As a teenager, Trent Cunningham worked at a Texaco gas station where he filled cars with gasoline and checked the oil level, brake fluid, transmission fluid, windshield wiper fluid and tire air pressure. He said he learned many tasks and traits that stayed with him for the rest of his life, such as responsibility, organization, customer service and damage control.
"One time my coworker put regular gas in a diesel VW Rabbit, and then we had a hot customer 15 minutes later when they came walking back," Cunningham mentioned in his CEO survey. "We always treated the customer like they were our only customer we had, and it always worked out."
After graduating from high school, he went directly into the workforce and worked as a delivery driver for a printing company.
"After six months and learning just enough to be dangerous, I moved into sales," he said.
Cunningham said he knew he wanted to go into sales and "would get a head start and save the expense of college."
"It was very much like the plastics business because everything is tangible and you can see what you are making as it comes off the line," he said. "After eight years in sales and a union strike at the plant I was making a living at, I left to run a competitor."
Cunningham became chief executive officer of Centennial, Colo.-based Plastics Design & Manufacturing two years ago. The company is a heavy-gauge plastic pressure and vacuum thermoformer to medical and aerospace industries.
"Our stringent quality policy includes AS9100:2016, ISO 9001:2015 and ANAB accredited certifications. We have been taking on the more challenging projects for over 40 years with our tenured workforce," Cunningham said. "Plastics Design & Manufacturing is committed to provide superior products that meet or exceed our customers' expectations. We are dedicated to continual improvement of our quality system, customer service and the highest level of ethics throughout the company."
He said his first order of business, after getting to know the customers and company's capabilities, was going after AS9100 certification.
"Aviation and aerospace are highly regulated sectors, and we have a lot of experience we've gained in the medical sector. Not only would it make us a better company, but it would give us a hunting license in a new growth space — aviation and aerospace," he said. "Today, 75 percent of our business is medical and 15 percent aviation and aerospace. It took us all of two years to get this new certification, and we have already seen new business requiring it."
Cunningham is involved with the Society of Plastics Engineers and attends SPE conferences and Design to Part and other trade shows.
Q: What's the best career advice you've received?
Cunningham: In sales you need to understand that success is like planting a tree. The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps. Salespeople need to work for at least three years with the same company to see the fruits of their labor and to experience success. It's a numbers game, and if you make the calls, you will have success.
Q: Tell us about a mentor you have had in your career:
Cunningham: My mentor was Joe Davis, a man that was bigger than life and recruited me to run a business that he had recently acquired. My background in sales prepared me for a small percentage of what I would need to run this 120-person printing company. I called Joe every day and laid out the problems, and he gave me good advice on how to deal with each one. I relied on his past experiences to get through every day. I never would have been successful without a trusted adviser to help me navigate.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting at your company tomorrow?
Cunningham: We are strong believers in cross-training, so we tell all of our new employees that they are going to move around a lot, which helps us manage the workload and gives them a good chance to get to know our company. Our culture is unique in that we make the same part for 5-25 years, depending on the life of the part. We have process sheets for every job we produce that we expect [to] be followed by the employee. We make a plastic filter for a commercial jet manufacturer that we have been making for 27 years.
Q: What do you want your legacy to be as CEO?
Cunningham: I'd like to think that when I am long gone, our company will be well positioned for future growth and prosperity with the world's leading medical and aerospace companies. That our employees will be confident that they have the training and tools to produce the highest-quality plastic parts available.