to run, and then co-own, Arrow Plastic Manufacturing Co., a well-known housewares maker and custom molder in Elk Grove, Ill. In October, he was named winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Society of Engineers' 2014 Blow Molding Conference in Chicago.
“Let me say that this one hell of an award for an immigrant kid that came from the south side of Chicago, a neighborhood called Englewood. And it's really fantastic. Thank you very much,” Kleckauskas said in his acceptance speech.
The movie “The Graduate” came out in 1967, with its line about plastics. Kleckauskas was a Benjamin Braddock figure, but with a Midwestern blue-collar attitude and a degree from Chicago Technical College. He speaks in a straight-ahead Chicago accent.
After their issues with the supply of glass bottles, executives of Walgreen Laboratories became interested in making their own plastic bottles. Kleckauskas got the assignment — despite having zero plastics training.
He was at the right place at the right time.
“One's life and career are made up of defining moments. And that year started a defining moment for me. I was offered a job setting up a plastics operation. And I was a young guy, with a bachelor's of science degree in mechanical engineering. But I soon found out that the degree was not enough. And you can read all the books you want and you could watch all the videos you want, but unless you get your hands dirty, it's not gonna work,” he said.
“So it took a lot of hours and lot of time to advance in that career.”
At age 26, he bought three blow molding machines and two injection presses, hired the staff and began molding bottles for Walgreen's private label products in 1970. Soon, plastics would take over. No more dancing around broken glass shampoo bottles in the shower.
Arrow Plastic was one of the operation's customers. Kleckauskas joined Arrow in 1977 as vice president of manufacturing. He became president in 1990. Then in 1999, he and two partners bought the company.
Today Arrow Plastic employs about 300 people running 21 blow molding machines and 30 injection presses. You can find Arrow Plastic housewares in major retail chains, from drink pitchers to watering cans to food containers.
Kleckauskas said he and fellow employees worked long hours. Blow molding is a challenge, he said. Early on, and throughout his career, he has attended seminars, plant tours and courses to learn more about plastics.
At the SPE conference, a full table of relatives sat down front to hear Kleckauskas give his speech. He thanked his wife of 48 years, Mary, for supporting him. “I share this award with you,” he said.