Two progressive, family- owned custom injection molders were sold recently — Plastic Components Inc. and Nicolet Plastics Inc. Both companies are relatively small but are well-known in plastics processing circles.
PCI generated $29.3 million in 2016. Nicolet Plastics' sales were $14 million. Both companies are in Wisconsin. Both have been led by dynamic owners who know that, especially at smaller plastics processors, the way to succeed is to find a niche and focus on it, and then keep working to improve the operation and the "system." (Actually, that recipe is important for companies of any size.)
The owners know each other personally: Tom Duffey at PCI in Germantown, a half-hour north of Milwaukee, and Bob Macintosh at Nicolet Plastics in the tiny town of Lakewood, way up the Wisconsin North Woods.
Both outgoing, engaging men understand the importance of getting out of your office and talking to employees, customers and other people in the industry.
And both companies have been active in this newspaper's Processor of the Year Award, which has evolved over the years as a great way to benchmark. The award covers seven criteria, rewarding companies that are well rounded. Participants write a submission covering the broadly ranging areas, and that encourages them to think about — and compile — how their companies stack up, not just about technological prowess and financial success, but other "soft-skill" criteria as well, like industry and community involvement, employee relations and environmental performance.
PCI won the 2008 Processor of the Year Award. Nicolet Plastics was twice a finalist for the top award.
Plastics News reported the about the sale of the two companies in last week's issue. The circumstances were quite a bit different, but in many ways they are the same, when it comes to retaining employees and, importantly, the unique corporate cultures of PCI and Nicolet.
Duffey sold Plastic Components to Cleveland-based private equity firm MPE Partners. He plans to remain active with the molder and to keep an ownership stake.
Macintosh crafted an interesting deal to sell Nicolet to Badger Mining Corp., a Berlin, Wis.-based company that wanted to diversify beyond its core business of mining and processing industrial sand and other aggregates.
Badger mining is family-owned, and the small company has won several best-places-to-work awards. That's good. Under Macintosh's leadership, Nicolet Plastics has become a model for how to train manufacturing employees. Finding and retaining good workers is hard enough, but it's critically important to the molder in a remote place like the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, some 200 miles north of Milwaukee.
At Nicolet, employees schedule production and make changes as things happen. Heard about just-in-time? In one area of the Macintosh's plant, every 15 minutes' worth of production moves in containers down a conveyor, directly to the quality and packaging area.
But where Nicolet really stands out is its skills matrix. It's like a college curriculum for factory work. Employees follow the matrix of courses on areas such as quality, material handling, blueprint reading, setting up robots, exchanging barrels and mold changes. There are prerequisites for some of the skills that require passing earlier courses. People get tested to determine if they have reached the level of competency, and they can earn extra pay.
We think Macintosh would make an excellence consultant, because his ideas deserve a wider audience in all U.S. manufacturing. The sector is hungry for innovative methods of training employees and giving them incentives to learn and grow within a company.
Leaders of both companies weren't afraid to change strategies. That's easier to do in small companies — and it's one key strength for family-owned companies.
Under Duffey, PCI has become a major force in automation — even opening a second plant in Germantown for "lights-out" manufacturing, where just one person comes in to remove filled boxes of parts.
You could call what PCI does "shoot and ship" molding. That is often a derogatory term for the type of work that went to China. But PCI makes it work through a relentless effort to work closely with customers and take out direct labor, so employees can focus on quality and keeping molds in good shape.
By maintaining a consistent and reliable message — and delivering — PCI has succeeded in making deep connections with customers.
Both companies have forged their own paths, and the new owners should keep it going. The good news is the new owners of both companies realize the importance of employees — keeping the teams intact. Especially in Nicolet's case, maintaining operations was very important when considering buyers, as Macintosh said: "This is a community of 700 people. If something happened that affected the jobs of the 82 people who work here, that would be devastating to this area."
But part of the message of Plastic Components and Nicolet Plastics is reacting to change and trying new things is the key to winning in an economy that constantly changes.
Bregar is a Plastics News senior reporter. Follow him on Twitter @Machinerybeat25.