Adapting to change

Akron Porcelain & Plastics Co. was chartered 110 years ago as the Akron Smoking Pipe Co. Now, in its third century, the company’s leaders are again seeking ways to update — and possibly change — the company’s focus.

Founded as a manufacturer of clay pipes (used for smoking tobacco), the Akron Smoking Pipe Co. monopolized its market, producing 83 percent of the clay pipes used in the United States at the time. By 1920, with the advent of electricity, the clay pipe product line was discontinued, and the company started manufacturing standard knobs, tubes and cleats used in the conversion of kerosene and gas to electric lighting. The company’s name was changed at the same time to The Mogadore Insulator Co.

In 1958, the company’s leaders saw an opportunity in plastics, noting that more and more ceramic products were being made out of plastic. George “Mike” Lewis, current president and CEO, started working at his family’s business just as that product line conversion was taking place.

“What really pushed us along was to see this thermosetting industry taking parts away from our ceramics business,” Lewis recalls. “It’s the old adage, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’”

In 1963, plastics sales made up only 3 percent of the company’s total sales. By 1965, that had increased to 15 percent, and the company slowly purchased more plastics manufacturing equipment and expanded the plant to keep up with demand. By 1976, the plastics division accounted for a third of the company’s total sales.

The plastics division grew as the demand for ceramics shrunk. In 1984, the company once again changed its name, this time to Akron Porcelain & Plastics Co. By 1986, plastics sales had exceeded ceramics for the first time in the company’s history.

Now with 200 employees at plants in Akron and Barberton, the company still manufactures ceramics and custom-molded plastic parts. Its plastics are manufactured in two families: thermoset (once the material is pressurized, a chemical reaction takes place and it can’t be remolded); and thermoplastics (plastics that melt every time they are heated).

Akron Porcelain & Plastics’ products include parts for electrical components and appliances, and parts for the automotive industry. Its primary product line is automotive ashtray assemblies, but Akron Porcelain & Plastics Co. may be about to enter another stage as fewer and fewer car companies include ashtrays as “standard” items in new cars.

Lewis says that as the company moves into its third century, additional product lines are being considered for the $18 million company to possibly replace the ashtray assemblies if demand for them goes the way of clay pipes.

“We’re looking for other niches where we can do the same type of molding, with value-added pieces,” he says.

Recently, the company has focused on assemblies that have many different parts, what Lewis calls “value-added.” Some of these components have up to 20 different parts, he says. Lewis is also seeking out new growth potential on the ceramics side.

Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN.