Hitting higher targets with Arrowhead

203

MUNCIE, Indiana — When you visit Arrowhead Plastic Engineering’s website, you find an impressive array of names the company has done business with.

DuPont. John Deere. Caterpillar. Kenworth. Volvo. Ingersoll-Rand. If you’re known by the company you keep, Arrowhead keeps very good company.

When you ask sales engineering manager Mark Kishel what the company is working on now, though, you get a laugh.

“The recession forced us to be lean. It forced us to focus our efforts on what we do well. It forced us to become more efficient, more innovative.”

“As a company that does vacuum thermoforming, we have a lot of inventors, a lot of startups, who want us to develop their product,” he said. “We help with the design and keep it under wraps until launch. I love it because we’re working on some really cutting-edge stuff. I just can’t talk about much of it.”

Arrowhead Plastic Engineering was started in Muncie in 1972 by Mark’s father, Tom, who is its president and CEO. It actually has two distinct outreaches: thermoforming in Eaton, Indiana; and fiberglass and composite molding in Muncie, 12 miles south.

The divisions see some industry crossover. Thermoforming serves mostly the heavy-truck and bus industry, with contracts in material handling and in the agricultural, construction and pool industries. Kishel is especially excited about some leisure products that are being converted for medial therapy use … but he can’t talk about it.

Agriculture is the staple for fiberglass seating, and Arrowhead is branching into structures — buildings made from composite materials.

“Both sides of the business are growing,” Kishel said. “We’ve continued to add space, but it seems as soon as we add the space, we just fill it up.”

Of course, this is a good problem to have just a few years removed from the Great Recession. Arrowhead used to have fiberglass operations in Alabama and Georgia, but the company sold off some to get through the downturn.

“My father was travelling south, running those plants while still running these, and it just got to be too expensive when times were tight. We closed those things down and shipped the work up here.”

The lessons learned then are helping fuel the company’s growth.

“The recession forced us to be lean. It forced us to focus our efforts on what we do well. It forced us to become more efficient, more innovative. To cut corners without sacrificing quality. It was a rough learning lesson.”

Arrowhead takes pride in helping a variety of companies develop new ideas.

“We have the ability to make our own CAD models, to cut our own patterns, mold our own parts. We have a lot of advantages other companies don’t have,” Kishel said. “Because we can do plastic and fiberglass, we can form a plastic skin and rigidize the back with fiberglass.”

The company is also exploring developing more proprietary products. It already does several, including a dry box that goes on the back of TruGreen trucks and the plastic turtles you see on Midwestern playgrounds.

“Right now, our current customers take precedence. We have some very demanding customers that are dealing with very large, very well-known companies in several industries. The bigger they are, the more they can push you around. It’s working well for us, but our hands definitely are full.”

Arrowhead employs more than 75 people. But its biggest problem is the same one faced by many manufacturers: It has the expertise and equipment to grow, just not enough workers on the floor.

“We used to think it’s a money issue, that we couldn’t pay as much as the Caterpillar subsidiary up the road, but we’re hearing that they are having the same issue,” Kishel said. “We have all the necessary benefits, 401(k), health insurance, paid vacation. How we try to sell it to potential employees is that every day here you’re doing something different. You can see our stuff in different movies. We have stuff on RVs and playgrounds and in Planet Hollywood. Being part of the innovative process is neat.”

Arrowhead also has taken the necessary steps to make sure it doesn’t skip a beat when the company founder turns it over to a new generation.

“This is my father’s baby. He’ll be involved until he’s on his deathbed.” Tom graduated from General Motors Institute of Technology (now Kettering University) and worked for GM for a year before deciding to launch his own company.

“He says he wants to back out more. He’s elevated a long-time employee”—Tony Randolph—“to operations manager. He’s assembled a core team that will take over when he begins backing out. But I don’t ever see him saying ‘I’m done with this’.”

Featured company: Arrowhead Plastics Engineering
Address: 1155 N Hartford St. Eaton, IN 47338
Website: www.arrowheadinc.com
Employees: 75
Capabilities: Company provides CAD services, contract manufacturing, design assistance, 5-axis CNC routing, and product assembly in the fiberglass and thermoformed plastic industries.