ENCOURAGING NEWS DURING CHALLENGING ECONOMIC TIMES
CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF LEARNING AND GROWING IN THE CUSTOM PLASTICS INJECTION MOLDING BUSINESS
Contribution by Ken Groff, CEO and Founder , Ventu
When commenting on important milestones such as the 40th anniversary of a business, it seems cliché to say how much things have changed over the years.
Although that is certainly true, I am also struck by the fact that some aspects of building and maintaining a successful business have remained unchanged from 1969---when I helped launch Venture Plastics---and 2009---which marks our company's evolution to an ISO/TS-16949 certified custom injection molder with modern processing facilities in Newton Falls, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.
Today, we are capable of providing manufacturing services that include injection molding and structural foam molding, over-molding, insert molding and gas-assist molding---all backed by engineering and design support and project management. Value-added processes include a wide variety of assembly, painting and decorating, and packaging expertise.
Achieving that level of capacity and capability is the cumulative result of countless factors experienced during our 40-year business. Within such variables, however, there is a consistency that can be expressed in terms of lessons learned during four decades.
Lesson One: Never, ever, EVER, be satisfied with where you are and what you have achieved.
I grew up in Northeast Ohio and in the late 1950s, took my first job in the rubber and plastics world working in the estimating department of Geauga Industries. Although I enjoyed the details of properly estimating jobs, I discovered that the real satisfaction for me came from studying how projects I had estimated actually unfolded. I became very interested in how the molding process made the numbers I had crunched "come alive" in real life applications.
More importantly, I realized that by analyzing what was happening with jobs that I had already estimated, I could often achieve significant additional cost savings by understanding what was working well, what was working poorly, and relating those factors to the assumptions I had made prior to the beginning of the project.
My conclusions from this lesson:
The root of conducting good business is never being satisfied that good is good enough. Each and every step of the way needs to be analyzed, reanalyzed and modified accordingly. Activities that cannot be measured---or are not measured---tend to be activities that get a company in trouble. Even the most successful project usually can be even more efficient and profitable if those responsible are willing to think creatively and act accordingly.
Lesson Two: Take advantage of opportunities --- and problems!
Venture Plastics, Inc. was incorporated on October 21, 1969 and we began business at 155 North Street NW, in Warren, Ohio.
1969 was a time of great change, both positive and negative. The country was in an upheaval over the Vietnam conflict and inflation was rising at a record rate. Apollo 11 reached the moon that year. The Woodstock festival of music took place. The Beatles gave their last public appearance. In business, the first automatic teller machine (ATM) was installed, Wal-Mart was incorporated and the first Boeing 747 jumbo jet made its debut.
For me also it was a time of change. I was 32 and had been previously promoted to Cost Reduction Specialist at Geauga Industries. However, by that time I had discovered that my interests in rubber and plastics manufacturing were broader and deeper. In 1967, I joined Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio where I became more involved in direct sales.
During this time, I learned another life-lesson from an unexpected opportunity. It came through the doors of Sajar Plastics in a product called the Franzus Clothes Steamer.
This project entailed building tooling, molding parts, doing the final assembly and shipping to the OEM. After Sajar management considered the opportunity, they decided they weren't interested because turnkey characteristics were required.
Our founders saw the Franzus Clothes Steamer as an opportunity that had figuratively fallen into our laps.
With three partners, who also worked at Sajar Plastics, we decided to form our own company---Venture Plastics---with the steamer as our core business. Shortly thereafter, the steamer was purchased by West Bend and our new business, based around several injection molding machines, received a boost in sales and profitability.
We learned that a company's main strength can turn out to be a damaging weakness.
The clothes steamer program, which literally enabled us to launch Venture Plastics, eventually became a tremendous challenge because design flaws, which did not originate with Venture Plastics, began creating liability issues. Burns caused by steam and hot water resulted in litigation which ultimately affected us as manufacturers. In due time the product line was discontinued and we lost a considerable amount of money in receivables and legal fees.
More dangerously, however, although we had acquired other accounts, including Westinghouse and Western Electric (now AT&T), the loss of the clothes steamer business made us painfully aware of the truism: "don't put all your eggs in one basket."
My conclusions from this lesson: "diversity and depth are essential to survival and preplanning is essential to achieving both." Since that time I have always gone out of my way to study our strengths as if they are potential weaknesses. This is the basis for anticipating problems and planning for contingencies.
Lesson Three: It's easy to add bricks when you have fairness and honesty to hold it together.
My father, Ed Groff, was a salesman at Geauga Industries where I also started my career. He instilled in me what he learned from his experiences and years of building relationships. The lessons he taught me are gifts that I value every single day. He felt that a good reputation was all-important, and that only through a full-time commitment to integrity and honesty could a person or organization build and maintain a good reputation.
