Feature

After 50 years with one company, a plastics worker looks back

In 1963, Lester Pearson was Canada’s Prime Minister, the Beatles were still in Liverpool, and Branko Muich started working at a new Toronto-based custom extrusion shop called Polyform Ltd.


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May 28, 2013 by Canadian Plastics

Then and now: Branko Muich in 1963, and in 2013.
Then and now: Branko Muich in 1963, and in 2013.

In 1963, Lester Pearson was Canada’s Prime Minister, the Beatles were still in Liverpool, and Branko Muich started working at a new Toronto-based custom extrusion shop called Polyform Ltd.

Fifty years later, Pearson and the Beatles are long gone, but Muich is still going strong at Polyform.

Short of actually building the plant, Muich has done just about every job possible for the company over the decades, from machine operator to salesman to plant supervisor to maintenance manager to die maker. Polyform’s technical sales representative Ziggy Pelc put Muich’s career in a nutshell. “We call him Mr. Polyform, the hardest working person at the company,” he said.

And, at 76, Muich shows no signs of slowing down.

UP FROM COMMUNISM

Born in Croatia in 1937, Muich’s early life is a story in itself. “The country was under communist rule when I was growing up. I was trained as a barber and then, at 17, was captured at the border trying to escape and jailed as a political prisoner,” Muich said. He was released and conscripted into the army as a telephone repairman, but still yearned for something better. “I got sick while in the army, was sent home to recover, and immediately escaped to Italy,” he said. “I spent two years living in that country in a refugee camp, where I learned a new trade: photography.”

He still wasn’t satisfied. The next step was emigration to Canada, and Muich still remembers the date of his arrival by ship: April 15, 1960. “I moved to Toronto, but there were plenty of barbers and photographers there, so I worked in a hospital by day and went to school at night,” he said. “A year later, I went to work for an aluminum extrusion manufacturer in Toronto called Custom Air.” Which is where Muich’s long career in plastics began. “Custom Air also did plastics extrusion, which I became familiar with,” he said. “Through Custom Air, I also met two men named Thomas Nicholson and Alan Watts. They were planning to open a new custom extrusion shop called Polyform Ltd., and asked me to work for them.” But there was a catch. “Before they hired me, they sent me to George Brown College in my spare time to study plastics processing,” Muich said. “They wanted me to know enough to work on my own. That, plus my other trade skills, gave me a foundation to build on.”

BUSY YEARS

Polyform opened its doors in 1963, with a total of five workers and one extruder. From the start, business was good. “We bought a second extruder after six months and then added more, and for 15 years we had nothing but success,” Muich said. “I was a machine operator but also worked in sales, selling extruded channel and slider components.” One of Polyform’s claims to fame is being among the first — if not the first — companies in Canada to extrude PVC vertical blinds. “We began making blinds around 1973 for the Canadian and U.S. markets,” Muich said. “We thought we were on top of the world, but eventually lost the business to competition.”

By 1983, Watts had left the company, Nicholson had passed away, and Muich was the company’s general foreman and maintenance manager. The following year, when Polyform’s die maker quit, Muich shouldered that job as well. “Working three jobs at once was a situation that probably wouldn’t happen today,” Muich said. “My work schedule became extreme — I still have a timecard from March 1987 that records an 82.5-hour work week.”

By 2002, when Muich turned 65, his career appeared to be winding down — only it didn’t. “I agreed to stay for a few months until the company found a replacement for me, but they never did and I’m still here,” he said. “I’m now the general handyman — making and repairing dies, repairing extruders, fixing leaks, and doing anything else they need me to do.”

SUMMING UP

So from his vantage point of 50 years in custom extrusion, how does Muich regard the current landscape? “Today’s extrusion machines are bigger and better, and the electronic technology means the operators don’t have to know as much,” he said. “But as sophisticated as they are, the electronics can be a disadvantage in custom extrusion. An electronic controller will control my temperature but it has to be replaced every few years; and if the replacement doesn’t fit, it has to be retrofitted. I have instruments that are 50 years old and still controlling temperature, and this is all that I need.”

He’s seen some changes on the die making side as well, and, again, he doesn’t think they’re all for the better. “I spent years cutting thousands of dies with a bandsaw, and could use my experience and my instincts to calculate any changes that I thought necessary,” he said. “Now I have EDM to cut a die, which is an advantage because I don’t have to polish the die afterwards. But with a computer program, the result isn’t always what I want, and I sometimes have to make changes when it’s done.”

And as for the extrusion industry in general, let’s not even go there. “It’s certainly not what it used to be,” Muich said. “I knew at least 20 different extrusion companies in Toronto when I was younger, and only two of them are still around now. It’s a much more difficult business today; extrusion companies just don’t have the same amount of control over their businesses anymore.”

Muich is philosophical about his own career, too. “Working for the same company all my life has had good points and bad points,” he said “I don’t regret it, but I might have done better financially if I had accepted new job offers. But I’m loyal to Polyform and they’ve been loyal to me. The high turnover of workers today might not be happening if more companies did better jobs of looking after their employees.”

In the end, Muich clearly isn’t going to worry about the road not travelled. “I see myself as a successful man: I own my house, I own a cottage and a boat, I’ve been married to the same woman for 50 years, and have raised wonderful children,” he said. “I can afford to retire, but I don’t know what I’d do if I did. I’ve always believed in working hard, and it’s kept me healthy.”