This article first appeared in IMPO's August 2013 issue.
An injured master mechanic, L.A. Blackwell fished to support his family. One of the most successful fisherman in the Houston area at the time, he didn’t use nets to make his catch, but instead, a rod and reel. And at the end of the line was a slip cork insert, which he invented, that enabled him to easily cast a float into deep water and fish near the bottom. He began selling this fishing tool, and became so successful that he couldn’t keep up with demand by producing wooden parts on a South Bend lathe. So, in 1939 – and inspired by a plastic toothbrush – he had a simple dream: To be able to produce a well-made, standard, plastic product.
He built his first injection molding machine by hand and Houston, TX became home to a leader in custom plastics injection molding and extrusion: Blackwell Plastics, Inc.
Building A Dream
Today, Jeff Applegate, president of Blackwell Plastics, says, “the thing I love about this business is everyday I’m working with a different industry, a different company, a different entrepreneur.”
Those looking back at the history of Blackwell Plastics and the history of the nation will see a parallel in their timelines. In the 1940s, the company was focused on producing products to support a nation in the midst of war and produced parts for the C130 military aircraft. The 1950s saw the return of U.S. veterans and the baby boom began. Blackwell Plastics produced products that reflected the economic boom: Nylon slides for venetian blinds, and the first plastic liner for Igloo water coolers that were common on industrial jobsites. Blackwell Plastics supported the space advancements of the 1960s, producing the plastic parts of the sensors that Alan Shepard wore on the Freedom 7 mission. During the 1960s, Blackwell Plastics manufactured the first disposable plastic tools used in open heart surgery. The Weed Eater was invented in the 1970s, and after trying to convince the inventor (George Ballas) that no one would ever want this silly tool, L.D. Blackwell (L.A. Blackwell’s son) created the first molds and Blackwell Plastics ended up producing over one million Weed Eaters. Houston saw entrepreneur Herb Allen create a $20 wine opener in the 80s, despite L.D. Blackwell’s insistence that people would still choose the $2 opener that was already available. Herb Allen subsequently gained worldwide recognition as the inventor of the Screw Pull, which is still popular today. In the 90s, Blackwell Plastics worked on the internal plastic components of the first portable Compaq computer. And a walk through the plant in 2013 can find the company producing iPad holders, ‘As Seen On TV’ products, and plastic faceplates for a frozen drink machine that is utilized by a national restaurant chain.
“We own no tools; we make no product,” explains Applegate. “We’re a contract manufacturer for other people. They bring their ideas to us.”
Working with so many diverse customers, some of which are major corporations, presents a unique dilemma for a custom plastics service company — the need to diversify. In the 1990s, Blackwell Plastics was very successful in molding highly specified valves for gas transmission valves for Phillips Driscopipe, and Phillips grew to be over 50 percent of Blackwell’s business. When Phillips merged with Chevron, its manufacturing moved to a Chevron-owned facility — a devastating blow to Blackwell. Today, Blackwell carefully manages the growth and concentration of its customers, and strives to produce plastics for a variety of industries. “We don’t target and that was by design,” Applegate says. Today, Blackwell Plastics’ top ten customers are in ten different industries and no single customer represents more then ten percent of the company’s revenues.
Part of the great aspect of working with a variety of businesses in the south central United States is the variety, Applegate says, and the ability to work with the entrepreneurs themselves. “They’re guys that have a vision; it’s their company,” he explains. “To have the ability to interact with the entrepreneur, to see their dream, to help them reach their dream — that’s what I love doing.”
Love What You Do
“Do what you love, love what you do,” he says. Every year, Blackwell Plastics follows a different theme — a theme that not only the business can follow, but also the people who are part of the business. “I try to take a look at the business from where we are and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Applegate explains. With last year’s theme of ‘do what you love, love what you do,’ he was trying to “build affection for the business – what we do.”
Another year, the theme was simply ‘Believe,’ in part because of the sheer number of contracts the company had to fulfill that year. “We just had so much work,” says Applegate, “so ‘believe’ you can do it.”
A previous theme of ‘Dream, build, create’ was based on a book that discussed tapping into individual dreams, and helping them accomplish that dream. “You care about their dream; you’re helping them aspire to their dream; then they will reciprocate,” explains Applegate. “It’s just a different management philosophy.” He set out to find out what Blackwell employees wanted to accomplish, both at Blackwell and outside of work. Some wanted to own a home, other wanted to put two kids through college, and yet another wanted to learn how to fly a plane. Applegate’s response: “How can I help you get there?”
