FuzeHub’s NYS Manufacturing Now podcast interviewed Brett Pennefeather from Eck Plastics Products, a full-service injection molding, thermoforming, fabrication, and product finishing company. Eck Plastic Arts is located in Binghamton, NY and produces quality plastic parts for original equipment manufacturers.
Steve Malito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Malito. Welcome. And today we are speaking with Brett Pennefeather from Eck Plastics Products. Brett, how are you?
Brett Pennefeather: I’m doing well. Doing really well, thank you.
Steve Malito: Fantastic. So listen, what is the Eck Plastics story, and who’s Eck?
Brett Pennefeather: Eck? Eck is actually Bob Eck or Robert Eck. We bought the business from him back in 2016, but Eck Plastic Arts, they are a manufacturer or we basically make other people stuff for them. We’re a job shop, so we make custom plastic parts for industrial equipment manufacturers and we do it by way of injection molding, vacuum forming and fabrication of sheet plastics. Those are the three main things that we do. We have ad- ons like pad print or light duty assembly, stuff like that. Take it to the next level. But that’s pretty much it. But like I said, we bought this about four years ago. Bob Eck actually had started this, or his father started it in 1946. It’s been around quite a while. It’s a good successful business. It’s been a great mom- and- pop shop and we’re trying to take that to the next level.
Steve Malito: So vacuum forming, plastic fabrication. I heard you mention pad printing as well.
Brett Pennefeather: Yeah, we little pad print on the parts. So there’s basically three ways that we process plastics. So it’s injection molding. So you take the little granulars plastic and you just shoot it into a mold, at least in its simplest form. It’s a little more complicated than that. Vacuum forming, you take a sheet stock, you heat it up and then you pull that over a mold and then fabricate sheet stock. So we’ll just route, cut, bend, sheet stock, sheet plastics and then the pad printing and just printing onto and light duty assembly. Because a lot of times, like one of our customers, so some of our biggest customers like BAE and Raymond, they’ll want more of a complete part than just what comes out of the mold. They want it part marked or you make the document pouches. They go on all the Raymond Fork trucks. They actually need the sticker that says, ” Reach out to your dealer if you’re missing a document pouch” on there. Or they’ll literally says, ” Operators manual”, those types of sticker stuff like that. We just take it to the next level part number for them and then ship it.
Steve Malito: Is Eck unusual in the fact that it does these multiple methods of plastics fabrication? I usually talk to companies, they just do injection molding, they just do thermal forming.
Brett Pennefeather: That does actually make us pretty unique. It’s something considered to be one of our competitive advantages because a lot of times most things that can be vacuum formed can be injection molded and vice versa. And that actually gives us the ability to be able to make suggestions to our customers in a way that can help them win. ‘Cause the truth is all they really want is a part that’s going to work and look the way they want it to look at the lowest cost for the entire project. And sometimes even just by switching the way you make it, you can save them a small fortune. It really is a true competitive advantage we have and it is somewhat unique that we do all of that.
Steve Malito: Now you talk about plastics as if you’ve been in the industry forever, but I know that you haven’t been. What did you do before you got into this?
Brett Pennefeather: So I have a background in finance. I started out selling mortgages and then got a taste of… I actually owned a mortgage brokerage but did a few commercial deals, got a taste for that, a true appreciation for the business to business sales and went on to M& T Bank. I was a commercial lender for M& T for six years and basically I banked midsize companies, so companies that did $ 10 million in revenue or greater and larger real estate transactions. But I basically had 45 case studies, basically my customers of what they should and shouldn’t be doing and learning my way around and from there it was… So it seems a lot different than what it is that what I’m doing now, but the truth is what Eck was missing is being a great mom- and- pop shop was the financial end of it. Someone to be able to make decisions, not based on feels like this is a good opportunity, but really to be able to break it down and measure it and figure out, nope, this makes great sense for the business or what, this is just something that it may look great but it’s just not going to help the business grow. It’s going to be a lot of work for nothing. And it’s been able to bring that to the table.
Steve Malito: Good.
