by Dianna Brodine
Few custom molding operations can look at a milk bottle and see their company history. Then again, few molding operations are led by a man known as “Captain Meticulous” either. From working with engineered plastics to its web-savvy marketing efforts to morphing its employees into stakeholders, Blow Molded Specialties is moving boldly forward in a competitive, ever-changing industry. Co-owners Tom Boyd and Avril Cook wouldn’t have it any other way.
Changing with the Times
Prior to founding Blow Molded Specialties, Boyd was a consultant operating a dairy bottle molding operation. However, the industry trend was very clear, and Boyd knew the operation had no long-term future. Then, an acquaintance told Boyd about two extrusion blow molding machines at a nearby injection molder’s shop. “In 1988, custom blow molding was characterized by unsophisticated shops, unlike the highly automated commodity bottle molding facilities,” said Boyd. “This is where I saw opportunity. I thought if I could bring sophistication to custom molding and focus on medical, it would be a winning combination.” Blow Molded Specialties (BMS) opened its doors that same year in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, making laboratory pipettes with two used machines in a small room in a dairy bottle molding operation.
Eight years later, NAFTA hit New England hard. Medical device manufacturing relocated to Mexico and Blow Molded Specialties lost 40 percent of its revenue in six months. Boyd’s company had to reinvent itself. “We were small enough at that point that we tightened our belt as much as we needed to, and we watched the cash,” explained Boyd. Still, NAFTA made it clear that BMS would have to make some changes. “We could no longer survive as a regional company,” said Boyd. “We had to be able to reach across the country.”
A national reach meant increased transportation costs, so BMS decided to focus on small (4ml-4L), lightweight parts to keep freight bills low, a strategy that has been effective for more than a decade. At a time when rising oil prices and transportation costs hampered other molders with larger, heavier products, BMS continued to ship to Mexico, South America, and Europe, as well as throughout the U.S.
Also a part of the post-NAFTA reorganization was a concentration on molding with engineered and specialty plastics (polysulfone, Hytrel, TPEs, PETG), in addition to polyolefins. Boyd explained, “We continued to do the polyolefin materials and commodity plastics, but we were using those in ways that were unconventional in terms of shape. We do things that are unique to distance ourselves from the commodity side of the business.”
In the last 10 years, BMS has seen its engineering work increase as commodity production has decreased. “Product development is a significant part of what Blow Molded Specialties offers to its customers,” said Avril Cook, who also acts as Chief Operating Officer. “We’re able to do the product and process development engineering, either preparing the customer to do the production molding in-house or proceeding beyond process validation into manufacturing.”
BMS focuses on a three-phase approach with its clients. Phase One is design and development, where BMS engineers apply creativity and craft to support product design, developing a process that yields exactly what the client wants. Once that process is qualified, Phase Two – the manufacturing phase – begins. BMS documents process settings and transition, enabling the molder to repeat the exact process, every time. Phase Three involves seeking opportunities for product improvement or observations that can be shared with clients. “The nature of our business makes the long-term successes of our clients increase our chances of long-term success,” explained Boyd, “so the effort is mutually beneficial.”
With 90 percent of its blow molding business focused on the medical industry, delicate pieces of equipment, and specialized plastics, not every potential customer is a good fit for BMS. To give its best work to each customer with a molding job that is appropriate for BMS’ talents, the company had to find a way to qualify prospects. In addition, in a highly competitive medical molding industry, BMS needed to stand out among the crowd. The solution was the Internet.
Qualifying Prospects with the Web
“Over the years, we’ve found ourselves spending a large amount of time explaining the differences between blow molding and injection molding to people who were only familiar with the latter. Our intent with the website,” said Sarah Cook, sales and marketing coordinator for BMS, “is to educate visitors about the extrusion blow molding process, as well as our strengths and capabilities.”
Boyd explained that the website also has served as an online sales force for BMS. “Finding someone who has a need for us is like finding a needle in a haystack – and most of the haystacks don’t have needles. Potential customers needed to be able to find us. The saving grace was the Internet.”
