IN FOCUS: Small Business – Bringing ideas to life

Posted on Oct 1, 2013 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

WPI President Jim Christensen, right, looks on as Vice President of Operations Bruce Wendt tracks productivity at the plant.

Plastics. That word may have gained notoriety when it was reverently uttered in the 1967 film “The Graduate.” But for Wisconsin Plastics Inc. (WPI), the word – and the entire plastics industry – holds just such reverence.

That niche focus, coupled with an intense “engineering culture,” has made the Ashwaubenon firm a leader in the industry, measuring incremental revenue growth. And, according to WPI President Jim Christensen, the way to do that is to bring customers’ product ideas to life using innovative new technologies. Being able to determine just what that idea is, he says, is through careful listening and connecting with potential clients.

“It’s not unusual for businesses to come to us with an idea on a napkin and ask if we can help them make it happen,” says Christensen, a second-generation executive at the company. His father, James Christensen, started the company in 1972 as a steel fabricating company.

Today, the family-owned company has 260 employees in five divisions, offering services in prototyping, injection molding, electronic assembly and custom fabrication. Other services include labeling, metal stamping and package design. WPI produces parts and products in the medical, consumer products, furniture and OEM industries, among others.

Christensen knows that being in business for 40 years means doing more than just making a pretty and functional end product. “It’s all about relationships … not being a vendor but an extension of the business,” he says. “As much as (prospective clients) are interviewing us, we’re interviewing them. We’re looking for customers that have a steady stream of product (to be made).

“We’ve just had really good partners to work with.”

One such partner is Sennco Solutions of Plainfield, Ill., which manufactures retail security systems. Jim Groth, Sennco’s vice president of operations, was not only happy in selecting a Midwest company, but he agrees that WPI’s culture of listening was exactly what they were looking for.

“These guys listened to what Sennco was asking for, made some recommendations and highlighted any concerns about the product line we asked them to develop,” he says. “And if that wasn’t enough, being an American company with pricing that is competitive with overseas manufacturing made our decision easy.”

Creating an engineering and design culture, Christensen says, especially helped WPI after the recession of 2008 hit. While the recession undoubtedly had an impact on most businesses, he says, “It gave us a chance to reinvent how we bring things to market.”

WPI does more than just fabricate plastic; its design, engineering and production teams provide “a suite of offerings” to potential customers – including taking ideas from rudimentary sketches to working prototypes to using 3D printing to further enhance models to production, quality control and distribution. While most of their business is in plastics, about 20 percent of WPI’s business remains in its roots of steel fabricating.

“It’s difficult to be in manufacturing right now,” says Christensen, with much competition, both overseas and locally, in injection molding. But knowing where you’ve been and where you are going can provide a helpful roadmap. “You have to reinvest to reinvent,” Christensen says.

WPI has done just that; at its Valley Plating & Fabricating division, it recently expanded into a new building, adding 18,000 square feet and a 40-ton lifting capacity, allowing for the fabrications of larger products. It also spent about $500,000 on four injection molding machines for its Modern Plastics division.

After weathering the recession, WPI has seen steady growth. “Even through 2009 we were in an upswing,” Christensen says.

He notes that WPI has seen revenues grow every year for the last three years – with the goal of growing at least 15 percent each year.