During the 40 years that Venture Plastics has been in business, we have had our share of "bricks and mortar" growth. In 1973, we moved the business to Newton Falls, Ohio, where we continue to operate at 4000 Warren Road. I also bought out my original partners during that year. In 1977-78, we expanded our production floor and in 1986 added additional office, warehouse, and lobby space. During 1995-1997 we increased our warehouse and shipping capacity.
While continuing to improve our main plant, we also built a number of satellite operations based around specific business opportunities. During the early 1980s we established VPC, located in Mesopotamia, Ohio. During the early 1990s, Venture II, located in Leavittsburg, was launched to meet the production and assembly needs of Potato Perfect, a potato baking product. From July 1993 until 2006, we also operated New Methods, Inc. in Middlefield, Ohio---an operation designed to accommodate longer production runs than were typical at our other locations.
Today, in addition to our 45,000 square foot plant in Newton Falls, we operate Southwest Venture Plastics, a 48,000 square foot facility we established in El Paso, Texas in 2006 to meet product, cost and freight-related needs of some of our major customers.
Among these facilities, we have a wide range of injection molding machines, from 55 to 725 tons, that gives us the capability of serving a diversified customer base that includes, but is not limited to, industrial/consumer, appliance, truck/agriculture, automotive, fuel delivery, and communications markets.
I recall a statement I read years ago that was attributed to a leader of a German manufacturing company. He said: "Take the machines and buildings, but give me the people."
We are proud of our physical facilities, but have not lost sight of the fact that they are nothing but inanimate objects without people. We can buy new equipment, build new buildings, but to succeed you need hard-working, dedicated people.
My conclusions from this lesson: a company must always strive to do the right thing. Actions must be based on a dedication to achieving the highest quality products and services. A good reputation depends upon uncompromised honesty.
Lesson Four: Never stop looking for ways to differentiate your company.
If you are not doing what you do best in your business, you will naturally be no better than any other business. Do what you do best and you control your ability to positively differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack.
One way we advocated for Venture Plastics to remain financially healthy was to turn down some prospective customers. Every business opportunity is not a good one. Every prospective customer is not necessarily a good fit. We have always tended to seek blue chip companies for customers and, as a result, we have benefited from great relationships with world-class organizations such as AT&T and Westinghouse (now A.B. Electrolux). This was one way we could control our destiny because we felt that when leaders do business with leaders, the result is stability, a focused product and mutual rewards.
My conclusions from this lesson: the path to controlling one's destiny is to insist that one's business is knowledge based. To succeed, a company must learn, understand, then meet or exceed the individual product and service needs of its customers. That is the only reliable way of knowing how you can best differentiate your company from the rest of the pack. A basis of knowledge and differentiation is the way to achieve rewarding long-term relationships.
Lesson Five: Age is relative.
For Venture Plastics, 40 years is not even middle-aged!
As for me, I am now 72, and although certain aspects of today's business world concern me, Venture Plastics is living proof that a family-run business still has its place. 2008 wasa great year and will help us face the challenging times ahead.
Instrumental in our forward movement are many talented individuals, among them members of my own family. Son Tim serves as our Maintenance Manager. Son Mike provides independent contracting to Venture Plastics in a variety of key areas. Daughter Marcia is responsible for receivables and willingly manages other office and administrative activities way too numerous to mention. Her husband, Gary Flattum, is our VP of Operations and a cornerstone of our continued evolution. Daughter Tiffany and son Lance, although not directly involved in the business, have always been supportive of our efforts. My sister, Gayle, has worked in a variety of capacities from Human Resources to Customer Service.
Critical to our ongoing success is an outstanding core group of quality professionals, both hourly and salaried, some of whom have been part of our team for more than 3 decades. Our accountants, Cohen and Company, and our attorneys, The Wern Law Firm, also deserve positive recognition. I have been very fortunate from the very beginning to have so many good people to work with, both within Venture Plastics and as resources and customers.
Conclusions from 72 years on earth and 40 years in business with Venture Plastics can be summed up this way:
Our best opportunity for success is to do what we say we will do.
Only by working together can we define and redefine our company's direction. Only by knowing where we are going can we measure our progress in getting there. That, in turn, enables us to be consistent in our goals, yet capable of flexibility---to maximize strengths while minimizing weaknesses. We can, and will, differentiate ourselves through achievement of efficiencies and the ability to quickly execute well-prepared plans.
That is no different today from four decades ago when I first understood how important it is to never, ever, EVER, be satisfied with where you are and what you have achieved