Leading by action
By Shelley Snowdon
It's much easier to be at the top than playing catch up." In this one sentence, Werner Scheliga, CEO and owner of Unique Mould Makers Ltd., sums up the attitude that has made him one of Canada's leade...
It’s much easier to be at the top than playing catch up.” In this one sentence, Werner Scheliga, CEO and owner of Unique Mould Makers Ltd., sums up the attitude that has made him one of Canada’s leaders in the plastics industry. This is one of the reasons he was named Leader of the Year by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA). Another reason is his involvement in and commitment to the Canadian moldmaking industry.
“Werner has always been very forthcoming with his time and his expertise, and willing to share his insights with the industry,” says Charmian Entine, director of the CPIA Ontario Mould Makers Council.
Throughout his four decades in the industry, Scheliga has sat on a number of associations. He was chairman of the Mould Makers Division of SPI Canada from 1977 to 1979, and a member of the SPI Advisory Committee from 1979 to 1990. Between 1992 and the present, Scheliga belonged to a number of committees and associations — Canadian Plastics Institute, CMA, and a member of the R&D Committee of Industrial Research and Development (IRDI), to name a few. Today he is on the board of directors for CPIA, and a member of the Closure Manufacturers Association (CMA), Canadian Plastics Pioneers, and several industry committees. His colleagues call him a determined man. Tony Grossi, president at the Toronto company, also calls him a man dedicated to the industry.
“On the industry side of things, you’ve never seen an individual participate so much,” says Grossi, who has worked side by side with Scheliga for 12 years as his partner. Grossi says that Scheliga is as much dedicated to his own business — regularly putting in 12-hour days — as he is to the industry. “Anything that Werner does, he has to do it to the nth degree.” Scheliga may be modest about his accomplishments, but never about trying to do his best for the industry and his own company.
He learned early that belonging to associations could help not only his own business, but the industry itself. “At that time, there were a lot of small companies. Whenever we had concerns, they could be addressed by an association such as SPI,” he explains. “I’m a strong believer in associations where you can meet other people. There’s always a lot you can learn from each other.” Participating in association work gave him the opportunity to address the moldmaker’s perpetual problem of finding and training skilled labor. In his early years in the industry, a lot of the skilled help was coming from Europe. Eventually, a change in Canada’s immigration policy made it increasingly difficult to bring skilled laborers from overseas. Through associations, institutes like IRDI, were formed, says Scheliga. “Institutions provide very fertile grounds to resolve technical issues,” he says, adding that universities didn’t have the programs to help small companies like Unique. Smaller companies may have had the idea for training programs, but they couldn’t do it alone. “By having institutions, we could split the costs (of training and equipment) with other companies.” Though more colleges and technical high schools are becoming aware of the industry, skilled labor is still a problem, he says.
His own involvement in the industry started over 40 years ago. In 1956, the young, Eastern German man who was a refugee after the war, came to Canada looking for work in his trade — tool and die. Almost immediately he found a job as a moldmaker at Reliable Toy in Toronto. The following year, after a short stint with Percy Herman, Scheliga became Argus Mould & Tool’s first employee. In the next few years, Scheliga would travel back and forth between Germany and Canada, trying to decide where to settle. Eventually, he and his wife Erika returned to Canada, where he would set up Unique Mould Makers Limited in 1969 with Bill Wiles, the former president of Argus.
It was in 1977, while exhibiting at an industry show overseas, that he made what might have been his most important business decision. After receiving a sizable order from a European company, Scheliga decided to specialize. He went into caps and closures and his company has been growing ever since. Today he has 85 employees and expects to hit the 100 mark by the millennium, outgrowing his current three-year-old location.
“Specialization is one of the keys (to success in the plastics industry),” he offers. “You can’t be a master of everything. You have to focus on one thing.” Specialization allowed Unique to be more competitive with world moldmakers. “We could only find growth by exporting,” explains Scheliga. In the early days, Unique already exported between 30 and 40 percent of its work to countries overseas. Today, 98 percent of its work comes from outside of Canada.
Another important key to success is understanding the needs of the customers, he notes. In 1995, in order to accommodate this factor, Unique was restructured. It was taken from a small “goodwill” business and made into a fully-structured workplace complete with rules and regulations, and business and development plans. Today the company offers its customers stunning brochures, a newsletter and detailed accounts of the reliability of its caps and closures.
But perhaps it is his personal philosophy that has driven Scheliga all these years to make the industry and his own company better, that is the best advice. “I don’t expect more from others than I’m willing to do myself,” he says, when asked what his workplace attitude is like. “Employees are practically everything. You can have a great machine, but only a truly great individual will drive this sucker to win the race.”
Overall Scheliga believes the prospects of the plastics industry is bright. “I see the future for ourselves as very, very good and very, very solid,” Scheliga says. “The development of new resins and machine technology is in our favor.” The only snag? The shortage of skilled labor. An article Scheliga recently read predicts that over 40 percent of all skilled automobile workers will be retired by the year 2002. He predicts a similar fate for the skilled tradesmen of the plastics industry. This, says Scheliga, will be a greater challenge for the plastics industry to address in the new millennium than the Y2K bug. CPL