PolyAd Services got a new name, owner and CEO last year. This year, CEO Mike Modak says he plans “a full-court press everywhere in the world that has a market sufficient for us to grow.”
Modak has played supporting roles in plastics, but this is his first appearance as a headliner. “In the past I was involved in plastics, but the scope of it was very small in the context of the total business. Here, it is 100 percent,” he said.
And he's making himself at home.
“Plastics — what a dynamic space,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I've been in many industries with many types of companies [and] I could easily spend my career in this space. … There's always a lot going on and a lot of opportunities. Who wouldn't want to consider a career in this business?”
PolyAd is based in Earth City, Mo., and has a site in Lampertheim, Germany. It provides additives to customers in 30 countries. The company, a spinoff from BASF SE of Ludwigshafen, Germany, is now PolyAd Holdings LLC and is owned by private equity firm Edgewater Capital Partners LP of Cleveland.
Modak is optimistic about the new start, for himself and the company.
“I'm new to plastics, but from what I see — wow, there's a lot of potential. And this is a company with great potential.”
One particularly promising area for PolyAd is aviation, he said. The company also serves the building and construction, packaging, automotive and electronics markets. Its products include ultraviolet-light stabilizers, antioxidants and flame retardants.
Modak earned a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Case Western Reserve University. In 1980, he graduated from Baldwin Wallace University with an MBA. He started out as a chemist, “but I quickly understood my role in chemistry would fit within a business context.” He knew he wanted to become more involvd in creating policy, “in setting and moving an agenda.”
Modak joined HB Fuller Co. as an area sales manager and moved up the ranks at the St. Paul, Minn.-based adhesives manufacturer. He held positions in market research and strategic planning, was international general manager of the nonwoven hygenic business, and became director of corporate development. After 20 years, he was named vice president of the firm's Industrial Products Group in 1999. He absorbed a lot of information while at Fuller.
“One of the CEOs at HB Fuller Co. was a true mentor to me. At the time, I was in charge of strategic planning and also mergers and acquisitions. I probably learned the most from him when we were comparing notes and just chatting in the office many evenings discussing deals strategy and the operational challenges of the day,” Modak said.
“I remember coming to the realization and telling him one evening that I finally understood his job. It was to be able to say ‘no' to 80 percent of the things that people wanted to do, in a way that kept them engaged and motivated in the business. Once the CEO gives a green light to a proposal, the cash starts moving out the door.”
After leaving HB Fuller, Modak expanded his experience with stints at Honeywell Specialty Materials and Momentive Performance Materials (formerly GE Silicones). His most recent job before joining PolyAd was as senior vice president for global growth and innovation at Avintiv Inc. (formerly PGI Specialty Materials Inc. and recently purchased by packaging giant Berry Plastics Group Inc. from Blackstone Group for $2.45 billion).
When he became CEO of PolyAd, he knew what he needed to do.
“Since I was new to the industry and to the company, my first goal was to learn the business,” he said. At the same time, Modak was determining the best size and market definition for the firm.
“We're a well-established, but still relatively small, organization in a global environment — so we must expand and grow.”
The best advice he ever received, Modak said, was, “Grow your sales and control your costs and you'll be a hero.”
He says the company is growing, and sales are less than $100 million, “but we'll be eclipsing that number in the not-too-distant future,” he said.
PolyAd employs between 50 and 100 people, and is always looking for good front-end workers like technologists, marketers and sales people. And here's a tip to job-hunters — Modak's advice for new employees:
“Go beyond just describing a problem — take the next step of making a solid recommendation. Clearly state your observations, your suggestions and your rationale as to the steps you think we should take and be ready to defend them. It's always very easy to point out issues and challenges, but much more difficult to develop a clear recommendation for corrective action.”
Helping people move ahead in business comes naturally to Modak. “My major passion is for mentoring individuals and helping them live up to their full potential, both professionally and personally,” he said.
He hopes that willingness to share his experience will be part of his legacy as a CEO.
“I would hope to be known as one of those entrepreneurial managers who is focused on taking whatever organization they've been given responsibility for and making the organization better than it was — all the while helping and stimulating the people to become better than when they started.
Among people who have influenced him, Modak includes business magnate Jack Welch, author, executive and former General Electric CEO and chairman; and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki, author, startup guru and former “chief evangelist” at Apple. The two men, at first glance, appear to approach business in very different ways.
“It's interesting to contrast the two,” Modak said.
But at least one thing they have in common is their ability to make a point in short order, and inspire others to do so as well.
Modak admires and shares that ability: “Tell me your story, but get to the guts of what you want to say quickly and tell me in a way I can understand.”
In addition to the knowledge Modak has acquired through executive business experience and education, he learned something important early on, in a perhaps unlikely place.
“In college I worked in a hospital's central supply room. The job involved everything from picking up and delivering bedpans and other supplies to various units in the hospital, to safeguarding and transporting corpses to the morgue.
“I learned very quickly that everyone and everything I touched was important to someone.”