The Next Generation in Plastics Leadership

by Dianna Brodine

Profile   Winter  2010

For new leaders to the plastics industry, the playing field and competitive landscape are much different from that in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, when many companies found success despite having significant operational and business strategy flaws. As the plastics processing industry continues to undergo tremendous change, the analysis of internal data, a revolutionary product or process, and experienced employees may not be enough to combat the external forces that exert pressure on a business. Nimble business plans and forward thinking are required for survival. At the same time, the plastics industry is entering into a state of leadership change as first- and second-generation ownership begins to hand the reins to a fresh wave of entrepreneurs. How do these new leaders think? What are they doing to prepare their companies for the future? How are they arming for success?

To find the answers, Plastics Business initiated conversations with four members of the Board of Directors for the Manufacturers Association of Plastics Processors (MAPP) who are bringing their own strengths and intensity to the issues facing their companies and the industry. Ben Harp, Matt Hlavin, Mike Walter, and Wendy Wloszek are the next generation in plastics leadership, navigating the economic turmoil by aggressively pursuing the latest technologies, caring for the employees who contribute to day-in and day-out success, and creating change rather than reacting to it.

There’s something amazing about the passion of youth and its power to sustain. If there’s a more powerful energy source, I don’t know about it.
– Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka, and Toshihiro Kawabata

Hlavin, at age 33, begins a two-year term as the president of the MAPP Board of Directors this month. Harp (38), Walter (38), and Wloszek (37) also are a decade or two younger than their more tenured peers who successfully run plastics companies. The ages of these leaders are noteworthy in an industry with a maturing employee base, particularly in senior skilled positions. With a significant challenge facing the manufacturing industry – namely, retaining existing workers and recruiting a quality labor pool for the future – these leaders are confronting the problem head on, recognizing that the ability to meet customer objectives is dependent on the people they employ.

Crafting a Winning Environment

Ensuring that existing talent is satisfied and engaged is a leadership focus for Walter and Harp. MET Plastics has a 25-member workforce that Walter considers an integral part of his family-owned business. “We try to make this an enjoyable place to work, starting with a clean facility and current equipment,” says Walter. The company also spends more per employee on training than a majority of the industry members surveyed each year by MAPP. In return, MET Plastics enjoys a very low turnover rate and a high level of employee dedication. “We try to make each of our employees feel that they’re as important as any other employee, including myself,” explains Walter.

At Polymer Conversions, the emphasis is on building a personal connection. Harp spends time each day on the production floor, talking with employees. “You can never spend enough time taking care of issues for your employees and making their quality of life – their job satisfaction – better. You can impact it very powerfully by taking care of the little things,” says Harp. “I try every day to thank them personally, engage them personally, provide incentives to the best of our company’s capability, and embrace the good things that they’re doing. It’s what makes Polymer Conversions and our culture.”

Wloszek considers character to be the primary attribute that employees contribute to organizational culture, and believes her employees’ character is providing value beyond measure to Industrial Mold & Machine (IMM). “There’s a leadership maxim that says first you need character, then you need commitment, and then competency. At IMM, all of the employees have thought their main value to the company was their competency, but it’s not,” says Wloszek. “I’m looking for the character and the desire to try things differently – to be open to a different way of doing things that then creates energy with the other employees.” Wloszek goes on to explain the true competitive advantage that customers or competitors who visit IMM rarely understand. “Most people will walk through and they’ll see our library or our employee communication board, but what really makes us special is how we treat our people. We can share all sorts of benchmarking information without concern, because they’ll never be able to understand that our real advantage lies in the people working the equipment.”

The Right Foundation – People!

Retaining valuable current employees is one thing. Recruiting new talent is another. One of the critical issues facing manufacturing is the hiring of youth as experienced workers age out of the labor pool. Hlavin, with a workforce that has been carefully restructured in the last 12 months, has made industry recruitment a priority for his MAPP presidency.

