When he started, the company that later would be renamed Davis-Standard had fewer than 75 employees and $3 million in sales, mostly serving wire and cable.
After he was there a few years, Davis-Standard moved from Mystic to its current location in Pawcatuck, Conn.
Directed by management, Ackley, the young draftsman, did the drawings showing the new plant's layout.
He and Elaine got married and started a family. They had three children. Then Davis-Standard asked Ackley if he was interested in going to college.
"I went to night school for 20 years," he said, chuckling. "I just picked away at it." He eventually earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Mitchell College and, in 1980, an MBA from the University of New Haven.
Ackley moved up the ranks, holding top management positions, including in electrical and mechanical engineering, field service and research and development.
Looking back, did he ever think about working anyplace else? He did look at Electric Boat — like probably everybody else in southern Connecticut did at some point.
"You'd have friends working there that said, 'Come on over; we got the job all lined up for you.' That kind of thing," Ackley recalled.
But Ackley stayed on. He kept working hard.
He became president in 1983.
"Even when I started as president, we were running as basically a one-product company — wire and cable insulation," he said. Sales were about $20 million, and the company employed 300 people.
It didn't take long for the diversification to heat up and the growth along with it. When Ackley retired, Davis-Standard employed 1,000 and had sales of more than $300 million.
Ackley headed up the move to make Davis-Standard the largest manufacturer of single-screw extruders, holding more than a 50 percent share of the U.S. market. The company came out with a Blue Ribbon series, a value-priced model with standard features, as a way to do mass production. Employees could build them 10 or 20 at a time, he said.
Davis-Standard was a division of Crompton & Knowles Corp., a publicly held maker of specialty chemicals and additives, clothing dyes, crop-protection chemicals, and additives for food and pharmaceuticals. Davis-Standard performed well, and as a result, Ackley said, the parent company gave the machinery maker lots of flexibility.
Ackley led a string of rapid-fire acquisitions, beginning in 1991 when Davis-Standard bought the Sterling accumulator-head blow molding machinery business.
You need a scorecard to track all of the deals. In 1994, Davis-Standard picked up the Egan Machinery division of John Brown Inc., bringing in film-making equipment, then the NRM extruder business from McNeil & NRM Inc. The following year, the company expanded again in Europe, buying the ER-WE-PA business in Germany that made equipment for extrusion coating, cast film and sheet. Then in 1998 came Betol in England, the maker of systems for tubing, pipe and profiles extrusion.
Even with all the deals, Ackley said Davis-Standard's growth was about evenly split between acquisitions and organic.
He said the acquisitions made Davis-Standard a better company.
"It had some market stability. The wire and cable business is a great business, but it goes up and it goes down. The rubber business — up and down. You don't have the cycle necessarily as extrusion coating or pipe and profile or packaging," he said.
Ackley was also active in the bigger plastics industry. He was chairman of the Society of the Plastics Industry — now the Plastics Industry Association — in 2000-2001. He also served on the machinery division and NPE committees.
"I was trying to do something for the industry as well as keeping Davis-Standard connected," he said.
Ackley was involved in the creation of the National Plastics Center and Museum, serving on its board of directors. He is a member of Plastics Pioneers Association.
In 2005, Crompton merged with Great Lakes Chemical Corp. to form Chemtura Corp. Officials began to term Davis-Standard as a "noncore" business and that same year sold a stake of the machinery maker to Hamilton Robinson LLC, a private equity firm that owned Black Clawson Converting Machinery Co., the maker of equipment for cast film and extrusion coating.
Ackley presented the Hamilton Robinson offer to the board. He retired in the fall of 2005, but he remained on the Davis-Standard board until the ownership change was complete a year later and Hamilton Robinson, together with a management team, bought the rest of the company.
Jim Murphy, Davis-Standard's current president and CEO, nominated Ackley for the Plastics Hall of Fame. Murphy said the honor recognizes Ackley's entire career at Davis-Standard.
"The Hall of Fame recognizes people who have provided leadership and a positive impact on the plastics industry," Murphy said. Robert Ackley fits the bill.
Pfizer's loss was the plastics industry's gain.
Read the Viewpoint on the Hall of Fame and find links to other profiles.