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April 2014
Made in America and Proud of It
By Casey Jacobus

     Plastics are an important component in thousands of the products that we use everyday. From the alarm clock that wakes us in the morning, our coffee maker and toothbrush, and the container from which we pour the milk for our cereal, to the car we drive and the pump that puts gas in it, the computer and smartphone we use at work, and even the protective wrap around the food we’ll eat for dinner, plastics improve our lives and bring us convenience and efficiency.

     Because the flexibility and adaptability of plastics enables them to provide many different solutions in an increasingly complex world, the plastics industry is today the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. It employs nearly 900,000 workers and contributes more than $380 billion in annual shipments, making a significant impact on the country’s economy.

     One of the nation’s largest plastics companies is located in the Charlotte area. Wilbert Plastic Services is headquartered in Belmont with seven manufacturing facilities in five states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, and Minnesota. It employs over 1,400 workers and manufactures and assembles products in 12 different markets. These markets include automotive, consumer products, commercial equipment, appliances, heavy trucks, health care, aerospace, agriculture and recreation.

     “Wilbert Plastic Services is a leading supplier of plastic injection molded and heavy gauge thermoform products and assemblies in North America,” attests Greg M. Botner, president and CEO. “Our ability to produce small to large plastic parts and assemblies to a variety of industries in multiple and strategic locations throughout the country is unique.”

 

The Past

     The history of Wilbert Plastic Services goes way back to the middle of the 19th century when a German immigrant, Ferdinand Haase, acquired 55 acres along the Des Plaines River outside Chicago.

     In 1874, Ferdinand and his two oldest sons, Emil and Leo, opened Forest Land Cemetery, which included a museum displaying Native American artifacts found on the Haase property. In 1880, Ferdinand’s son Leo founded the L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company and began making concrete burial vaults and covers, as well as cemetery lot markers, benches, tiles and irrigation basins.

     In 1902, Leo retired and moved to the West Coast, leaving the Haase company to be run by his nephew Wilbert. When an influenza outbreak spread through the Midwest in 1918 and 1919 causing the death of thousands, the L.G. Haase Company was one of the few companies able to meet the demand for funeral products. In 1919, Wilbert bought L.G. Haase from the family for $19,000 and renamed it American Vault Works.

     Wilbert Haase was a worldwide traveler and was fascinated by the preservation techniques of the ancient Egyptians. He was determined to make an airtight, waterproof burial vault and, after two years of trial and error, he succeeded by lining a concrete vault with asphalt. In 1930, he formed the Wilbert H. Haase Company to license the waterproof burial vault technology.

     By 1938, the American Vault Works was the world’s largest manufacturer of asphalt-lined concrete burial vaults. In 1955, the company marked its 25th anniversary by producing its one millionth Wilbert burial vault.

     In 1948, a group of multiple shareholders bought the W.H. Haase company and introduced a new vault liner to escape the dangerous and superheated use of asphalt. “Plasco,” a hybrid of the words plastic and coating, became the liner of choice for the company’s vaults until the 1960s when the company, now renamed Wilbert, Inc., bought Thermoform Plastics, Inc. and produced a new polystyrene vault liner, which was not only strong, but when bonded with an epoxy formed an airtight seal.

     By 1977, Wilbert, Inc. was operating with two distinct divisions, Thermoform Plastics, Inc. and Wilbert Funeral Services.

     Over the following decades the company thrived through natural expansion and growth. By the mid-1990s, Thermoform was booming, providing plastic liners for Wilbert’s vaults as well as handling lucrative contracts for a wide range of products in the plastics industry. Through a series of acquisitions, it grew to one of the top five plastics manufacturing companies in the country with sales topping $55 million in 1999.

     In 2002, the company acquired Morton Custom Plastics in Harrisburg, N.C. and renamed the Thermoform division to Wilbert Plastic Services.

     In 2008, Wilbert Funeral Services was spun off as a separate company, leaving only Wilbert Plastic Services under the operating under the corporation of Wilbert, Inc. Today, the companies operate as independent entities with no corporate relationship.

     “Not many companies in the plastics industry have the deep roots and longevity of Wilbert Plastic Services,” says Botner, who began working with the company in 2004 during a period of financial change. As president and CEO—a tenure that began in 2008—he guided the company through another reorganization and set in motion a number of operational adjustments.

     Botner was an ideal choice to take the plastics company into the new millennium. Growing up in Michigan, he was no stranger to the manufacturing industry. After attending Wayne State and Oakland Universities, he landed a job with an autoparts company. He soon began a 30-year career in the plastics industry with manufacturing companies serving various markets throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

     Immediately prior to joining Wilbert Plastic Services, Botner served as president and CEO of Titan Plastics Group, a private equity-sponsored plastics processing company headquartered in Portage, Michigan.

     When Botner joined Wilbert Plastic Services, it was still calling Chicago “home.” In 2010, Wilbert executives decided the company’s headquarters should be in the Southeast and moved to Belmont, N.C. The Gaston County location offered all the right elements—sufficient space for a headquarters building, a professional labor force, a good business community and quick access to the airport.

     “Our major share of business was in the South and Southeast,” explains Botner. “And we already had a manufacturing facility in Belmont, so it just made sense to locate here.”

