Andy and Cathy Rolph on the shop floor.
Sometimes the stars and planets align and — through a combination of talent, hard work, timing, and a bit of luck — you wind up having a very good year. Elvis had one in 1956, for example, and so did Wayne Gretzky in 1982. And it looks like Protoplast Inc., a family-run injection molder in Cobourg, Ont., is having one in 2014.
Owned by husband-and-wife team Andy and Cathy Rolph, Protoplast has a diverse focus in automotive, electronic, medical, and industrial markets. With 80 employees and 16 injection presses, the company offers services in prototype and production molds and custom injection molding and assembly, and reported $11.7 million in 2013 sales. Protoplast operates from a 52,000-square-foot building which houses offices, design rooms, a tool shop, a research and development facility, a production division, and an integrated materials handling area with three loading bays.
But if the name sounds familiar beyond all that, it might be because Protoplast has been on a bit of a tear lately. Within the past few months, it purchased Toronto-based consumer product maker ET Industries, won an Excellence Award for employee relations from Plastics News magazine and a Manufacturing Leadership Award from Frost & Sullivan/MLC, and hosted Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne for a plant tour after receiving an Eastern Ontario Development fund for $86,000 for creating 15 new jobs.
Founded in 1981 by Andy’s parents John and Joan Rolph, Protoplast began as a prototyping and tooling shop that specialized in making spray metal tooling and low-volume prototype molds. Fast forward 13 years and things began to change. “Andy and I took over the business in 1994,” said Cathy Rolph. “We were young and ambitious, and jumped right in without looking at the customer lists or the financial statements. We wanted to implement our plan for Protoplast, which involved integrating injection molding with the tooling, and moving away from one-time customers and towards established blue chip companies that were in the business of product development. We knew we were inheriting a committed, skilled workforce, so we had almost everything we needed from the very start.”
The couple’s respective backgrounds provided the rest. “Andy had worked in product development and had abilities in industrial design that allowed him to push the envelope, and I was in management consulting, which gave me the ability to recognize people’s core strengths and position them accordingly,” Cathy said.
But the company’s transition from moldmaker into plastics processor wasn’t always easy. “Many of our original customers were injection molders, and now we were in potential competition with them,” Andy Rolph said. “It was tough to navigate, but we kept our so-called ten-year plan in mind, which involved having a certain number of machines by the end of that time, and bringing in sophisticated systems ERP software.”
Cut to today, and the plan seems to have paid off, in spades. “We’ve kept our toolmaking capabilities while adding injection molding and, subsequent to that, value-added assembly,” Andy continued. “These are the three pillars of our business, and they provide a firm foundation in that, if one of the three is in a downturn, the other two are usually holding steady.”
Like many plastics processors, Protoplast’s automotive molding has ebbed and flowed over the years. “More than 75 per cent of our business was in automotive production before the recession, which fell to 40 per cent during the downturn,” Cathy said. “At present, auto parts molding makes up about 60 per of what we do.” While remaining committed to the automotive industry, the company made a conscious decision to use the slowdown to good effect, diversifying production and broadening its customer base for injection molded products to include medical, consumer, bio-technology, and agricultural markets. “Diversification has always been paramount to our strategic planning,” Cathy continued. “Our current composition gives us the ability to track and respond to other market trends and conditions as they develop.”
But if you think the company has forgotten its roots in moldmaking, think again. “Tool building has always been our backbone, and we are one of the few molders that still has a fully functioning tool shop,” Andy said. “Most of the tooling we make is for our own use, and we also import tooling from offshore from a variety of partners in China.”
The non-automotive molding side of Protoplast’s business just got a little larger with the purchase of ET Industries in February, which now gives the shop its first line of proprietary consumer products, including such kitchen and bath items as sink stoppers, sprayers, and shower heads. “ET Industries had been an injection molding customer of ours, and their consumer products are sold at Bed, Bath & Beyond stores, online through the ET Industries’ website, and in catalogues,” Cathy said. “Owning the company gives us an opportunity to get into the big-box markets and distribution channels, as well as sales through Internet purchases and toll-free numbers where we ship directly to customers. It’s the first time we’ve dealt directly with the end consumer, and we’re going to become more familiar with marketing channels that have already been established — channels that we can use if and when we decide to manufacture our own line of proprietary products.”
SMALL TOWN, BIG TALENTS
In a small town like Cobourg, word gets around if you don’t treat your employees well. The Rolphs don’t have to worry. “Our philosophy is to tailor the job to fit the person’s skills whenever possible instead of adhering to a rigid job description, and we’re not afraid to let people who show initiative try something different,” Cathy said. For example? Patricia Hart, the company’s manager of inside sales and purchasing and an APICS Certified Supply Chain Professional, started out as the receptionist; another employee, quality manager Melissa Baker, started as a machine operator 12 years ago and has continued to move up since, in part because the company paid for her to attend night school.
As a maker of such technically challenging automotive parts as air ducts, constant velocity joint boots, and parts to protect suspension and under-the-hood components, it’s crucial for Protoplast to have an agile workforce — the more so as the company got into injection blow molding several years ago and is now moving into injection transfer blow molding. To help its workers master necessary skills, Protoplast worked with Routsis Training to create an interactive training program suited for all employees, from press operators to management staff. Then they started a training program of their own, led by CEO of operations Todd Tracey. The first apprentice, Blaine McCormack, had been a maintenance millwright at another company; he began at Protoplast in March 2013 as a material handler and is now learning to be a process technician. “We prefer to train people from apprenticeship onwards, and as a result our workers do everything from start to finish, which in turn gives them a vested interest in doing a good job,” Cathy said.
Given its recent string of successes, the entire company appears to be doing a good job — not just because of technical expertise and a thoughtful human resources program, but also by recognizing that some of the old rules of business are past their best-before date. “The days of shoot and ship are over,” Andy said. “We’ve remained successful by trying the difficult things and having the right people in place to succeed at them. Rather than waiting for opportunities to co
me to us, we go out and find them. It’s risky, but there’s no other way to do business nowadays.”
For Protoplast, it might just be the case that 2014 — as good as it’s been so far — is only the prelude to the really good years to come. Not unlike Gretzky following 1982 with his even better 1983-84 season.