Kathleen Cerchio, 59, general manager at Quantum Polymers Corp. in Newark, Del., marvels at the growing level of sophistication in the high-performance plastic stock shapes market.
“You have to make a very good product the first time out,” she said.
Cerchio said that her current company's niche is in listening to the customer. Unlike stock shape suppliers that use distributors, Quantum Polymers deals directly with OEMs and other customers. It supplies rods, plates and machined bars.
Over the years, she has faced many challenging assignments. They ranged from reverse engineering thermoset break piston insulators in an F-111 fighter in 1986 to inspecting a 350-gallon reactor in Volgograd, Russia, in 2000, to developing recipes for dissolving fracking compounds in 2014.
Cerchio started in plastics in 1978 at Westlake Plastics Co. as a secretary to a marketing director for olefins and styrenics, and worked there for 22 years.
“By the time he retired five years later, I had become involved in some of the coolest applications in the aerospace, medical and semiconductor markets with the emergence of several new polymers. It was a very exciting time and I was hooked,” she said.
In 2002 she co-founded a small start-up film manufacturer called Ajedium Film Group and helped build a company that Solvay Specialty Polymers purchased in 2008. She said that company started with five employees.
“Nothing can ever match the thrill of creating a product that has never been made before and having it be exactly what your customer needs,” she said.
Cerchio said her biggest failure was not recognizing or scrutinizing the actions of a company that turned into a serious competitor. That taught her to pay closer attention to every interaction, and it inspired her to work harder on a project that produced an even better product.
She said that her current challenge is to “constantly differentiate ourselves from our competitors who are larger with more resources, while staying focused to continue doing well what we are best at.”
Cerchio said that the one emerging technology that most interests her is additive manufacturing, especially of fused filament fabrication. She is amazed how the stock shapes industry has changed in the last 15 years, including many more companies. But she is happy that she still deals with some people on a daily basis that she first met in 1978.
The best advice she's received: Bad news does not improve with time. Whatever the issue, face it and fix it.
Her advice for someone new to plastics is “go out and see your customers. Sit across the table from the people who are buying your products. Learn face-to-face from them what they like about your company's products and what can be improved.”
Cerchio has an MBA from St. Joseph's University, and she'd eventually like to follow a dream of getting a law degree and practicing poverty law. She was accepted into Widener University's law school in 2000, but gave up her seat to start the film business.