This article first appeared in IMPO's August 2013 issue.
An injured master mechanic, L.A. Blackwell fished to support his family. One of the most successful fisherman in the Houston area at the time, he didn’t use nets to make his catch, but instead, a rod and reel. And at the end of the line was a slip cork insert, which he invented, that enabled him to easily cast a float into deep water and fish near the bottom. He began selling this fishing tool, and became so successful that he couldn’t keep up with demand by producing wooden parts on a South Bend lathe. So, in 1939 – and inspired by a plastic toothbrush – he had a simple dream: To be able to produce a well-made, standard, plastic product.
He built his first injection molding machine by hand and Houston, TX became home to a leader in custom plastics injection molding and extrusion: Blackwell Plastics, Inc.
Building A Dream
Today, Jeff Applegate, president of Blackwell Plastics, says, “the thing I love about this business is everyday I’m working with a different industry, a different company, a different entrepreneur.”
Those looking back at the history of Blackwell Plastics and the history of the nation will see a parallel in their timelines. In the 1940s, the company was focused on producing products to support a nation in the midst of war and produced parts for the C130 military aircraft. The 1950s saw the return of U.S. veterans and the baby boom began. Blackwell Plastics produced products that reflected the economic boom: Nylon slides for venetian blinds, and the first plastic liner for Igloo water coolers that were common on industrial jobsites. Blackwell Plastics supported the space advancements of the 1960s, producing the plastic parts of the sensors that Alan Shepard wore on the Freedom 7 mission. During the 1960s, Blackwell Plastics manufactured the first disposable plastic tools used in open heart surgery. The Weed Eater was invented in the 1970s, and after trying to convince the inventor (George Ballas) that no one would ever want this silly tool, L.D. Blackwell (L.A. Blackwell’s son) created the first molds and Blackwell Plastics ended up producing over one million Weed Eaters. Houston saw entrepreneur Herb Allen create a $20 wine opener in the 80s, despite L.D. Blackwell’s insistence that people would still choose the $2 opener that was already available. Herb Allen subsequently gained worldwide recognition as the inventor of the Screw Pull, which is still popular today. In the 90s, Blackwell Plastics worked on the internal plastic components of the first portable Compaq computer. And a walk through the plant in 2013 can find the company producing iPad holders, ‘As Seen On TV’ products, and plastic faceplates for a frozen drink machine that is utilized by a national restaurant chain.
“We own no tools; we make no product,” explains Applegate. “We’re a contract manufacturer for other people. They bring their ideas to us.”
Working with so many diverse customers, some of which are major corporations, presents a unique dilemma for a custom plastics service company — the need to diversify. In the 1990s, Blackwell Plastics was very successful in molding highly specified valves for gas transmission valves for Phillips Driscopipe, and Phillips grew to be over 50 percent of Blackwell’s business. When Phillips merged with Chevron, its manufacturing moved to a Chevron-owned facility — a devastating blow to Blackwell. Today, Blackwell carefully manages the growth and concentration of its customers, and strives to produce plastics for a variety of industries. “We don’t target and that was by design,” Applegate says. Today, Blackwell Plastics’ top ten customers are in ten different industries and no single customer represents more then ten percent of the company’s revenues.
Part of the great aspect of working with a variety of businesses in the south central United States is the variety, Applegate says, and the ability to work with the entrepreneurs themselves. “They’re guys that have a vision; it’s their company,” he explains. “To have the ability to interact with the entrepreneur, to see their dream, to help them reach their dream — that’s what I love doing.”
Love What You Do
“Do what you love, love what you do,” he says. Every year, Blackwell Plastics follows a different theme — a theme that not only the business can follow, but also the people who are part of the business. “I try to take a look at the business from where we are and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Applegate explains. With last year’s theme of ‘do what you love, love what you do,’ he was trying to “build affection for the business – what we do.”
Another year, the theme was simply ‘Believe,’ in part because of the sheer number of contracts the company had to fulfill that year. “We just had so much work,” says Applegate, “so ‘believe’ you can do it.”
A previous theme of ‘Dream, build, create’ was based on a book that discussed tapping into individual dreams, and helping them accomplish that dream. “You care about their dream; you’re helping them aspire to their dream; then they will reciprocate,” explains Applegate. “It’s just a different management philosophy.” He set out to find out what Blackwell employees wanted to accomplish, both at Blackwell and outside of work. Some wanted to own a home, other wanted to put two kids through college, and yet another wanted to learn how to fly a plane. Applegate’s response: “How can I help you get there?”
“When people care for each other, they care for the customers and it all seems to work. The challenge is to get them to care for each other and that starts with ownership and management.” Applegate is on the plant floor daily and tries to have a personal relationship with every Blackwell employee. His door is always open, and when Blackwell employees aren’t working, they’re celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays or doing community service projects together. Pumpkin carving and costume contests are a part of every Halloween, and one past employee appreciation day was spent at a Houston Astros game.
“The culture was established by L.D. Blackwell and we seek to continue to follow in his footsteps,” says Applegate.
“Let’s have a little fun; let’s build some cool stuff; let’s work with some great entrepreneurs.”