However, it wasn't long before troubling financial days loomed again. During the economic downturn, the visions of the two active owners started moving in opposite directions. Something had to give.
Cuellar was the majority owner while the partner managed several departments like engineering and quality. Cuellar was able to buy him out, but it was a difficult time for crunching numbers, being discrete and exercising some diplomacy.
“Noel and I worked closely together during that buyout period,” Berkenpas said. “I feel we did a very good job of keeping it under wraps because obviously that could scare employees.”
After the partners parted ways about a year later, the executives asked managers, particularly those who reported to the previous minority owner, to trust them.
“They didn't know Noel very well,” Berkenpas said. “He said, ‘Trust us. This is for the good of the company. This will be good for all of us.' We had some fallout because people get nervous, but we got management buy in.”
As a solo owner, Cuellar was determined to reinvest every dime back into the company to stabilize it. Berkenpas said his boss is in business for the purpose as much as the profit.
“When he had laid off half the workforce, it devastated him from the perspective of watching grown men cry and not being able to tell them when or if they'd ever come back,” Berkenpas said. “Noel believes in referencing 130 employees times three because an average household has three. He says we are responsible for some 400 people and he loves nothing better than to hear someone is buying a house for the first time or a new vehicle.”
All the penny pinching paid off. Primera Plastics is a healthy and stable company now with sales of about $25 million a year, Berkenpas said.
“The bank has no concerns. The bank likes to call me and say, ‘Do you need any more money yet?' No, no I don't,” he said, laughing.
Berkenpas is still busy, overseeing information technology and human resources along with finance and accounting.
“We're back to a good situation and reinvesting in the organization,” he said. “We've bought six machines and made a huge investment in capital but it's good debt, not bad debt — the debt you can't afford.”
He also talks to high school students as part of the company's educational outreach program called Primera Pathways. Cuellar started it to offer motivation, confidence and support to “the forgotten middle” — teens who won't be eligible for government assistance for college yet their parents can't afford the tuition either.
“They don't know what they will do with themselves but they're very capable,” Berkenpas said.
He and Cuellar tell the students about their own humble beginnings and encourage them not to give up on higher education.
“My parents didn't have the money,” Berkenpas said. “I went to college while I was working fulltime on a factory floor and married. I had great mentors through my life and great opportunities.”