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What Would You Do with an Extra Week of Time, Compliments of Nicolet Plastics

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“Change is a way of life. It is an opportunity, not a threat,” says Bob MacIntosh, CEO of Nicolet Plastics Inc., a small plastic-injection molder nestled in Northern Wisconsin’s Nicolet Forest.

Openness to change enabled MacIntosh, along with key player CFO Joyce Warnacut, to seize new opportunities in a foundering economy. With employee cooperation and support, they have transformed Nicolet from a firm struggling to adapt to a changing economic landscape to an enterprise that has emerged thriving, with the financial metrics to prove it.

“In 2009, some industry trends in plastics reflected the trend of major multinational firms: increasingly moving production offshore to get away from rising costs at home,” MacIntosh says.

Storing tools and dies adjacent to presses on the mezzanine level of the plant.Companies producing high-volume, minimally complex plastic-injection molded parts were able to reduce overall costs by capitalizing on the low wage rates of an abundant overseas labor force. But low- to moderate-volume plastics companies were unable to take advantage of the overseas shift, party because of shipping time and costs, and partly because offshore workers lacked the technical skills to create products as complex as those Nicolet was manufacturing.

“I knew our business was complex,” he confirms. “We had hundreds of tools, hundreds of material and color combinations. We accepted practically ever order that came our way. We took every opportunity to build a tool, just to keep our guys busy. I sensed that if we could control our complexity, we would be unique in the marketplace.”

Sales dropped by 36 percent in 2009, forcing deliberation about a change of direction. “We began to realize that in order to remain competitive in that environment, we’d have to exploit our strengths and turn weakness into opportunity,” MacIntosh says.

Manufacturing complex injection-molded parts requires sophisticated scheduling practices, efficient material management and a skilled workforce. In hindsight, MacIntosh says, “Rather than focusing on keeping busy, we should have been evaluating our equipment and ERP system; our labor, training, and workforce-development practices.”

“And we should have been paying closer attention to our customer base,” he adds. “It had not occurred to us that we maybe shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. We needed to be more selective, deciding on our ideal market, and then working hard to better serve a smaller number of customers.”

MacIntosh began searching for manufacturing philosophies that supported the needs of Nicolet’s low-volume, high-mix manufacturing niche.

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