“When people care for each other, they care for the customers and it all seems to work. The challenge is to get them to care for each other and that starts with ownership and management.” Applegate is on the plant floor daily and tries to have a personal relationship with every Blackwell employee. His door is always open, and when Blackwell employees aren’t working, they’re celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays or doing community service projects together. Pumpkin carving and costume contests are a part of every Halloween, and one past employee appreciation day was spent at a Houston Astros game.
“The culture was established by L.D. Blackwell and we seek to continue to follow in his footsteps,” says Applegate.
“Let’s have a little fun; let’s build some cool stuff; let’s work with some great entrepreneurs.”
A Culture Of Safety
Helping workers care about each other has been an integral part of developing a culture of safety in the company. “We’re all responsible for each other’s safety,” Applegate says. His hope is to sustain a culture that management has created — one where people watch out for their coworkers and speak up if they see something unsafe.
“That’s a hard thing to do,” he says. “But I think it starts with management. Management has to be the one to express – and express it in a way that people believe in it – that we really do care about their safety and that what we’re doing is not trying to make their lives difficult.”
Getting people excited about safety at Blackwell is only the first step though, he adds. Next comes training and making sure that everyone knows why each safety element is being enforced. Applegate explains: “When you’re doing this operation, there are parts that potentially spin off and hit your eyes. We care about your eyes. We don’t want you to lose your sight, and that’s why we ask you to wear safety glasses.”
And Blackwell does what it can to supply every employee with the necessary safety equipment. For example, the company provides safety glasses and subsidizes expensive personal protective equipment purchases.
“It starts with an attitude of caring for each other,” says Applegate, “which I think is really built by management and then explaining to people why we’re doing what we’re dong and then trying to get them involved in it as well.”
“The time to make a friend is before you need them,” he says. And this is never more true than when Applegate turns from president of Blackwell to the chairman of the Greater Houston Manufacturers Association (GHMA). GHMA is an association that “was created by manufacturers and is created for manufacturers.” Houston area manufacturers who are a part of the group work to help each other be successful and support the manufacturing community. “We help each other out,” Applegate explains, “and share referrals to the friends we know can help get a project done.” Blackwell Plastics is a member of GHMA, and “participates in all of the events and benefits of being involved in the local community,” he adds.
GHMA also works with educational partners to support the educational and training interests of manufacturers. “We provide a voice to the local education institutions and have access to the leadership so that they can hear directly from our membership,” he explains. Some of the local educational institutions GHMA works with include the University of Houston, TMAC, Lone Star College, Houston Community College, and Rice University.
And part of giving a voice to local manufacturers includes also working with city, county, and state representatives. “Most of our members, as small to mid-sized manufacturing companies, don’t have the time to get their voice out to the city and state government,” says Applegate. “We have a committee that can provide a manufacturer’s perspective to issues considered for city, county, and regional government.”
Applegate’s position as GHMA chairman gives him an opportunity to help with the vision, direction, and communication in Houston-area manufacturing. His position as president at Blackwell Plastics allows him to help shape the future of a leading custom plastics organization. And as he says, “Do what you love, love what you do.” From these viewpoints, he sees a shift in the future of American manufacturing — a shift that will change manufacturing’s image, foster teamwork, and strengthen American innovation.
Made In America
“I see a push to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. This is good for our country and provides good jobs for our people,” he says. Major companies are beginning ‘Made in the USA’ initiatives that include selling a certain percentage of products made in the U.S. by a specified date. And other market shifts are also bringing some manufacturing back to the U.S. as well – the resurgence of manufacturing related to natural gas is offering low feedstock prices for the plastics industry. The drive for lighter weight and more fuel efficient vehicles is continuing to create opportunities for American makers of plastics and composite materials.
“Innovation, product development, and invention continue to be the strength of our nation and will continue to provide opportunities for growth for Blackwell Plastics and the industry,” Applegate says. “For our nation to continue to lead the world and prosper, it must originate from new products and technology. This innovation and ideas come from seeing opportunities and solving problems encountered in manufacturing of a product. The act of creation is the highest level activity that we as humans can participate in, and manufacturing should be celebrated for the great value that it creates and the good things that it requires of those that endeavor to pursue the art and science of making thing that improve our world.
“Manufacturing brings out the best in people.”