Richard Freeman is liquidating his thermoforming company, Freetech Plastics Inc. in Fremont, Calif., near San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley.
When he started Freetech in 1976, Fremont was out in the country, complete with cow pastures.
"Next to us was wild land and we had to scare off the wild turkeys," he recalled. Now, "the whole Silicon Valley has blown up."
The Tesla factory is just across the railroad tracks. They put in a new rapid transit station right behind Freetech's building.
"The land is really worth more than anybody ever offered us for the business, by far," Freeman said.
Freeman, who was named 2013 Thermoformer of the Year by the Society of Plastics Engineers' thermoforming division, said he spoke with some prospective buyers but nothing came together.
"We had talked to some people but most people, when they try to buy a contract manufacturing company, they don't want to pay anything for it," he said.
Things moved quickly after Freeman talked to a developer. "It all happened in about six months," he said. "We were offered an obscene amount of money for our property in Fremont."
Freetech sold its two buildings in early September and is leasing them back to wrap up operations. Freeman said the industrial area has been rezoned for 10-story structures. The buyer owns many more buildings in the area, he said.
Freetech Plastics does pressure forming of heavy-gauge sheet, making parts for the markets of medical and pharmaceutical, electronics, automotive, telecommunications and industrial.
Everything will be auctioned off: six pressure forming machines; five three-axis machining centers and four five-axis routers. KD Capital Auctions of Scottsdale, Ariz., will hold an online auction Dec. 5.
The timing is good. Freeman is 68.
"When they made the offer on the real estate, it was a no-brainer," he said. "We had been doing some major programs and they all kind of ended at the same time."
The company also is helping customers transfer work to other thermoformers.
The company has been winding down and now employs 22 people. Unemployment is 3 percent in the area, and Freeman thinks they all will get jobs. "A lot of companies have asked us about our staff," he said.
Freetech ranked No. 108 in the most recent Plastics News survey of North American thermoformers, with sales of $9.7 million. That is larger than average for a heavy-gauge thermoformer, but Freeman's reputation in the sector reaches far beyond the size of his company.
Freeman coined the term "West Coast style" of thermoforming when explaining the process to the design community. He helped the thermoforming sector connect with designers through the Industrial Designers Society of America. In the early days, thermoformers would get sent designs of injection molded parts that were too small-volume for injection, he said. Now designers know about thermoforming.
Freeman has been very active in the SPE thermoforming division. He attended the first official Thermoforming Conference in 1991, held at the Wisconsin Dells. He joined the board after that inaugural event and served for 21 years.
He gave a presentation at the second conference, and the third and the fourth, and on and on.
"I spoke at pretty much nine of the first 10 and helped arrange the program for heavy gauge at the conferences," he said. He was also invited to speak at several European thermoforming conferences.
Freeman said thermoforming has changed a lot as technology has advanced. But these days, the business side is not so great.
"This business used to be a whole lot of fun, and it's not anymore. The whole creativity thing has kind of gone away," he said.
"You used to do business with people and companies, and now it all ships to contract manufacturers who don't think about anything but the price. It's the contractor phenomenon where you don't get to do business with customers anymore," he said, adding that designers are looking at how cheap you can make a product.
Freeman grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. The name of his hometown also described his childhood. His mom bought eggs from the farmer next door.
"We used to ride our bikes through the orchards on the potholed roads that are now four- and six-lane expressways," he said.