This article first appeared in IMPO's January/February 2011 issue.
Tom Moran, COO and President of Midwest Plastic Fabricators, stands next to the "ferris wheel," one of many homemade technological innovations he has developed over his 30-year engineering career.
Tom Moran, COO of Ohio’s Midwest Plastic Fabricators (MPF), has a unique story to tell. It’s not typical, for example, to have sold a manufacturing business only to buy it back from the brink of closure fifteen years later. Based on his multiple successes in raising a company from the ground up (on technology he developed), it’s clear that Moran is a unique figure in manufacturing: someone with equally cunning business and engineering talents.
In order to really understand Moran’s influence on MPF, one has to start from the beginning, when the company was founded by Moran and his wife in 1978. In 1995, after 17 successful years of production, Moran was approached by a buyer, and he took up the proposed deal. A few years later, after being boxed out of his old enclosure industry thanks to licensing issues and a non-compete clause on his technology, Moran left manufacturing to pursue other interests.
But it’s clear he never lost his inspiration to engineer and create. He developed technology to help professional golfers with their swings, and worked with the PGA to implement it. Using the same concepts, Moran advised NASA on personal fitness for their space programs. He continued to develop other industrial machinery, and sold off those concepts as well.
As soon as he was able, Moran started another business based on the machinery he had developed decades prior. Only in October 2009 did he catch wind that the 1995 buyer of MPF was in the process of shuttering the business he had once founded. On the chopping block was not only a 43,000 square-foot facility, but 20 employees, some of which Moran had originally hired decades ago. “It wasn’t on the verge of collapse. It was done,” Moran says. “The employees were going to be without a home, since they were shutting it down. So the employees came to see me, and one thing led to another, because I had hired several of the people going back a lot of years.”
Moran battled banks for the requisite funds in some of the roughest financial water in decades — and won. “I think the fact that I started the business and knew the business had a great deal to do with it.” Because he had his technology back, and because of his dedication to the employees who had worked for him through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Moran repurchased the company in December of 2009 and revived operations just a month later. When asked if he “did the impossible” given the environment, Moran confidently says, “Yeah. Well, we’re here.”
Today, MPF has two locations, in Aurora and Akron, Ohio. In August 2010, the company’s employment exceeded 30 people, and Moran established a second shift. And while these people are critical to the success of MPF, just as fundamental is the proprietary, Moran-developed technology scattered around the plant. Moran explains, “A lot of what we do is patented processes and methods that I’ve developed over the years, and that still operate today. I believe the unique products, in combination with the unique machinery, makes for a compelling story, because we have efficiencies that others don’t have. We’re able to do a lot of things that others are unwilling to do.”
Making the Right Investments, the First Time
Many seem to think that surviving in the world of manufacturing requires no creativity. Based on a long history of engineering development and business savvy, it’s clear Moran wholeheartedly disagrees with this assumption. In fact, this creative spark could be considered the saving grace for a company once thought to be on its last legs.
The business plan for many companies revolves around making acquisitions in order to gain new technology and expand markets, and MPF was sold in 1995 for this very reason. According to Moran, the off-site leadership soon took its toll on the employees and their ability to be optimally productive. Even worse, the 1995 purchaser no longer wanted to be in the electrical industry, which was part of the reason the business was being phased out and shut down. Moran takes a more “inside-out” approach. “[MPF’s] investment is more in creativity and innovation than it is acquiring. If you start with no money, you become much more creative,” Moran explains.
The proprietary equipment that Midwest Plastic Fabricators relies upon during is operation was all developed by Moran himself, using a process he’s confident that no one else can replicate as well. While most manufacturers producing pipe fittings or enclosures out of PVC use injection molding, Moran’s technology uses the source material itself.
To turn raw PVC pipe into the appropriately-sized fittings, MPF sends short sections of raw material down a production line that blasts them with heat. Once malleable enough, the pipes are blasted with air until they reach the desired diameter. After a short trip through a cooling bath, the fitting is complete, ready to be welded into the variety of piping systems that MPF offers.
The other side of Midwest Plastic Fabricators is the production of enclosures, which also uses a proprietary process that Moran developed decades ago. “The more complex and technical procedures of today began with the advent of computer aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) in the ‘80s, when we developed the controls and machines for conduit fittings,” Moran explains. “Then in the ‘90s, we built the first computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine and its growth has developed since then.”
The CNC programs allow customers to take countless specifications and customizations, and everything is cut perfectly to size, every time. Moran says, “On the enclosure side, we start with flat sheets of material. This machine has patented features — it cuts and routes and grooves the flat sheets, and the flat sheets fold up like a cardboard box. It’s similar to the way metal enclosures are made, but we do it out of plastic.”
The result is a NEMA-, UL-, and ETL-approved enclosure that won’t rust or corrode in tough industrial environments, like stainless steel ones can. The enclosures can be used as junction boxes in a variety of environments, from the highway to the plant floor. And thanks to an R&D venture with the Navy, MPF is now helping replace electrical enclosures on its aircraft carriers, which have been corroded by years of exposure to saltwater. The beauty of these enclosures is another testament to Moran’s investments.
Development from the Ground Up
While many would assume it’s impossible to restart a shuttered business on machinery from the ‘90s, Moran disagrees: “There were no improvements on the equipment for almost 15 years, but it’s still the most efficient in the industry.”
The timelessness of his machinery is a testament to the idea that making a capital investment should be an internal effort. When no one knows your processes as well as you do, it’s better to foster new developments in-house rather than go looking elsewhere for solutions that are a mediocre fit at best. Moran says, “Working with, and alongside employees, and mentoring individuals brings their creativity into the business. If you show people you want to help them build their career, they will help you build yours.”
For Moran, lasting success in manufacturing is the continued execution of a relatively simple mantra: “You can be creative, but if you’re not innovative, the creativity means zero.”
Large capital purchases can be an incredible asset for a business looking to take the next step, but if Moran — and Midwest Plastic Fabricators as a whole — is any indication, the size of the investment isn’t the only important variable. Creativity and innovation are critical to the continued success of any business venture, whether it be new, or decades old. To accommodate this difference, and in celebration of MPF’s success, perhaps Moran’s mantra can be expanded slightly: “You can invest, but if you’re not creative, and you’re not innovative, that investment means zero.”