With Robinson Industries Inc. developing a plastic pallet for the building industry that is 17 feet long and 4 feet wide, it was time to check the Guinness World Records.
Marketing manager Ronda Robinson, a third-generation family co-owner, wondered if the Coleman, Mich., company's feat would beat the length of everything else out there.
However, when it comes to polymer-related achievements, Robinson said she only came across categories like “the fastest time to break 10 plastic coat hangers” (4.6 seconds) and the “most people to pop bubble wrap simultaneously” (2,681).
Regardless, the granddaughter of company founders Fred and Ardis Robinson, who started the business selling artificial polystyrene foam snow out of their basement in 1947, comes by her curiosity honestly.
“We're always trying to diversify,” Robinson said. “This can mean new markets, new industries or new products for our customers.”
Innovation is where it's at for the family-owned businesses in the plastics industry and Robinson Industries has been at it 69 years, currently with 11 relatives.
Overall, Robinson Industries employs 200 and saw sales of $50 million in 2015 for its thermoformed and injection molded products, which end up in a variety of markets, including automotive, agricultural, consumer, defense, marine and retail.
Ronda Robinson's office is next to her sister's, Lisa Robinson, the customer service manager, and she said she appreciates “the enjoyment of working with your family every day.” Children sometimes join their parents for an hour or so after school lets out. Flexibility to accommodate life events and schedules is important to the three branches of the family tree involved with the company.
“When customers visit they say they feel like they are visiting family,” Robinson said. “It's a warm welcoming environment. Many of our employees feel the same way.”
Work life can spill over into the home, too, and that has its ups and downs.
“If we disagree on something at work, you have to find a way to separate that from your home life,” Robinson said, adding she didn't really like listening to the generations before her talk shop at birthday parties and other family gatherings.
“When I was young, I thought this was a disadvantage, but as an adult I see it is a good thing because I absorbed so much without realizing it,” Robinson said.
Through the decades, the family has faced many challenges but none as big as the Great Recession. Like many in the plastics industry, Robinson Industries was under extreme financial pressure.
“We all took a 60 percent pay cut and did the work of several people due to layoffs,” Robinson said. “If this hadn't been a family business, we wouldn't have been so motivated to do this.”
To make major decisions, the Robinsons hold monthly meetings and put issues to a vote. Each family gets one vote and the majority rules.
“The senior members of each family works with their third generation and hammers out the vote,” Robinson said. “The second generation officially has the vote but they consult with the third generation members and reach a decision as a family for the most part.”
In the next 5 to 10 years, Robinson said the third generation will be reaching retirement age. The fourth generation will be able to step into some roles if they are interested and have the right skills.
Currently, the plant managers and chief financial officers are not family members while the managers of seven departments from accounts receivable to quality control are. CEO Inez Kaleto and President Bin Robinson are the children of the founding couple.
Their father, Fred Robinson, left Dow Chemical Co. to strike out in the fledgling plastics industry with his wife, Ardis. They got a tall order soon afterward for a 54-foot tall “Santa Colossal.” Carved out of almost 4 tons of white foam by 100 workers, the jolly giant was shipped to greet visitors to the 1949 holiday time Indianapolis Industrial Exposition.
Fred Robinson went on to build a better refrigerator door for General Electric, launch production of canoes and coolers, and pioneer advances in thermoformed and injection molded reusable plastic pallets.
Pallets remain a big seller for Robinson Industries and with the latest innovation in development, the generations succeeding the founders keep finding ways to take business to the next level.