Brett Pennefeather: It’s actually unique as you say that, the truth is that being somewhat inexperience in the manufacturing end, I think has actually been something that helped us be successful, because the business came with a very strong management team. Three people. I have a controller, a production manager, and a project manager. And those three, I’ve been learning from them on the manufacturing side, but I also let them do their job. But then I’ve also doing the finance, then gave them a whole nother way to look at things. We answered things that we’ve come up to the solutions, we come up with they are actually pretty good.
Steve Malito: So if we went back say 10 years, would you have predicted that you’d be in manufacturing or maybe even 20 years back?
Brett Pennefeather: No, not at all. The bank they took me, they sent me away for training to go learn how to finance a leverage buyout of a business. So they basically trained me how to quit my job because we did a leverage buyout of that classic cards. And from there though, it’s something I thought I probably would’ve been getting into more so is actually just working in mergers and acquisitions of companies. ‘Cause that part of this, it’s a lot of fun. But the big thing that I really love is that the business to business sales and where it being more so consultative, we’re working with people to help them find solutions and win. So that was something that my job always was in banking and then it got out of after the crisis due to Dodd- Frank, it was more so just analytics, making sure you’re not going to lose. And I was happy to get away from that, but I didn’t think it was going to be literally running a job shop, no. Absolutely love it though. I will say that.
Steve Malito: How many folks work there? Is it a small place?
Brett Pennefeather: It is. We bought it, we started with 14 and we’re up to 23 now. So we’ve been growing pretty good. Yeah, still a small shop.
Steve Malito: Where do you see the growth? Are there certain kinds of jobs or certain markets?
Brett Pennefeather: A little bit. The market that we’re in is enormous. So us being the size that we are, we’re truly just a peanut, we’re tiny. And where we’re seeing the growth is basically those three things. So when I came in the company was set up and it had a history of just going in any direction that it seems like there was an opportunity. I’ve weed it down to just those three things that I talked about, injection molding, vacuum forming and fabrication. Because constantly trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s not healthy and it’s actually an impotent though to growth. The idea is, so this is what we do. Basic blocking and tackling. We’re just going to focus on these three things that we know that we are extremely good at and we’re going to go out and sell it and we’re going to focus and push hard. And it’s been happening. The employees are up 50%, the company has grown 36% in the past three years. We’re moving in the right direction. The opportunity’s always been there. Just we need to focus on what we were good at.
Steve Malito: So you’re heavily focused on that. You’ve got some customers that you mentioned earlier, some names that some folks might recognize. What are some successes that the company has had?
Brett Pennefeather: Some successes?
Steve Malito: Yes.
Brett Pennefeather: Well we have been good at bringing out additional work to the point that, I mean right now, in the midst of all the Covid- 19 stuff, we actually have pretty good renovations going on, continuing to expand. It all started back with, we spent all that time figure out exactly who we were, defining the processes so we can get them solidified and the ways that we move through. So we’re POIs for growth, then building a sales team and sales process to go out there and push that. And then now that’s all actually happening. So we’re winning and we’re actually even bringing in. For a long time, Eck had its main customers, had been phenomenal at servicing them. And our quality and delivery scores are, they’re usually right around 99.9 in change and we’re there for them. And so there’s no jeopardy of losing those customers. But at the same time we weren’t really picking up new ones. Now we are. And because of that we’ve been buying equipment, we’ve been doing major renovations in order to facilitate equipment and increase capacity. And then if everything went smooth, we would’ve been hiring again here probably in the next month. And that is going to come back. The work’s still there, it’s just unfortunately it’s a deferment while we work through all this. But yeah, the success has really just been watching my team just step up and do exactly what’s supposed to be doing and go ahead and move it and need it. We’ve literally gone up to 33% in just a few years, the growth and still are not missing shipments or having issues. We’re positioned well for it and for additional growth as well.
Steve Malito: Do you have a lot of longtime team members or have you hired some new folks since you came on board that worked closely with you every day?
Brett Pennefeather: So my core staff, the team, the management team, there’s been no turnover. I think out of the three of them, the one with the least amount of tenure has been here for 14, maybe 16 years, something like that. Been here for a while, all the way up to 23. So out of the senior management here at Eck Plastics, I’m the newbie and we have hired a couple more people that report directly to me. We have had turnover, some attrition at the operator level. I think that can be relatively consistent with the industry, unfortunately that just happens. But we do have a pretty phenomenal team. Especially right now. It took a little bit to get there, but the guys that I have here, they all care. They all come and they work hard and it makes a difference. There’s not a whole lot of turnover right now.
