Evansville, Ind. — Eight years ago, Ira Boots retired from Berry Plastics Corp., where he was chairman and CEO. He still regularly has lunch with Berry employees from the headquarters plant in his hometown of Evansville.
"We were bonded together," he said. "And I've said this a thousand times: It's a movie. Every movie you see, people have roles. It's not a movie unless you have all the people."
That says a lot about Boots as he enters the Plastics Hall of Fame. Boots, 64, is a people person — a toolmaker with a high school education who helped build Berry into one of the world's biggest plastics packaging makers in a 32-year career, worked with financial experts to set up deals and was tapped to be chairman of Milacron Holdings Corp.
He gets excited about U.S. manufacturing. Milacron, the only remaining broad-line plastics equipment manufacturer in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. In 2012, a connection from a private equity company that owned Milacron called to see if Boots would become chairman.
He said yes. Milacron staged a comeback and went public on the New York Stock Exchange, and today, the machinery maker is profitable. It employs more than 5,000 around the world.
"It's a great American story of a business. They were as close to death as death could be, and here it is, 10 years later, and things are good. Things are going well at Milacron. That's a huge source of pride to me," Boots said.
Ira Boots also is an American success story who has a working-class background. He began as a toolmaker at a shop in Evansville owned by his father, Joseph Boots. He moved to another local company, American Mold, then on to Windsor Plastics.
In 1978, Boots joined a local injection molding company, Imperial Plastics, the forerunner of Berry. Just 11 years earlier, in 1967, four men had left Sunbeam Plastics, a big molder in Evansville, to launch Imperial. The key early product: aerosol overcaps, which had been a Sunbeam specialty.
Boots supervised Imperial's toolmaking and product design departments. He was employee No. 40. Imperial Plastics generated $4 million in sales. The plant had 12 injection presses, but not all of them ran. There were about eight mold makers.
When Boots retired from Berry in 2010, annual sales were $4.5 billion. The company employed 18,000 people.
"One of our main machines at Imperial, it took eight hours to make four boxes of parts. And these weren't huge boxes," Boots said. "When I left Berry, we made four boxes in about 10 minutes."
Robert Morris owned Imperial Plastics when Boots joined the company. Morris, an entrepreneur, had stepped in to buy the company when the founders ran into financial trouble.
Boots said Morris was a colorful person whose holdings included grain elevators and a huge 16,0000-acre tract of land in Florida.
"He took his talents and could do many things with them," Boots said. Morris was humble and modest but had the ability to look at something and see value. Imperial was in financial straits. Morris knew nothing about plastics. "And he looked at it and said, 'I think there's something here,'" he said.
A pivotal moment happened when American Can, a maker of tin cans, had problems making large plastic containers. Boots said Imperial won a contract to mold them for American Can.
"And over time, American sold that line to Imperial. And that was really the foundation of the tub side of Berry," Boots said. Tubs are still a significant business.
By the end of the 1970s, injection molded tubs were a $3 million business.