Cleveland — Four leaders who helped build the U.S. thermoset plastics industry shared a stage April 19 in Cleveland.
The Founders Panel at the SPE Thermoset TopCon included Larry Nunnery of Bulk Molding Compounds Inc., Ford Davey of Premix Inc., Jim Balogh of Mar-Bal Inc. and Richard Morrison of Molded Fiber Glass Cos. Both BMCI and Premix now are part of A. Schulman Inc.
All four shared lessons from their experiences — as well as a bright outlook for the industry.
Nunnery joined West Chicago, Ill.-based BMCI in 1989. At that time, the firm's thermoset compounds “had a good appearance for containers, but we wanted to take it into other industries,” he said. Their materials eventually found a home in automotive lighting.
“The [auto] industry was ready for a material that you could specify, and we played that card hard,” Nunnery added.
In 2008, BMCI was sold to private equity firm Wind Point Partners LLC, which later made it part of its Citadel Plastics Holdings group. Citadel then was sold to Fairlawn, Ohio-based Schulman in 2015.
Davey founded Premix along with childhood friend George Kaull in Conneaut, Ohio, in 1959. The firm soon moved to nearby North Kingsville, where it's still headquartered today. Premix produces thermoset parts and compounds.
Davey and Kaull started out on their own after Davey apprenticed at a tool and die firm in northeast Ohio and served a four-year stint with the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
“I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn't want to work on farms all my life,” he said. “When we started we even used old bakery equipment. But the secret of our success was hiring good people.”
In 2011, Premix merged with Hadlock Plastics LLC to create the Composites Group, which Citadel bought in 2014. It then went to Schulman along with the other Citadel businesses in 2015.
Balogh may have had the most remarkable story of the four. He was jailed as a teenager in his native Hungary after taking part in that country's revolution in 1956. Balogh later escaped and enlisted in the U.S. Army — before ever setting foot on U.S. soil.
He made his way to the United States, founding Mar-Bal in Cleveland in 1970 before moving to its current home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The firm now is a thermoset molder and compounder and is run by Balogh's sons, Scott and Steven.
“I went to school on the GI Bill and became a tool designer,” he said. “People need to see what a great country this is. Some Americans aren't aware of that — but I owe all I have to this country.”
Balogh explained why many immigrants become businessmen “They can take risks because they have nothing to lose,” he said. “That's the advantage they over the average American.”
Balogh recalled how at his first location in Cleveland's Flats industrial area, he used his old Volkswagen to drag a compression press into a work area — sending sparks flying and digging grooves into the concrete — because he didn't have a tow motor.
“A guy I knew called me and said ‘I've got a press for you — it's ugly as hell, but it works,'” Balogh said. “So I took it. We started doing phenolic parts that were hard for other companies to do.”
Morrison's firm was founded by his father Robert in 1948 and made its reputation with an iconic American vehicle — the Corvette, which debuted in 1953.
“Parts for the Corvette couldn't be molded rapidly enough in steel, and Chevy wanted to beat Ford, which was rolling out the Thunderbird,” he said. “So they went to fiberglass, and all the parts were built at our plant.”
Ashtabula, Ohio-based MFG — with financial backing from materials firm Owens Corning of Toledo — made parts for the first 300 Corvettes. MFG later made a wide range of products from bread trays to boats, from wind turbine blades to parts used on the Hubble Telescope, from the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to a Coca-Cola sign displayed on Times Square in New York.
The company even had a run-in with presidential candidate Donald Trump when he was a real estate developer.
“We were one of the first companies to sue Trump,” Morrison recalled. “We made some signs for the Taj Mahal casino, but that went bankrupt and he didn't have any money to pay us.
“So we filed a lawsuit against Trump and the story ended up in the New York Post. I'm a little worried about him becoming president.”
All four firms had their ups and downs, but their leaders are proud of what they were able to accomplish. “We created an environment where people wanted to come to work,” Nunnery said. “We were able to grow not only for our shareholders, but to provide good jobs and good benefits for our employees,” Morrison added.
And even as they reminisced, the four executives each said they see good days ahead for thermosets.
“Composites are still replacing metal or other materials,” Davey said. “There's still a lot of room out there. You need to get your marketing people out there and shake the bushes.”
Balogh added that with U.S. firms facing competition from around the world, “our only savior is innovation.”
He also stressed the importance of customer service. “If you don't take care of your customer, someone else will,” Balogh said. “We always did our best to please our customers. If you have no jobs, you have no business.”
Nunnery added that thermoset materials still have “tremendous opportunities” because of their cost per cubic inch and performance profile. Morrison pointed out that “near-shoring is popular again, and American manufacturing is desirable.
“This is an excellent time to be in the composites business,” he said.