BMS redesigned its site, enabling engineers to find the molder. Overall design and navigation are new, along with revised content and additional imagery. Blow Molded Specialties decided to educate readers through humorous, informative white papers authored by “Captain Meticulous” (aka Tom Boyd). When asked about the character injected into the company’s website and educational pieces, Sarah Cook replied, “Let’s face it – much of what we do in the plastics industry lacks glamour, but that doesn’t mean that it has to lack personality. Why not make our point with a little fun?”
The white papers also allow prospects to self-qualify before beginning a timely no-match RFQ process. Accessing the white papers requires visitors to provide basic information about their company and needs. “We want prospective clients to have the desire and opportunity to opt in to read our white papers,” stated Sarah Cook. “We’re looking to have conversation to see if we’re a good fit with each other for a mutually beneficial outcome. If someone isn’t willing to give us their name and phone number, they probably aren’t that serious about pursuing a relationship.”
On the Path to Employee Ownership
Tom Boyd takes customer relationships seriously, and he believes businesses perform better when employees also are passionate about customers. Four years ago, Boyd read Jack Stack’s “The Great Game of Business.” The book advocates employee ownership, and the reasoning struck a chord for Boyd. “To make this business work effectively, you’ve got to feel the need for the customer in your belly; to take care of the customer’s needs like your own. Employees feel that need when they have a personal stake in the outcome, so the best way to take care of the customer is for the business to be employee-owned.”
Shortly after reading Stack’s book, Blow Molded Specialties entered into the planning stages of employee ownership. A team of employees that includes Boyd, management, and shop workers are weighing the options available. The team will come to a consensus on how to proceed before moving forward, with the long-term goal of creating a fully employee-owned company with success and expertise in its field that grows from a higher level of personal investment. “When everyone is an owner, we’re not just going through the motions at any position,” stated Boyd. “We all stand to gain from our own – and our clients’ – long-term success.”
Employee ownership requires a level of business education for every member of the company, so BMS started its employees on the path of financial literacy, creating games that were educational and supportive of employee ownership. The company practices open book management, ensuring that all employees understand basic financial reports and can interpret the financial position of the company. BMS offers ESL classes, tuition reimbursement, supervisory training, computer skills training, and math classes, in addition to standard position-related training. “You want your people to be the best they can be,” explained Boyd, “and if they are for themselves, then they are for the company.”
The open book management concept has benefited BMS as it has navigated through the recent economic difficulties. “We share financial information with employees, and this is advantageous as we are able to get everyone involved in keeping budgets in line,” explained Boyd. “Our employees understand how their actions are linked to the company’s bottom line.”
Blow Molded Specialties anticipated some economic effect late last year and budgeted to keep things lean in case the company saw a dip in sales. With its financials firmly in hand, BMS has a unique perspective on an economy that has driven some of its competitors out of business. “Our intent is not to waste this crisis,” said Boyd. “It has not been easy, but we’ve been here since 1988 by toughing out hard times. We pull in our belts and work on marketing and continual improvement.”
Although many molders are looking to improve processes and create efficiencies these days, marketing isn’t always at the top of the list. For Boyd, it’s essential. “It’s just foundational,” he said. “There’s just no sense to sticking your head in a hole. Continuing to market our capabilities is the only intelligent way I can think of to run the business.” Sarah Cook agreed, “Because we’re strictly a custom business, you’re asking to close the doors and lock things up if you’re not out there looking for new customers.”
Blow Molded Specialties also is looking for alternatives to its existing product mix. “Our long-term view is that in 20 years, we won’t be molding the same materials we are today,” Boyd said. “In fact, that may be the case in 10 years.” Acknowledging that difficulties on the customer’s end can quickly affect its own business, BMS is working to position itself for future growth. “Anytime you face a potential financial crunch, you have to look at what you can do differently. What areas haven’t you thought about?” asked Avril Cook. “We are investigating, identifying, and developing alternatives.”
Those alternatives could be put into place as early as next year, allowing Blow Molded Specialties to transform with the times, but the company’s focus remains on its current and future customers. “If we can partner with any other company in some way, if we can give it a sense of who we are, that opens up possibilities for both of us,” Boyd explained. “When we have an opportunity to combine capabilities, it’s a win-win situation for both of us.”