“Our new mission statement for Thogus Products Companies is ‘a state of mind, not a place to work,’ which really embodies what Thogus is becoming,” states Hlavin. Using buzzwords like ‘empowering,’ ‘entrepreneurial spirit,’ ‘progressive,’ and ‘destination,’ Hlavin views his 50-year-old company as a start-up venture. Two 25-year-olds run plant operations, one of whom is Hlavin’s sister, Meghan Leibold, who joined the company in 2009. In January, a recent Penn State graduate will join Thogus, as will three co-ops from Penn State Behrend. Thogus also will add a company lounge in 2010, creating dedicated space for the think tank atmosphere Hlavin is trying to foster. “These are decisions that the company is making to become more progressive,” says Hlavin. “And I think that’s fostered an attraction for people with creative ideas and innovative spirits. We’re doing more with less – last year at this time, we had 110 people and we have 56 right now, and our running rate is up 30 percent from our highest point ever.”

Now, Hlavin is ready to bring youth to the rest of the plastics industry. “We’re responsible for fostering the next generation in plastics,” explains Hlavin. He believes the speed at which technology is advancing lessens the need for college graduates to be technically oriented in order to make an impact. The challenge is negating the manufacturing stereotypes that plague the industry. “Graduates have to see that manufacturing is not a dirty smokestack,” Hlavin says. “Until we open our doors and welcome high school students and engineering students, people will not be attracted to the industry.”

We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.
– R. D. Laing

Ask Harp, Hlavin, Walter, and Wloszek about their management styles and the words they use are straight out of the business writer’s phrasebook: agent of change… thinking outside of the box… pushing beyond the status quo… But listen carefully to the certainty that follows the words. These four executives are not waiting for someone else to reveal the next trend in plastics manufacturing – they are creating the trends and moving their business into a position to take advantage before their competitors can react.

Nowhere is that more obvious than at Thogus, where Hlavin is building a business that challenges industry norms with its very production model. “Conventional wisdom is that small-volume production is not meant for injection molding, but that’s probably 80 percent of what we do,” he explains. Small volume requires quick changeovers, so Thogus created a flexible setting that allows the company to move its equipment around at any given moment, based on its schedule. In an environment where customers are demanding increasingly faster turnarounds, this ability to reconfigure its operations gives Thogus an edge. “We’re always challenging conventional wisdom or the traditional process, because I don’t think it’s the best way to do things.”

MET Plastics has remained quick on its feet as well, reinventing itself in terms of the types of business it seeks and building its reputation for customer service. Five years ago, the company was heavily involved in industrial and business equipment molding. Today, its focus is medical and aerospace, and Walter admits that three or four years from now his company may be moving in a completely different direction. The key has been constant vigilance in terms of customer awareness. “What I see with a lot of competitors is they become stale and start to take customers for granted,” says Walter. “What our customers see with us is we excel in customer service and meeting our customers’ needs and, basically, being flexible enough to meet those needs.”

Whereas Walter and Hlavin have grown up in the industry, Harp brings an outsider’s perspective, entering the plastics molding arena after college. “It’s allowed me to bring a different set of eyes to the industry and our operation, specifically,” he states. “I’m not always trying to approach problems the way a traditional molder would, because I don’t have those experiences.” At Polymer Conversions, that means Harp works collaboratively with the engineers to find solutions beyond what convention says is possible. “We’ve got six of the best industry professionals at that position,” Harp believes. “They all are experts in certain areas and, collectively, they’re a pretty powerful team. I try to have them tell me why I can’t do something, and they usually find a way to do it.”

Wloszek, who assumed the presidency at IMM one year ago, is still acclimatizing her employees to a new leadership style. “I have a willingness to listen to everybody who works here and their opinion about how we should be doing things. At first it was very perplexing for people, but now they’re getting used to it,” she says. “I feel if you’re not willing to listen, you’re missing the opportunity to have employees help you grow your organization into something fantastic.”

The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible. – Arthur C. Clarke

The forward movement of technology has impacted plastics processing in stunning ways. Molded parts are smaller and more precise, operational assessments come at the touch of a button, and software tracks productivity. For these four leaders, technology is second only to their people in terms of criticality to the success of their businesses. The latest in equipment offers current and potential customers a competitive edge. It provides efficiency in processes, reduces energy consumption, and increases accuracy – all of which impact profits. It also offers a way to replace decades of knowledge when experienced employees retire, and provides a sexy edge for younger job seekers.

