Plastic passions

Nicolet Plastics embraces its rustic settings while growing into a global supplier of injection-molded plastic components

Posted on May 30, 2018 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

If location is truly everything, then John Ogorek might just have it all.

As the CEO of Mountain-based Nicolet Plastics, Ogorek’s daily commute begins just west of Crivitz before crossing into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest on the way to the company’s headquarters on Wisconsin Highway 32.

On the way, he’s likely to encounter more deer than other motorists, and the 20-minutes-plus drive time certainly beats the commutes he made while working for manufacturers based in larger cities such as suburban Minneapolis, where the daily drive could be three times as long to cover a third the mileage.

It’s a Northwoods lifestyle he has grown to embrace.

“For many people, they have to drive hours to get here in order to start their vacation,” Ogorek says. “Here, you just walk out the door and you are on vacation.”

But don’t let the bucolic location and folksy attitude fool you. Once clear of the tree line and within the walls of Nicolet Plastics’ building, a modern manufacturing facility packed with multiple lines of plastic injection mold presses cranking out parts for clients around the world greets you.

Packed almost to bursting with equipment and raw materials, and bustling with activity, Nicolet Plastics has doubled its sales in the past five years to $15 million and has plans to double again within the next five. Drawing on its toolmaking past and that ability to create solutions, the company developed an innovative program to educate clients on its custom-design and production processes, as well as attract and retain the workforce necessary to execute its business plans.

Those programs have brought plenty of attention to the Northwoods. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce presented Nicolet Plastics with a 2017 Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year award in the small business category, and the company won a 2016 Insight Innovation Award in the People category for its innovative training programs.

“It’s really a testament to the dedicated team we have here,” Ogorek says. “People are here because they love it and want to be here. It shows.”

Meeting customers’ demands

What is now Nicolet Plastics got its start in the mid 1970s as Hand, Tool and Engineering making tools and molds for plastic injection molding presses. In the mid ’80s, the company created its own plastics division and spun it off as Nicolet Plastics. The plastics operation eventually became the larger of the companies, and the two operations came back together as Nicolet Plastics during the 1990s.

That toolmaking shop is still there and plays a key role in creating, maintaining and storing client molding tools to create plastic parts on one of Nicolet’s 19 presses.

Nicolet doesn’t necessarily make a recognizable product of its own. Instead, it makes pieces and components that go into assembled products other companies make and market. It is a global vendor of choice and supplies components to many well-known companies and products.

Perhaps the best way to put it is if you’ve flown on an airplane, flushed a toilet, had an MRI or hoisted a craft beer, you’ve probably experienced something produced in Nicolet Plastics’ 41,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

“We have probably been working with them for 10 to 15 years,” says Martin Stenson, portable power material coordinator for Miller Electric. “We are always looking at leveraging our key suppliers, building on those relationships and building on that for upcoming opportunities. We have pretty extensive supplier requirements and they are always able to check off all the boxes. They are very responsive. The people at Nicolet Plastics are great to work with and are very easy to connect with on both a professional and personal level.”

While Nicolet’s surroundings may be a paradise, the business experience hasn’t always been one.

Much of the success the company has experienced the past five years is a result of deliberate decisions the company made during a difficult cycle for the industry, and Nicolet in particular. Prior to 2010, Nicolet Plastics was struggling with debt, high inventories and what has been described as the “Amazon effect” taking hold over manufacturing.

The “Amazon effect” is the change the consumer products giant has brought to customer expectations. As people have become used to ordering something in any size, shape and color from Amazon and having it delivered within a day or two, those same expectations have crept into the demands made on manufacturers.

It’s not always that easy. For companies such as Nicolet, a new customer requires new tooling molds to be made and plastics to be formulated so the component produced will perform as expected. Those types of expectations and the realities don’t always mesh well.

Yet, Nicolet embraces the challenge.

In 2010, the company incorporated the principles of Quick Response Manufacturing, or QRM, and created its own “Fast, Fluid and Flexible” approach to meeting customer demands and expectations. The company also invested heavily in automation on the shop floor and launched innovative programs to train its workforce and educate its customers.

A subtler move saw a shift in business focus to low- and moderate-volume orders, which allowed for greater customization in materials and product mix and provided additional subassembly or value-added capabilities.

“They are very responsive to our needs for new designs and new product launches. They work really well with our engineering team,” Miller Electric’s Stenson says. “It’s the people they get and how dedicated they are to the business, the customers and the quality of the product. When you walk through the plant, the employees are really engaged. That speaks volumes about the level of quality that comes from that business.”

