Plastikos Inc., and its sister company Micro Mold Inc., are second-generation family owned — and the founders handed the business off the young executives after a transition period of just two years.
The second generation — brothers Philip and Ryan Katen — had worked at the company for several years, noted their father, Tim Katen.
Tim Katen and Dave Mead invested their life savings to co-found Micro Mold in 1978, focusing on precise, demanding injection molds. They outgrew the original, rented garage in Erie, Pa., and moved to a larger mold-shop facility.
Plastikos was founded in 1989 by Katen, Mead and Gary McConnell. Bill Fogleboch joined as an owner two years later.
In 1995, Plastikos moved into a newly constructed building. The company built a reputation focused on molding electrical connectors from liquid crystal polymers — using Micro Mold's expertise in tooling. The molding factory expanded over the next few years, adding employees and injection molding presses, and investing in additions to the building.
McConnell announced he would retire from Plastikos in early 2004.
Plastikos promoted Rob Cooney to manufacturing manager in 2006. Then Fogleboch followed McConnell into retirement from the company, the following year. Philip Katen became general manager (today he is president).
The year 2007 was a pivotal one, as the Katen brothers and Cooney were added to the ownership team. Two years later, Mead and Tim Katen retired and passed the day-to-to-day leadership responsibilities to the next generation.
Today, Ryan is general manager of Micro Mold. Cooney is Plastikos' manufacturing manager. The Mead family is no longer active in the company.
Tim Katen said he continues to serve on the board of directors, and keeps his finger on the pulse of both Plastikos and Micro Mold. “I do estimating for new tooling projects for them,” said Katen, a tool and die maker.
That's when he's in Erie — logically enough, in the summer, when Erie and its Presque Isle, a sliver of land and beaches on Lake Erie, become a scenic playground. In the winter, when Erie can get hammered by Lake Effect snow, he has a second home in Lake Lure, N.C.
Today, Plastikos and Micro Mold employ more than 150 and have a combined space of close to 100,000 square feet.
Tim Katen said the plastics molding and mold-making business is in good hands. Plastikos in mid-2015 opened a 17,000-square-foot addition that includes Class 10,000 (ISO 7) clean rooms for molding, assembly and packaging, expanding into medical molding.
“I think they're doing excellent,” Tim Katen said. “I would give them a 9, and to get a 10 out of me is too hard. So 9 is really good.”
Tim said he liked machining from his days in metal shop at McDowell High School in Erie.
“And the more I was involved, the more I liked it, it just continued on. I guess you could say I started in my junior year in metal shop in high school but started full-time after my discharge from the Navy. I then started at a [tool and die] course full time, which the state offered. This was January of 1969,” he said.
Those toolmakers, mentoring him during the apprenticeship, were big influences. “They all seemed very talented and I really respected them and their craftsmanship and commitment to the trade,” Tim Katen recalled.
Tim Katen and Dave Mead brought together a good combination of skills. Dave had an extensive background in mold design. Katen had the hands-on experience making tight-tolerance injection molds, working at Seaway Tool & Die, which was owned by Niagara Plastics. Mead had worked at Triangle Tool in Erie, owned by plastics pioneer Joe Prischak.
The men worked in the evenings, doing machining jobs on the side, before founding Micro Mold.
Philip Katen said that family-owned businesses have an advantage: they don't have layers of management when making a decision. “Smaller businesses are much more nimble, much more adaptive when opportunities are found,” he said.
Plastikos management can make decisions much faster than very large corporations. Also, every employee plays an important role. “I don't think anyone wants to be perceived as the weak-link, so the work ethic and energy within the company is rather up-beat. There is a real sense of accountability within each department,” he said.
Also, Philip said owners of privately held business can make longer-term decisions.
And Plastikos has always been conservatively run when it comes to expansion. Large purchases are funded by the owners. They avoid debt.
That means small-business owners have to be selective and very strategic on where investments are made each year. “But the proverbial stakes are higher when it literally is your money that you are spending and investing,” Philip said.
Tim Katen encouraged his sons to excel in school and develop outside skills that could help Plastikos and Micro Mold.
“Our dad was starting to consider retirement after 40 years in the industry,” Philip Katen said. “He didn't want to sell the companies and change the culture he built. Instead, he wanted to see Plastikos and Micro Mold continue to thrive into the next generation.
“Ryan and I felt the same way and believed we could further improve on what our dad built from our industry experience.”