A customized behemoth of a blow molding machine is going into production at Confer Plastics Inc. as part of a $3.25 million expansion of processing capabilities, according to Vice President Bob Confer, a third-generation owner.
“It's a very large machine. It'll drop 140 pounds of plastic, and the platens on the machine are 14 feet in length so we can make some extremely large products with this,” Confer said in a telephone interview about the North Tonawanda, N.Y.-based business that mainly serves the pool and spa industry.
Founded in 1973 by his grandfather, Ray Confer, and father, Doug Confer, the business known for its diverse workforce has seen sales increase to $29 million mostly for its pool ladders, pool steps, spa panels, hot tub enclosures and the like. However, it has a broad product line that also includes toolboxes with patented hinges, purple martin birdhouses — former talk show host Phil Donahue is a customer with a website gazebophil.com — and female legs, for retail displays.
With the new, nearly 4-story accumulator head blow molder, Confer said the business will continue to develop its proprietary lines for pools and spas, and see what other doors open for custom-manufactured products.
Confer isn't giving away many details — including the names of the suppliers — about the 700-square-foot machine referred to as “the beast” on the company's Facebook page.
“It's somewhat of a mongrel,” he said. “It was manufactured by one company domestically and another company overseas because no blow molding machine manufacturer would make a machine as large as we needed both in terms of head size and platen size.”
He thinks it could be one of the five largest blow molding machines in the world. Each manufacturer shipped its respective parts and Confer's in-house experts made them work together.
“It took us 1½ years to go from the design to the finished stage,” Confer said.
The business reconfigured existing space for the new machine — its fifth since 2000 — and is adding a two-story complex next to its offices. The plan is to hire 30 new employees by next summer, which would bring the workforce to 230.
About 33 percent of the current employees are minorities, including 28 employees who were among some 9,000 refugees to relocate from Myanmar to New York from 2003-15. Confer hired many of the immigrants in 2014.
“They got wrapped up in the political changes over there,” Confer said. “I believe some had been in refugee camps from six months to three or more years. They don't talk about it much.”
At Confer, the transplants have found work as machine operators and general laborers.
“There was somewhat of a language hurdle at first. But we found a few guys who can read English very well even though they couldn't speak it,” Confer said. “The schools in Myanmar taught English at a very early age so we overcame that and there are a few on the team we use as translators.”
Confer is proud of the international diversity at the business, which he said represents seven countries, including Jamaica, Vietnam, Iran and South Korea.
He's also proud to be growing the business “the old-fashioned way,” which means Confer Plastics didn't seek any state or federal grants or tax breaks for its expansion.
“I'm extremely confident that I could've gotten from the state of New York at least $500,000 of grant money to cover the machine,” he said. “But we're not fans of corporate welfare. We believe entrepreneurs should rely on themselves and their banking partners and not on the taxpayers.”