Donald Graham is an inventor, innovator and businessman, but not in the traditional sense. His companies played a leading role in advancing the conversion of packaging to plastics, but they did much more than that.
Today, Graham Engineering Corp. is known for its blow molding machinery. But back in 1960, he founded the business in the basement of a rented farmhouse in Dover, Pa., near Philadelphia. The company quickly grew into a true design engineering house, taking on challenges in a wide range of industries.
Graham himself was a mechanical engineer. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1955, simultaneously studying for a master's in industrial engineering and business management, which he earned a year later. It was one of the first multidisciplinary degrees and the forerunner of UM's Tauber Institute for Global Operations.
From the start of Graham Engineering, he brought in skilled engineers to work on customer projects and built a well-known reputation for taking on challenging work. As new areas opened up, the company put multiple people in charge of them. It wasn't just Donald Graham running the show.
"It's a very different kind of profile. And even before things got large enough that they broke out to become separate organizations from Graham Engineering, they were individually run," he said.
The classic family-owned machinery business story of an entrepreneur who builds up a company and stays in charge for decades … well, that doesn't apply to Donald Graham.
"From the very beginning, it's not my company and what I was doing. It's what a group of people were doing with individual companies," he said.
He carried that approach to Graham Packaging Co., Graham Architectural Products and Graham Group, including Graham Capital, an investment company.
As of the end of 2011, those legacy operating businesses generate about $3.5 billion in annual sales and operate in more than 90 locations around the world.
Now Donald Graham, 85, is going into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
According to a history on the Graham Group website, he was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father, Samuel Graham, was a scientist and professor in what is now the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resource and Environment. His mother, Sybil Graham, co-authored a textbook in 1920 used to develop unified curricula for social sciences in U.S. high schools.
Early in college, Graham played football and hockey. After injuries ended his goal of playing professional sports, he focused on engineering.
After graduating, he worked in Saginaw, Mich., at Baker Perkins, which made bakery equipment and chemical processing machinery. A stint in the U.S. Army brought him to Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where earned an accreditation in the chemical weapons group. He moved on to Read Machinery Corp. in York, Pa., where Graham was chief engineer for specialty products.
His next move got Graham into architectural products. He went to Read's parent company, Capitol Products, as vice president of technology. Capitol Products was an extruder of aluminum windows, doors and other building products.
He left Capitol and founded Graham Engineering in 1960. He was 27. The company sold window design and tooling packages. In 1964, Graham began to manufacture window tooling. By 1970, the company was manufacturing windows. Graham Architectural Products was formally incorporated in 1976. Three years later, GAC built a 56,000-square-foot expansion in York to increase its window production.
Specialties included aluminum windows for high-end commercial applications and windows designed for historic building renovations, including sound-proof and blast-proof windows. The windows had internal plastic components acting as a thermal break.
"We found that as a niche," he said.
Graham said in the early 1970s, the owners of large buildings began to replace old steel windows and old aluminum windows that were not energy-efficient.
But Graham Engineering did much more than building products. The engineering firm got involved with raised flooring for big computer systems and designed and built equipment for extruding and tapering large tubes for flagpoles and lighting.
Graham Engineering made a device that would transfer parts between machines, a forerunner of an industrial robot. "That's a case where we did not pursue or we would a robot manufacturer today," he said.
It was a diverse range of activities.
"A series of companies broke out that followed very different fields," Graham said. "We were in general processing machinery. We were in medical, particularly dental equipment. We were into elevated flooring for the computer industry. We were in the forerunner of automation."
From the beginning, other key people ran the different businesses. Some were hits and they grew. Some got dropped or sold.
"Developing the way we did, where we were splitting into different industries and pieces from day one," he said. "We've had a very stable management team. Many have retired after 35 or 40 years with the same company."
Donald Graham stressed that, rather than a traditional story of a founder growing a business, Graham Engineering was "more of how a professional engineering, financially oriented individual uses an engineering company to branch into all these things."
Today, Graham Engineering in York, Pa., makes wheel machines, shuttle and shot pot extrusion blow molding systems and accumulator-head blow molders. The company has diversified by acquiring extrusion systems maker American Kuhne in 2012 and sheet line manufacturer Welex in 2013.
But it all started with the rotary wheel.