 

The Present

     Today, Wilbert Plastic Services supplies 12 major industrial markets with seven manufacturing facilities, totally over 1,300,000 square feet. Its annual sales volume is approximately $260,000,000. It makes everything from washing machine agitators for Whirlpool, fenders for BMW, and hoods for John Deere, to the cowling for GE Medical Systems’ MRI machine.

     With automotive products making up 39 percent of its production, along with another 6 percent in the heavy truck market, Wilbert’s customers include BMW, Hyundai, Ford, Volvo, GM, KIA and Daimler trucks. It makes covers for Mercury boat engines, child car seats for Britax, and service station pumps for Gilbarco Inc., a Greenville, S.C., company.

     “We’re an American company with American-made products. We don’t have operations outside of the U.S.,” says Botner. “We believe the manufacturing capabilities here are the best in the world and we’re investing heavily in that.”

     Wilbert Plastic Services has also positioned itself to create products for the aerospace industry by acquiring the mandatory AS9100C certification in the fall of 2013. This certification establishes an international quality management standard for the aerospace industry. The certification demonstrates a manufacturer’s ability to meet various regulatory requirements, including legal and safety standards.

     “The AS9100C expands our manufacturing capabilities within the plastics industry,” explains Botner. “It also offers aerospace customers a new option, one with more than 50 years of plastics experience, to choose when considering plastic products. We’re ready to explore these avenues and move into this industry.”

     Botner observes that the plastics industry has evolved dramatically over the last several decades, moving from a substitute for other materials in a product to a material that many designs revolve around. Consequently Wilbert has added more engineers to its staff, currently employing around 50, and expanding the services it provides to customers.

     “As the demand for our plastic products increases, so does the demand for design and engineering support,” says Botner. “We can manage our customer’s product from concept through production, if desired. We have the capability to take the design intent and provide all of the product.”

 

The Future

     While many of its competitors went out of business during the economic recession of 2008-09, Wilbert Plastic Services has survived and is now growing again. Botner suggests that the reason Wilbert survived was that it was already in trouble before the recession impacted the national economy. In 2005-06, the company had lost 20 to 25 percent of its sales volume. Botner was charged with turning things around.

     Botner worked on reducing the company’s debt, by closing several manufacturing plants and making reductions in the number of employees. In 2009, the company had cut down to 830 employees and sales had dropped to about $150 million. When the recession hit, Wilbert was ahead of the curve. It was already retrenching and consolidating.

     “We were already in the mode when the recession hit,” explains Botner. “Consequently, we were well positioned to weather the downturn. Now we have turned ourselves around and are benefiting from a recovering marketplace.”

     Botner believes that Wilbert has been successful over the past four years by investing in its own business growth through careful acquisitions, putting capital into new facilities and new technology, and increasing the levels of productivity. The company has grown to 1,450 employees and Botner expects sales to reach $320 million in 2015.

     “I hope we’ve learned our lesson,” cautions Botner, speaking for both his company and the industry. “The answer to success in manufacturing goods is not the pursuit of cheap labor, but rather an investment in the workforce.”

     He points out that the Southeast region of the county has always been a center for manufacturing and even though the products may have changed from the traditional textiles and furniture, he believes that the region will continue to dominate the industry for the foreseeable future.

     “This is a multi-state community that believes in business,” he asserts. “However, we must continue to attack the cost of doing business here by keeping corporate taxes and utilities low and making sure that the place where we do business is a place where people want to live.”

     Another problem that Botner believes the region must attack is a growing skills gap between the labor force and the job demands of the manufacturing industry. Botner says high schools no longer focus on vocational training; instead they put the emphasis on preparing for college. As a result students are coming out of high school without the advanced math and basic programming skills they need to succeed in plastics manufacturing. Many also have a false idea of what the industry is all about.

     “Over time manufacturing has gotten a bad reputation,” says Botner “People see it as a shrinking field and one where you have to get your hands dirty working in a factory. They don’t realize that this is a different era of manufacturing. It’s clean work with more use of the head than the hands.”

     To help fill the skills gap, Wilbert Plastic Services is initiating its own training programs. In 2013 it launched the B.E.T.T.E.R Workforce Program to provide employees opportunities for training, recognition and a career path within the company. The launch included new training centers and training computers at all of Wilbert’s manufacturing sites.

     At the injection molding facilities it installed the Paulson Training System, an interactive computer program which provides employees with a wide range of plastics knowledge from basic safety to advanced problem solving simulation. Injection Molding employees who participate in the Paulson Training lessons not only gain knowledge, they also earn extra pay for the courses completed and receive certificates representing specific job titles.

     Wilbert Plastic Services is now working closely with the Paulson Training staff to develop a set of thermoforming courses. It hopes to install this type of training in all its thermoforming sites during 2014.

     “We have great employees,” stresses Botner. “The decisions we make affect them everyday. I take that very seriously. When we turned the business around in 2008-09, we were laying off people. That was an awful feeling.”

     In addition to the new training programs, Wilbert offers medical insurance and health plans that affect 4,000 people. It provides an opportunity for employees to progress in their careers with the company. And, it encourages all its employees to gain the knowledge necessary to perform their job effectively.

     Botner believes these steps will help build a stronger company and a more knowledgeable workforce. “I believe we can recreate the growing middle class,” he says.

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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