Steve Malito: And you mentioned some new equipment, is there anything that you want to show off, any equipment that you want to talk about, let people know that you have it?
Brett Pennefeather: I have a thousand ton injection molding machine coming up. So it’s all the same stuff that we’ve always had, but now we can do big parts, significantly larger parts. In fact, it’s probably the largest press in Broome County, I’m pretty sure it is. And yeah, we can do much larger parts now with a thousand ton press coming. Hits the New York City port on May 5th and it’ll be getting installed over the next two weeks after that.
Steve Malito: So what are some examples of large plastic injection molded parts? What are some things you’re going to use this new equipment for?
Brett Pennefeather: Well, one thing we’re going to be doing, it’s actually, it’s a lot of fun from why I said it’s a deferment. So in base, we picked up a customer this year, he has a patent on a souvenir beer glass for a 22 ounce beer. It is shaped like a baseball bat. So he owns the intellectual property to that. It is his bat, we’re going to be manufacturing it for him. So this bat is actually, it’s a pretty neat product, but we’re going to be able to make four of it one time. You work in injection mold and you work with a lot of pressure. So just to make it real simple, if you use a 10 by 10 square, that’s a hundred square inches. And if we inject a 2200 psi, well that’s 220, 000 psi that’s trying to force that mold open. So if I have a thousand ton press, I can do much, much larger parts. So anything that’s covers, guards, anything that’s really injection molded, I’m not going to have a whole lot of limitations when it comes to that. Now we can do much larger parts.
Steve Malito: Are there any plastics that you, I don’t want to say specialize in, but maybe do more than others?
Brett Pennefeather: We run a tremendous amount of Alocs, polypropylene, we do a lot of nylon polycarbonate and really, we’ll run anything except for PVC. PVC that stands for polyvinyl chloride, the chlorine off gases when you’re processing it and my equipment and also just for the safety of my guys, I don’t want that in my shop. But the rest of it, it’s safe to run and there’s not really much we have in limitations there.
Steve Malito: Great. Do you work with any startup companies ever or are they typically established manufacturers?
Brett Pennefeather: We have worked with startups, we definitely end up to work for startups. We’re always happy to help with that. And it’s tricky though because with the startups, the truth is that a lot of these things like injection molding in particular, and that’s actually where it comes into handy that we have three different processes here, because a lot of times a startup… To buy an injection mold it could cost anywhere is from six to million dollars for a mold, depending on what’s it that you’re looking for. So if you’re in a startup and you’re still usually trying to test the market a little bit to find out if that’s something that you, or there’s going to be changes, version 2. 0 could end up coming out rather quickly. So an injection molding, you end up spending that money on a mold, say $ 6, 000 and then you end up finding 2, 000 parts in that, oh I got to change this, this isn’t working well. You’ve made all that investment in tooling and you may not have gotten the ROI you wanted. Or maybe I could have built the vacuum forming mold for $1, 500, still got you your part. Each piece would’ve cost a little bit more of which you would’ve managed your risk, learn something and then actually then work your way into more of the mass reduction tool, which is injection molding. ‘Cause then you get your very small piece price but you know that it works and it’s where you want to go with it. And then even stepping back before that too, we have the ability to machine it even so to have any tooling price to getting just for prototype or fit and function. So Steve, we are set up well for doing that and we’re happy to do it. It’s just usually, what I snicker a little in the beginning, so when a startup comes to us, they come to us, ” Okay, I’m ready to buy a mold”. And that’s not always the case. “Okay, well let’s talk about your process, let’s talk about your part and we’re going to work our way through this”. So yes we can.
Steve Malito: Okay, good. That’s good. A really great point about vacuum forming versus injection molding on the tooling costs. And I don’t think a lot of people even know about vacuum forming. They just think it’s all injection molding and it’s not. What about 3D printing? Any plans to go into that area?
