A mold for success

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Akron sits in the center of Northeast Ohio’s Polymer Valley, which, as a whole, boasts 400 polymer-related companies that employ 30,000 people. One quarter of those companies are based within the city of Akron.

In its April 30, 2001, issue, Newsweek magazine named Akron as one of 10 new tech cities. The article read, “The New Economy may be slumping, but … these 10 cities have become important players in the information age.”

One of the companies helping to put Akron on the map is The Plastic Lumber Co., housed in Canal Place. With revenue that has grown “every year but one,” according to President Alan Robbins, The Plastic Lumber Co. brought in sales of $5.2 million last year, employs 50 and is continuing to grow by expanding its product offerings.

Robbins, who started the company in 1989 in 12,000 square feet of space in Canal Place, isn’t a polymer scientist or an engineer. In fact, he is a stockbroker who was hired by a client in the plastics industry around the time of the market crash of ’87.

“In the process of doing that, I discovered a number of areas for recycled plastic materials,” he says. “That was a time when recycling from a post-consumer standpoint was starting to come to the forefront, and there were no real technologies available for the material coming out of a milk jug, which is high-density polyethylene. As a food carrier, it couldn’t go back into food again.”

Robbins, who had gained an understanding of the plastics industry by working for that client, and who, as a stockbroker, clearly understood the financial aspects of running a business, wanted to find a marketable new product for the post-consumer No. 2 plastic material. He, along with a short-term technologist, created a process to mold shredded plastic milk jugs into the dimensions of lumber. But more significantly, they discovered a way to color the recycled material in hues that matched the natural colors of lumber, a far cry from the black, low-end products that milk jugs had previously been used for.

Robbins says that at the time, there was a similar technology available in Europe, but it relied on equipment which was both slow and expensive. In addition, the local technologies, which were new and proprietary, were not for sale.

“So we pretty much were confronted with having to develop our own,” he says.

“We’re taking what is a disposable dairy bottle that has a one-time use cycle, and we’ve taken it to a durable. Not many people can do that with a recycled material. We’re unique in that regard.”

Because Robbins was aware that a new material can take years to gain the acceptance of the building industry, the first products he manufactured with the technology were simple and nondescript: parking stops and speed bumps.

“These two products were the cash cow that allowed us to complete all of our other work,” he says.

He used the proceeds from those products to develop a line of lumber molded into 48 industry-standard dimensions in 11 colors. The first market he tapped was the park and recreation industry. A line of commercial-grade picnic tables, benches and waste receptacles was created to compete with pressure-treated wood furniture.

As it turned out, the timing of the plastic products could not have been better. The park and recreation industry was starting to shun both redwood products (which were not environmentally correct), and the chemicals used in pressure-treated wood.

The Plastic Lumber Co.’s products were durable, low-maintenance and environmentally correct, due to the use of post-consumer recycled materials.

Robbins continued to grow that business by expanding the line of outdoor furniture and adding a line of weatherproof signage. He was able to develop that market by sticking to products he could sell through the same distribution channels.

I tried to add breadth and depth to markets … You can do that with the same ad, the same trade shows, the same catalogs,” he says.

Today, 50 percent of the company’s revenue comes from that distribution area.

After establishing the park furniture market, Robbins continued to build the company by marketing the unconstructed lumber to outdoor deck builders (which now accounts for about 25 percent of sales), and developing a new line of specialty products for the spa industry.

He is following the same marketing philosophy that he used to grow the park and recreation line. A catalog of spa accessories was developed that included steps and planters that competed with, yet complemented, existing redwood products.

“I thought we had good, winning products in the spa market, but it was a whole new distribution market,” Robbins says.

To take full advantage of that distribution channel, he expanded the line to include other products traditionally sold by hot tub dealers. Those products were not necessarily hot tub accessories.

“What we learned with the spa market is that hot tub dealers don’t just sell hot tubs. They’re selling grills, they’re selling pool tables, they’re selling outdoor furniture,” he says.

Robbins is acting on that discovery by developing a prototype for an Adirondack chair and other casual outdoor furniture. He is also experimenting with new technologies and expanding the offering of rotational molded products.

The Plastic Lumber Co. used 4 million pounds of recycled plastics last year.

“That’s about 24 million dairy bottles taken out of the waste stream,” Robbins points out. “An average picnic table weighs a little under 300 pounds, so it’s equivalent to about 1,800 milk jugs. You can see the economic impact that we can have when we do this.” How to reach: The Plastic Lumber Co. Inc. (330) 762-8989

Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine.

Why Akron?

Ninety-four of the region’s 400 polymer companies call Akron home.

Resources such as the University of Akron’s Goodyear Polymer Center and Canal Place continue to help attract polymer companies to the city. But there’s a network of private companies that really supports the industry.

While scientific research is important to a company, knowing that a piece of equipment can be fixed immediately, or that there will be enough power available in your facility when it’s time to expand, or that an additive supplier is just around the corner are even more critical to entrepreneurs like Alan Robbins.

“I always said that if I had done a nationwide search, I probably would have ended up right back here,” says Alan Robbins, president of The Plastic Lumber Co.

“There’s an infrastructure here in Akron beyond just the University of Akron. We use their (the university’s) resources where applicable, but more important are the issues of equipment, tool and die maintenance … these kinds of things are the bread and butter of what runs an industrial plastic or rubber manufacturing facility.”