Robert Swain made the world more colorful.
Swain, who founded colorant maker Chroma Corp. in 1967, died April 21. Swain, 90, died peacefully at his home in East China, Mich., surrounded by family and friends.
Swain was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2009. He joined the Plastics Pioneers Association in 1978, serving as treasurer and later as managing director.
Swain was known for an outgoing personality. He loved to talk about a broad range of subjects, from coloring plastics to "junk science" about pigments and colorants to holistic, natural-health alternatives to "big pharma."
"He was a great guy. He was bigger than life," said Chroma CEO Tom Bolger. "He was an extraordinarily generous person, generous with tangible things and also generous with compliments and praise and time. He was very passionate. He believed very strongly in things. You don't have to look too far if you google his name."
Swain was fascinated by colorants. In a Plastics News profile when he went into the Plastics Hall of Fame, he explained: "Plastics are relatively easy to color, and do it economically. It's only in there as a fraction of the cost of the actual part, but it's the color and the design blended together — that's what strikes your eye and makes your product a success."
A native of Cape May, N.J., Swain earned a chemical engineering degree from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., in 1951. He was hired by Gordon Brown, vice president of the Bakelite Division of Union Carbide Corp.
During the Korean War, he served in the Army Chemical Center in Maryland from 1952 to 1954 and was discharged as a sergeant. Returning to Carbide, he learned more about thermoplastics by attending the Vinyl Fellowship at Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. He moved to several cities as a Bakelite technical sales representative.
In 1959, Swain moved to a sales management post at Exxon Chemical Co., then known as Enjay. He developed and patented several new polypropylene compounds, including the first PP used in automotive steering wheels, for Ford Motor Co., and PP agitators for Maytag Corp. washing machines.
Swain left Exxon to start Chroma. The name comes from the word chromaticity, the classification of a color by its hue and purity. Customer service was the strength of the company in McHenry, Ill. Chroma would gladly serve small accounts with specialized colors — the hallmark of the colorant industry. The company got into highly concentrated colorants, known as masterbatches.
A fire hit Chroma's plant in 1984, knocking out all the production. Swain contacted PMS Consolidated, a competitor and one of the first color houses, and the Bradbury family immediately offered to help run production as the plant was rebuilt.
He was active in trade associations, helping found the Color and Additive Compounders Division of the Society of the Plastics Industry, and becoming a charter member of the Society of Plastics Engineers' Rotational Molding Division.
His son, Stuart Swain, has been active in Chroma and is vice president of sourcing.
Swain and several of his family members sold Chroma in 2016 to Bolger and Chuck Heller, son of the late Peter Heller, who was one of the company's first investors in 1967. Today, Chroma, Breen Color Concentrates, Carolina Color and Hudson Color are owned by private equity firm Arsenal Capital Partners, operating under the name Chroma Color Corp.
Swain remained on the board, and was less directly involved in the company. Bolger said Swain had "retired" about 10 times, but he always remained active in Chroma until he sold the business. Swain hired Bolger while Bolger was working through college, then was recruited away to other companies before returning to Chroma in 2005.
After selling Chroma, Swain became a self-published author of children's books.
A remembrance gathering will take place May 25 at Randall Funeral Home in Marysville, Mich., at 11 a.m. A reception will follow at Voyageur Restaurant in St. Clair, Mich. In lieu of flowers, the family would like people to consider making donations to the Blue Water Hospice.
Swain was preceded in death by his wife, Judy Acheson Swain; his first wife and the mother of his children, JoAnn Idell Swain, and brother Charles Swain III. Survivors include his son Stuart, daughters Susan Faurot and Megan Boyle and his grandchildren.