Brett Pennefeather: Oh, I do have a 3D printer here. Somebody wants to buy it, they can. It’s iconic, the PolyJet. It’s relatively expensive to run but we do buy an awful lot of 3D printed parts. So my goal is actually to sell that one and buy another, more of an FDM printer where it’s lower cost for operations. And the reason why is because it’s just like you were talking about the prototyping. So basically it’s great for prototyping, you fit, form and make sure it’s going to fit into what you want it to fit into. Functions a little tricky because no 3D printed part will ever be like a molded part. So still, it’s a great tool. I actually have no desire though to get into becoming a 3D printing house. At least not at this point. Right now we’re seeing enough opportunities and enough growth and those three main things that we focus on and we’re just going to stick to that for now.
Steve Malito: Sure. Where do you think the company will be in five years? You think you’re going to do an expansion or need more space or just what are your overall thoughts?
Brett Pennefeather: In five years I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to move. I’m running out of room in this facility. We’ve been buying a machine, doing pretty large capital investments at least every year and a half at this point. So to keep going in that path then we’re going to be looking to probably move someplace else here in the Binghamton area because we do have a lot of limitations of this building. I need higher ceilings and more square footage, but we probably will end up having to grow. Also, hopefully end up buying another company along the way too, so it’d be good to have them both.
Steve Malito: That’s good. So if you do an acquisition, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for or you have to keep it all close hold?
Brett Pennefeather: It’d probably be like an add- on or something complimentary to what we’re doing here. ‘Cause I’d rather not have it be, again, pulled in every single direction. So it’d either be, you buy another shop that does similar stuff to what we do. So you buy a book of business or you just buy something that’s similar where you’re still same sales strategy. We’re service providers, we’re a manufacturer, but I have no intellectual ownership in anything that we make. We literally just process plastics into other people’s parts for them. I can’t sell them to anyone except for them. Raymond’s pulley are Raymond’s pulley and no one else’s, but things like silicones or maybe even a metal shop, something along those lines. That’s something that’s getting into or to buy another shop that actually does mold building because that is something else that we’re going to have to start working on relatively soon. I’m going to start building our own molds here.
Steve Malito: Sure. You do any medical right now? Is that a area of interest?
Brett Pennefeather: We do. We do. We don’t have the designations to be doing anything that really goes like in anybody. We don’t have a clean room or anything, but we do make a lot of bezels and housings and covers and windows and guards that go on medical equipment. And I do see that continuing to grow. That’s one part of the industry in molding where it seems to be a lot of growth, it’s in the medical field. At least where it stays in the United States because there’s a lot of stuff like the high volume consumer guards, all get shipped overseas to Asia, especially electronics where here a lot of molding is still done for medical here in the United States, especially in the northeast.
Steve Malito: Have you ever worked on any projects where they’ve replaced a metal part with a plastic one?
Brett Pennefeather: Yeah, a lot of them. And actually where the customer gets the biggest win is where they take four metal parts and you combine it into one plastic part. They save a small fortune for doing it. That is very common to see.
Steve Malito: Good. So listen, any last words, any points you’d like to reemphasize or anything else you’d like people to know about Eck Plastic Arts?
Brett Pennefeather: No, if you do the commercial, it can literally just say that we’re a BAE supplier of the year in 2018 ’cause our quality and delivery was that high. So same standards of quality delivery goes right to all of our customers. We’re almost never late, we’re pretty much meeting Six Sigma at this point as far as quality and delivery and of course, continue growing. And we’d love to take a look at any project anybody has. And the very least like to think when people come to us, they walk away with some value, even if it’s not their parts, they know where to go to get them and what they need to do to make it work.
Steve Malito: Fantastic. So we’ve been talking with Brett Pennefeather, Eck Plastics Art. Brett, thank you for being on New York State Manufacturing Now.
Brett Pennefeather: Steve, thanks for having me.
Steve Malito: You got it. So listen, before I sign off here, just want to remind you that if you are a New York state manufacturer and inventor or entrepreneur, you’re looking for business or technical assistance, maybe you’re that startup that’s looking for a connection to a manufacturer that will work with you. Maybe you’re an established manufacturer looking to scale up, whatever your manufacturing need is, there’s FuzeHub. How to find us, go on the web, fuzehub. com. Once you get there, look at the Menus, solutions program, and then look for a link to ask for a manufacturing consultation. And when you submit that form, that’ll lead to a conversation that you and I will have about what you need and what’s out there in terms of resources that can help you to grow. So again, on behalf of FuzeHub and New York State Manufacturing Now, I’m Steve Malito signing off.