SALEM, Ohio - A large flatbed truck, idling outside the Worthington Custom Plastics Inc. plant here, carried the company's future.
On the truck sat a large Cincinnati Milacron press. The press, among the largest at the company's flagship factory, is part of a coming-out party for Worthington as a stand-alone plastic parts supplier.
'If anything, we plan to be more aggressive in the market,' said Clifford Croley, Worthington's CEO. 'The company is already well positioned. Now we have the funds to invest in the business and upgrade equipment and technology.'
Worthington is fighting for a bigger share of what has become a difficult market for small suppliers. In an era when many vendors were selling out to larger rivals or acquiring others to gain needed size, Worthington was at a crossroads.
Until late May, the company had been part of Worthington Industries Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, steel-processing conglomerate with $1.6 billion in annual sales. Its former parent sold the operation to a group of Worthington executives. The new owners will try to reverse course through a higher-profile marketing effort.
'Plastics was an area too different from what (the parent company) wanted to do,' Croley said. 'We are focused on (the auto industry). ... And we have the funds to invest so we can succeed.'
Last year, Worthington Industries announced plans to sell or spin off the plastics-parts segments of its business to focus on steel products.
With its product line of instrument-panel skins, grilles, headlamps, taillamps and bodyside moldings, Worthington's plastics operations were good performers. But the company decided the plants needed a larger financial commitment to remain competitive, said equity analyst Mark Parr of Cleveland-based McDonald Investments.
'The company determined that (Worthington Custom Plastics) needed to be much larger, with greater resources, to be an effective long-term player in the market,' Parr said.
But for more than a year, no buyers came forward for the three automotive plants that were part of the company's Worthington Custom Plastics subsidiary.
According to sources, several interior-parts giants expressed interest, but backed off.
For the automotive plastics plants, the wait ended on May 27. The operations were sold to a group of private investors that includes Croley, 14 former Worthington management executives and an outside venture-capital firm, Cleveland-based Key Equity Capital Corp. The company is an affiliate of banking firm Key Corp.
The group formed a new holding company, WCP Holdings, to manage the plastics processing facilities. The sale price was not disclosed.
The company has wasted no time infusing Worthington Custom Plastics with greater financial muscle. Over the next two years, the company will spend $22 million on new molding presses, robotic manufacturing cells and an upgraded paint line at three plants.
The company also plans to invest more aggressively in technology. Worthington's main customers, General Motors and Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Automotive Systems, are asking their suppliers to add more value to parts, Croley said.
To meet their needs, Worthington's Salem plant makes in-mold, decorative appliques that attach to instrument panel skins. The process creates a more luxurious surface finish for low-end vehicles.
Now, Worthington officials would like to share that technology with the automotive world. The company will use its sales and engineering office in Troy, Mich., as a launching point to reach automakers.
Broadcasting the company's plastics capabilities will be a change from its old ownership, Croley said.
'To say (the plastics operations) was low-profile might be a bit of a stretch,' he said. 'It almost had no profile.'
Last year, Worthington had sales of more than $180 million. Its three Ohio molding plants employ a total of 2,000 workers. With the renewed marketing focus and investment, Worthington expects sales of more than $200 million this fiscal year.
No acquisitions of outside companies are planned. At least in the near term, the company will stay centered on internal growth, Croley said.
'The industry is solid and so are our plants,' Croley said. 'We think with what we have already, we can make our mark.'