Lenoir City, Tenn. — Greenleaf Industries, a Tier 2 automotive molder, has run only all-electric molding machines since it began in 1999 — and the company is gaining more work from its existing customers, and now is molding some under-the-hood parts.
Greenleaf does molding, pad printing and assembly of parts such as air outlets, glove box hinges, trays and caps, and cup holders. Business is good because U.S. car and light truck sales hit nearly 17.5 million in 2015, a record.
Dolly Parton and Hurricane Katrina also played a role in the company's growth, though not for automotive.
The Greenleaf leaders committed to performance excellence and upgrading the skills of its 45 employees about two years ago, CEO Lawrence Segrest said. Sales were $4.3 million in 2015. Automotive work, all of it for Japanese nameplates such as Acura, Honda and Toyota, accounts for 70 percent of business.
“One of the first things that we looked at was, what is the heart of our business? And that's molding. We do assembly, we do printing, but the heart of our business is molding,” Segrest said. “And there's two key things: The machines, and our mold techs. And our mold techs are the thing we can control the most, and that [job] is the hardest thing to actually do.”
Greenleaf also standardized on Sumitomo Demag injection molding presses, again to simplify things for the plant employees, and because the machinery maker provides good service, parts, training and advice, molding officials said. The company sold off its few non-Sumitomos and replaced them.
Greenleaf still operates its first three machines — Sumitomo SES presses. The company runs nine Sumitomo Demags, with clamping forces from 50-350 tons.
Three siblings in the ownership group talked about Greenleaf's history and future, during an interview at the plant in Lenoir City, near Knoxville: Lawrence Segrest, his sister Beth Johnson, the vice president of operations and quality systems, and brother Robert Segrest, director of business development.
Their parents, Earle and Rosaland Segrest, also work at the company. Earle's background explains why Greenleaf became an exclusive all-electric machine house well before that became a trend.
In the mid-1990s, Earle, an industrial engineer, was working at a major manufacturer of gas caps and radiator caps. Milacron was pushing the Roboshot all-electrics, made by Fanuc Ltd. He got interested. The company bought a few, but stuck them in the middle of its molding factory full of hydraulic presses.
Lawrence tells the story: “My father thought that the technology was right. … And he thought, ‘These should be managed differently than hydraulics.' The hydraulic guys always want to go and tweak everything, so they'd want to go tweak the electrics, which isn't necessary. And so every shift would run it differently just like they did on the hydraulics.”
Earle Segrest was executive vice president. Management sounded interested in his idea to set up a separate molding shop, with a dedicated crew, for the all-electrics. “And after two years, he realized that they were just telling him that, but they weren't really going to do it,” Lawrence Segrest said.
So Earle asked his son if he wanted to start a business. Lawrence, who was doing diesel engine design at Cummins, said yes.
His dad wanted him to handle the finances. That's not easy for an engineer, Lawrence said, so he got an MBA from Duke University, skipped graduation, and they started Greenleaf in 1999. The company began with four employees in repurposed industrial space at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. But the government decided it really did need some of the buildings, and Greenleaf and some other companies were forced to get out.
“So we were 3 years old, struggling, and now we had to spend $70,000 to move. We found the closest building that had a crane, that was available, so that we wouldn't lose all our employees,” he said. That was important, since Greenleaf was QS 9000 certified for automotive, just nine months after it opened.
Greenleaf moved at the end of 2002 to Lenoir City, not far from ORNL. The molder occupies about 30,000 square feet of the 55,000-square-foot building; another company has the rest.
Earle negotiated with his former employer and got some cap business from it. Lawrence Segrest said they sent four molds, and 12 more were supposed to come over. But it didn't pan out.
“It was lean times,” he said. “Our cash burn was pretty high. And we didn't have a sales program, because our mission in life was to get these 12 or so molds, figure out how to run them and all that.”
Getting work for a Tier 1 supplier to Nissan helped. Then Greenleaf also picked up some Honda air outlet assemblies, now a major business, Lawrence Segrest said.