Cleveland — Sometimes, the climb to the top of a family-owned plastics firm begins in a dumpster.
That's where Travis Kieffer found himself in third grade after being put there by some employees at Plastics Unlimited Inc., the Preston, Iowa-based thermoformer that his dad Terry founded in 1993.
Fast-forward to 2023, and Travis is chief operating officer at Plastics Unlimited after he and his brother Dakota bought the firm from their dad in 2019.
"You realize that you were duct-taped to a chair and thrown into a dumpster by some of the people you're now leading," Travis Kieffer said Oct. 26 at the SPE Thermoforming Conference in Cleveland. "But you have to get work done and be on the same page, so you have to grow out of that."
Kieffer and Evan Gilham spoke about the challenges of taking the reins at a family-owned company. Gilham is president of Productive Plastics Inc. — a thermoformer based in Mount Laurel, N.J. — and is the third generation of his family at the firm.
Gilham and Kieffer described their experiences as "transitioning from bud to boss."
"The most important thing is to set a culture and communicate to people what the direction of the business is," Gilham said. "If you just want to make money, that's not a good culture."
If the firm loses key people over time, "you have to keep retraining," Kieffer added. "You have to get your core values and make sure they're aligned. It's important to set goals and measure them, otherwise they don't become achievable."
Dealing with expectations and learning the financial side of the business also are parts of the transition.
"Each generation thinks the next generation doesn't work as hard," Gilham said. "You have to be ready for that. You also have to know your costs and how they're connected to your day-to-day operations. You need to figure that out."
Gilham added that after the generational transition happens, "the buck is stopping with you, so you need to create a system."
"We shared financial information that shaped our shaped decisions. That showed why goals are important," he said.
Earlier this year, Plastics Unlimited officials opened a $4 million, 30,000-square-foot addition — its second in four years — to meet demand for composite parts. The expansion created about 45 jobs, bringing total staff to 140, and added space for assembly, warehousing and manufacturing equipment and robots.
Plastics Unlimited makes custom thermoformed plastics and urethane products. The firm specializes in patented toolless engineered composites (TEC) that combine the speed of thermoforming with the strength and durability of composites.
Productive Plastics was founded in 1955 as Productive Woods, a wood pattern shop opened by Gilham's grandfather. Gilham's father Hal later transitioned the company into plastics and renamed the company. Hal Gilham was named Thermoformer of the Year by SPE's thermoforming division in 2021.
Productive Plastics makes thermoformed plastic components through pressure thermoforming and vacuum forming. The firm is a leading contract manufacturer of heavy-gauge thermoformed parts for medical equipment, transportation, plastic enclosure and other markets.