As the economy came roaring back, so did Nicolet Plastics. In addition to financial growth, it has added several new presses to now run 19 different lines, undergone two renovations of the shop floor since 2014 with another renovation/expansion under consideration and seen better retention and growth in its workforce of nearly 100 employees.

The company’s cross-team approach enables Nicolet to offer lead times of as few as seven days for new customers. In its front office, engineers, sales reps and other production leaders often can be seen huddled together working to turn around quotes for prospects. 

“We try to create an environment where folks can jump in and be collaborative, so we get the fastest response possible to those inquiries,” says engineering manager Eric Derner. “We’ve been able to get quotes out in an hour.”

While the combination of those factors helped Nicolet pivot and power the company’s performance during the past few years, two areas recognized both within and outside the industry have proven key to that success: employee training and customer education.

Welcome to the skills matrix

Although Nicolet is in the heart of a vacation destination that appeals to a certain lifestyle, creating an outstanding workplace filled with knowledgeable and skilled employees doesn’t just happen by attraction and circumstance.

An important tenet of QRM is a cross-trained workforce. Nicolet created a matrix of skills — both soft skills and technical — needed at every position at every level. The leadership team and employees worked to define those skills simply, so they were easily understood, then evaluated what combination of skills was needed for every job.

Employees are evaluated regularly in the skills needed for their position, as well as the skills needed to move into other positions. Training can be customized to ensure each shift has the proper skill sets available to address shortcomings or to prepare folks to move up.

The program is a crucial factor in getting a high level of employee buy-in to not just make Nicolet Plastics run better, but to improve manufacturing as an industry, Ogorek says.

“If all a person is looking for is a good job, we can accommodate that, but if they are looking to build a really interesting career, we can give them the skills and tools to accomplish that as well,” he says.

The company’s embrace of technology even extends to its training materials with video and online modules delivering relevant content and in-house mentors working to reinforce it.

“We do have a pretty unique set of tools we use,” says Lisa Pichotta, Nicolet’s human resources manager. “We will even give them a quiz to find the best way they learn. We want them to be successful on day one.”

The skills matrix plays a vital role in talent training and attraction, but just as important is the work the human resources team puts into building relationships throughout the community that can be leveraged in the recruiting process. While Nicolet has pretty good success attracting and landing targeted talent, the location can be a tougher sell to trailing spouses and families.

Educating customers

While it’s said you can’t outdo yourself, Nicolet Plastics certainly has given it a try with its companion customer education program, affectionately known as Nicolet Plastics University.

Designed for client buyers and engineers, the program brings those folks to Nicolet’s production facility for an up-close primer on plastic injection molding, from conceptualization to mold design to materials and finally, the manufacturing process itself.

By providing knowledge and transparency of the process, Nicolet has created informed customers. While those customers could take that knowledge to order with another vendor, they have instead become loyal and use that knowledge and relationship to get their components produced faster and with greater quality.

“Our job is to educate them on everything from the tooling to the materials to our process. It’s been really well-received,” says Doug Baril, vice president of engineering services for Nicolet. “We bring them right into the plant. In the end, it’s that human interaction and understanding that is important. We have a really high close rate with folks once we get them in.”

About 300 engineers, buyers and others from more than 30 companies have experienced NPU, including some who have taken it a second time as a refresher course to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date.

The employee training programs and NPU are perhaps the best-known pieces of a broad portfolio of programs and practices Nicolet uses to maintain quality and to continually improve its performance. Some of the others are quite simple, but no less effective.

The storyboard, for example. While the concept might be more readily understood in terms of illustrating a commercial, movie or ad campaign, Nicolet uses a storyboard to tell the story of every part it makes for a client.

The boards show what the part should look like at each step of the process and include problem areas to watch for. With one quick glance, operators on the floor can immediately judge if there are problems with a run and take corrective action.

It’s also a crucial step in Nicolet’s management of the shop floor. With all its presses largely automated, Nicolet can run a smaller crew of cross-trained and empowered employees to keep its lines running at maximum capacity. The company has harnessed big data and the internet of things to create digital dashboards showing each press’ status, where it’s at in the run and if any problems are developing.

Operators can manage multiple lines, and the maintenance team can intervene in a timely fashion.

Of course, for each challenge resolved, a new one presents itself. For Nicolet, the new challenge is how to accommodate increased demand and growth. Ogorek and his team have been wrestling with that issue and have engaged an outside consultant to help them examine issues such as building a new facility or expanding the existing building and what that could mean for production and the workforce.

A decision is coming soon, Ogorek says.

“We are just out of room,” he says. “It’s a good problem to have, I know, but we just want to make sure we do it right, so we can keep our momentum going.”