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ATEK Plastics: Bringing Its A-Team to the Molding Game
   by Dianna Brodine
   Profile   Spring  2009
  
Located in Kerrville, Texas, ATEK Plastics is the plastics molding component of the larger group, ATEK Companies. Providing solutions to the OEM medical, aerospace, automotive, and defense markets, ATEK Companies entered the plastic injection molding industry in 1995. Adding the ability to create its proprietary metal SMD reels in plastic was the first step for a molder that now serves customers in the medical device, electronics, food and beverage, commercial, and automotive products industries.

With roughly $13 million in total revenue and over 170 million parts shipped per year, ATEK Plastics describes itself as a nimble company, moving fast to meet the demands of its customers. With an A-Team of employees, a serious commitment to training, and a ‘deep partnering’ concept that helps the small opportunities become big successes, ATEK Plastics is in the molding game to win.

The A-Team
Setting ATEK apart from its competition is the A-Team, ATEK’s employees. “Doing $13 million in revenue with 55 employees doesn’t leave a lot of room on the bench for anyone,” explained Thomas Houdeshell, president of ATEK Plastics. “Our employees need to be a group of people who can determine if resources are being utilized to their maximum potential.”

The A-Team concept is simple, based on a belief that giving employees responsibility and teaching them to identify and correct issues as they arise creates an organization that continuously improves itself, to the benefit of both the company and the customer. Jim Collins’ book Good to Great espouses the idea that ‘getting the right people on the bus’ can drive a company’s success. Houdeshell’s leadership is based on that theory.

“To be the best, you have to run lean and it’s a constant struggle between bringing in contract labor support and maintaining a lean staff,” said Houdeshell. “The question is, at what point do you add resources?” Houdeshell waits until the company shows a definite need before hiring permanent employees, working the peaks and valleys with temporary labor. When ATEK Plastics is absolutely sure of growth and can depend on it, then it brings on additional people. “It’s part of the continuous improvement effort – hire slowly and fire quickly,” explained Houdeshell. Once the right employee has been hired, ATEK Plastics tends to retain that employee, averaging less than 8 percent turnover each of the last three years, with many employees having more than 25 years of service.

Atek Plastics has made an effort over the last two to three years to be sure the right customers are on the bus, as well. “We made conscious decisions to slowly divest out of the automotive industry,” said Houdeshell. “Part of it was seeing the downturn coming – we saw some of our customers in that industry becoming a little harder to deal with, paying bills slowly, and being difficult to communicate with. It was eating up resources with no return. The other factor influencing the divestment of our automotive customers was seeing growth on the horizon in medical devices and adapting our business model to take advantage of it.” As a result, ATEK Plastics began to align its resources with ATEK Medical, which had purchased a division of Medtronic a few years previously, opening up opportunities in the medical molding market.

Training the A-Team
Hiring A-Team employees is only the beginning. At ATEK Plastics, the next step is to invest more than $450 per employee in training annually to keep the team strong and prepared. “To be successful, we have to educate and communicate with our employees,” explained Houdeshell. “We truly want to be the best in North America for our size at systematic molding.” Based on Plante & Moran’s most recent benchmarking study, ATEK Plastics received an “A” for investing roughly $453.33 per employee, over $100 per employee more than the average plastics molding company in the study.

Training initiatives include new hire orientations, on-the-job training, in-house quality training, a full-time dedicated trainer on payroll, and a separate certified RJG trainer on site. PolyOne performs material handling training on an annual basis; a safety committee teaches OSHA compliance, first aid, and CPR; and training is tailored for specific departments and personnel. The quality assurance staff receives training on GD&T, measurement, and calibration; process technicians go through RJG training; and the quality assurance manager trains on Black Belt Six Sigma standards. One full week each quarter is allocated to training, consuming resources far beyond the financial.

Technical and process training aren’t the only topics addressed when ATEK Plastics’ employees hit the books. Dr. Christopher Avery has been on hand each of the last five years to lead a session titled ‘Responsibility Redefined.’ Houdeshell explained, “So many times in an injection molding facility, blame is passed around. Dr. Avery’s sessions teach responsibility – forget the blame and find the root cause of the problem. We want our employees to get beyond the finger pointing and start making good choices.” Houdeshell credits the responsibility training as a large contributor in the success of the company’s A-Team. “When you truly get an A-Team going, they will start sorting the issues out on their own.”

Clearly, ATEK Plastics is a company with a will to win. “We’re spending almost $500 per employee in various training aspects and we’re not going to stop,” Houdeshell said. “We still have room for improvement, but we’re committed to making our company better. We’re not trying to milk the company for short term profits – we’ve secured long-term agreements with our customers and that allows us to think long term.”

Deep Partnering
ATEK Plastics’ long-term thinking benefits more than its employees – the customers win, too. When ATEK Plastics redefined its market strategy a few years ago, it realized that much of its success was based on its position as a full solution provider for customers both large and small. The company also noticed that the smaller customers often gained when resources were thrown at their molding issues, and Houdeshell made the smaller customers a priority in the new scheme. “We want to be nimble enough to help the little guy – to be there for a small opportunity that could turn into something big,” explained Houdeshell. “By helping the small company grow, we have the opportunity to grow together in the future.”

That concept developed into ‘deep partnering,’ a term designed to imply a fusing of customer and provider. “Our quality assurance people communicate directly with the customer, our materials team works with theirs – we’ve integrated with our customers,” stated Houdeshell. ATEK Plastics has committed to being responsive; to listening when larger molding providers haven’t. The company helps its customers by communicating its abilities, combined with the latest technology and process offerings. The relationship that develops builds trust and enables both companies to grow. “Our customers don’t have to be big,” said Houdeshell. “We’ll dedicate the same resources to the little guy that we will for our largest customers.”

Industrial Darwinism
The downsizing being witnessed in the molding industry has been referred to as ‘industrial Darwinism’ – survival of the fittest, or natural selection. The belief is that those who survive the economic downturn will grow and prosper, and Houdeshell feels that now more than ever. “Everyone is nervous about the economy, and ATEK Plastics is in a position of growth,” he said. “But we cannot take anything for granted. We must continually improve if we are to not only survive, but thrive!”

In the current economic climate, Houdeshell believes ATEK Plastics is blessed with growth opportunities. However, there is still work to be done to keep his company in the game. Success means driving costs out and continuously improving the company’s processes and people. “We can’t take anything for granted,” Houdeshell stated. “Now more than ever, performance is key, so we always have to improve.” ATEK Plastics is investing money in new technology; bringing in RJG sensing equipment, cavity pressure sensing equipment, box loading equipment, and additional full servo robots; purchasing new items where it makes sense, but also taking advantage of the surplus of used equipment. The equipment purchases are aimed at driving productivity up, keeping on top of the latest technology, and improving turnaround times.

“We’re fortunate because of the long-term agreements that we have secured, but tomorrow that might change,” explained Houdeshell. “What that means for us is making sure we have the capabilities to ship high quality product at a reasonable price when the customer wants it.”

Houdeshell is outspoken in his desire for ATEK Plastics to be the best in the world at custom precision moldings, utilizing systematic and decoupled molding techniques. His company is deeply passionate about continuous improvement, driving both customer and molder to new heights in the molding game. With an A-Team on board and a commitment to investing in the team’s growth, ATEK Plastics is positioned to finish the game strong. “It’s about getting a group of people together who truly understand the business and care about the results,” Houdeshell said. “That’s how I know this company will continue to be successful.”