At Polymer Conversions, technology is leading the company’s push to be the best. “If you don’t have new equipment, you can’t make the best products,” explains Harp. “And if you don’t have highly trained employees or employees who are utilizing new technologies and the latest learning backgrounds, then they can’t possibly help you make the best product.” At Polymer, technology is deployed to make life more efficient for both employees and customers, with the majority of its injection molding equipment purchased in the last seven years. The technology initiative doesn’t stop with up-to-date equipment, however. The company has added engineering services and capabilities, including secondary processes such as pad printing, hot stamping, ultrasonic welding, vibration welding, and adhesive bonding. “We’re not content with sitting where we’re at today, because where we’re at today won’t allow us to get where we need to be tomorrow,” says Harp.

For Walter, technology allows MET Plastics to avoid a dangerous game in this era of overseas competition – that of commoditization. “If you don’t move ahead with technology and continue to reinvent the way that you’re producing your parts or building your molds, you’re basically going to fall into a pricing game with your customers,” says Walter. In addition to building a new facility in 2001 that tripled its production space, MET Plastics increased its value to its customers by adding high-speed CNC machining and gas-assist injection molding in the last three years, as well as Moldflow analysis capabilities. “We use technology to help us maintain that edge that we need, whether that’s the latest in injection molding capabilities, high-speed machining capabilities for mold building, or software.”

Hlavin echoes Walter’s perspective, pointing out that Thogus is completely automated. “Technology is at the forefront for us. The right technology drives the waste out of the company, adds to the bottom line, and makes us more efficient.” Thogus has taken technology beyond the equipment on the plant floor and placed it in the hands of its employees, with 20 iPhones providing instant information and connectivity. Once Thogus completes the development of an iPhone application that will allow employees to input data from its machines into IQMS, every staff person will have an iPhone. “We’ll be able to eliminate computers from the floor,” says Hlavin. “It will make our employees more accountable and offer better data traceability.”

Wloszek points out that advances in thinking offer advantages as well. “We stay up with technological advances in high-speed machining but, additionally, we are constantly looking at our processes with a willingness to overhaul those to get a better outcome.”

Strength is derived from unity. The range of our collective vision is far greater when individual insights become one.
– Andrew Carnegie

The economic pressures are not yet finished with plastics manufacturing. Resin prices, overseas competition, and customer demands will continue to apply force as the industry persists in its slow climb to what analyst and consultant Laurie Harbour referred to in the Fall 2009 issue of Plastics Business as a “bathtub-curve progression.” Harbour says, “It is my belief that plastics processors must actively benchmark and compare their operations in order to exponentially improve their profitability.” Wloszek agrees, saying, “The rules of the game are changing. I’ve got to figure out the new rules or we won’t be playing. I’m trying to make sure we’re equipped to deal with the future state of the industry.”

Harp, Hlavin, Walter, and Wloszek turn to a variety of sources to assess the direction of their next business move, with MAPP key among them. “I’ve got a triangle of resources,” explains Harp. “First, I turn to our employees; second, our customers; and third, our supplier network. I watch what each of those areas is doing that is new. Whether it be a customer who is developing a new product, or a new way of doing something that we might be able to incorporate into our business, or a new technology that our suppliers are working on – all are equally important.”

Walter extends his reach for information beyond his immediate circle, deciphering the trends in the industry by reviewing online articles and becoming involved in his community – both regional and industrial. The industry benchmarks and organizational best practices provided by MAPP and Executive Director Troy Nix also are a significant resource, with Walter saying simply, “Whatever Troy does, you want to be a part of.” Walter also acknowledges the value in networking with the other MAPP members, which provides a better understanding of what’s happening in the industry and allows MET Plastics to see how other molders are dealing with everyday challenges. “It’s good to be able to bounce ideas off of peers.”

Those peers are a significant leadership resource for Hlavin. “I’m constantly benchmarking, asking ‘Why do we do it this way?’ and ‘Is there a better way to do it?’ Because of MAPP, I can pick up the phone right now, call 20 or 30 people, and ask any question that pertains to our business. What we do with networking and relationship sharing is incredible.”

Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better. – Harry S. Truman

Separately, Harp, Hlavin, Walter, and Wloszek are making an impact for their employees, customers, and company stakeholders. Together, they are influencing the entire industry through their involvement with MAPP, an organization that will continue to extend its reach as Nix feeds its energy by filling the board with the best and the brightest. MAPP has declared 2010 ‘the year of value’ – value for its members and supplier partners. Pointing to the transformation of the past five years as an indicator of its future growth, Nix says, “We’re going to get better as an organization because of the leadership we have on the Board of Directors.”