It's a major understatement to say that Ampacet Corp. grew under the leadership of Robert DeFalco.
The numbers alone are impressive. Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Ampacet — which ranks as one of the world's largest makers of color and additive concentrates — had sales of $350 million in 1997, the year before DeFalco became its president and CEO. By 2012, the firm sailed past the $1 billion mark. Ampacet also has made nine acquisitions or joint ventures and opened eight new plants worldwide since 1998.
DeFalco, 70, is retiring March 31 after 17 years as Ampacet's top executive. His career in plastics dates back even further, to 1962, when at age 18 he was hired as a shop-floor worker at a compounding and concentrates plant operated by Cabot Corp. in Ridley Park, Pa.
DeFalco — a native of West Chester, Pa. — later became a foreman at that plant after Cabot sold it to U.S. Industrial Chemicals Co. (USI). In 1976, USI made DeFalco plant manager of its alcohol plant in Newark, N.J. He remained there until 1983 when he was recruited by Ampacet to run their masterbatch concentrates plant in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
At the time, Ampacet's headquarters also was in Mount Vernon. DeFalco's responsibilities included scheduling production runs at the firm's plants in Indiana and Louisiana, which put him in contact with executives Dave Weil and Howard England.
Then in 1986, DeFalco made a career-changing decision.
“I approached Dave Weil and said I'd been in manufacturing too long,” DeFalco said in a recent interview in Tarrytown. “He said I could build up sales in the Northeast territory all the way up to Maine. I sold the whole product line.”
DeFalco knew almost immediately that he'd made the right decision by moving into sales.
“I loved it — I had complete control of my life,” he said. “Early on, I had some help from my customers, but I could make cold calls and my manufacturing knowledge was an asset.”
“I mean, we're talking about days when you could be selling masterbatch [concentrate] for trash bags and the customer would hold a bag up to the light to see how the color had dispersed. Those days are gone.”
When Ampacet was preparing to open its first European plant in Messancy, Belgium, in 1987, the firm wanted someone who knew different aspects of the business. DeFalco was picked for the job, and a proposed six-week stay ended up lasting eight months. He returned in 1991 to become the site's general manager.
DeFalco admits now that Ampacet made some missteps in its early days in Europe. “We tried to sell through distribution agents, but they weren't close to customers,” he recalled. “We were the largest masterbatch company in the U.S. by far and we acted as if we knew everything.”
In 1998, DeFalco returned to the U.S. to become president and CEO when Weil retired.
In hindsight, DeFalco said that 1998 “wasn't a bad time to move back — the company was becoming stagnant and needed to expand.” DeFalco took that mission to heart. Between 1998 and 2014, Ampacet's acquisitions and joint ventures reached Argentina, Chile, Canada, Brazil, Italy, England, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. That would have been enough for most firms, but during that time Ampacet also opened new plants in Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, China, India and Luxembourg.
The firm went from being a North American company with two plants in Europe to being an international player in less than 20 years. But along the way, DeFalco had to make his case to the firm's board.
“It wasn't a tough sell, but every project had to stand on its own,” he recalled. “And almost everything was financed with earnings, with very little debt.”
DeFalco has praised the Alexander family for reinvesting in Ampacet over the years. The late Norman Alexander bought the firm in 1954.
The workings of the concentrate market also changed quite a bit over the course of DeFalco's career. “Compounding evolved into higher loadings which allowed masterbatch,” he said. “There also were a lot of advancements in formulations and machinery.”
“Raw material dispersability improved, as did the rheology of polymers and changes in pigments. Equipment improved to the point where it allowed for lower or easier access to entry. There were companies popping up all over the place. That meant more suppliers and competitors, but it also meant better machines. Twin-screw extrusion was a huge step.”
The nature of the customer base also changed. “Larger OEMs mean that the importance of being global has increased,” DeFalco explained. “These companies are looking look for global suppliers, and there aren't that many truly global masterbatch firms. You really have to understand end use applications.”
“And it's amazing what's been done in packaging, going from rigid to flexible in products like multilayer standup pounches. Flexible is still chipping away at rigid. It's lighter and more sustainable.”
DeFalco cited sales as one of Ampacet's strengths. “We don't just give out 10-year awards, we've got 25, 30, 40-year people, and not just in sales,” he said. “We spend most of our money in terms of training.”
Yves Carette will take on DeFalco's roles as president and CEO. Carette himself has been with Ampacet since 1986.
DeFalco's accomplishments at Ampacet drew the attention of former colleague John Manuck. The two worked together briefly at Ampacet before Manuck left in 1981 to form Techmer PM, a materials firm that competes with Ampacet in some markets.
“I've known Bob DeFalco for decades, and I highly respect what he has accomplished and the person that he is,” Manuck said. “We've been competitors with mutual respect for each other's integrity and knowledge of the compounding industry.”
In retirement, DeFalco said he hopes to find “a board or two to assist on.” He added that he'll miss Ampacet's customers, but he won't miss the travel.
“I'll miss the people the most,” he said. “Our success was built by surrounding ourselves with the very best people we could find.”