Plastics News Publisher Brennan Lafferty spoke with Sussex IM CEO Keith Everson about the company’s in-mold labeling expertise, its unexpected growth in 2020, it’s new cleanroom and more for the “What Keeps You Up at Night?” podcast, available online at plasticsnews.com/audio. This is an edited version of the podcast.
Q: This used to be such a throwaway question, but it takes on ever more meaning today. How are you, and how is everyone’s health at Sussex IM?
Everson: We’re all doing great. We had a very challenging year in 2020, and we’re looking forward to 2021. We’re an essential supplier for a lot of our customers. So 2020 was quite interesting.
Q: All right, give me the elevator speech about Sussex, meaning how many square feet of manufacturing space do you have, how many presses are you running, what are you major end markets?
Everson: We have two facilities in Sussex, in total about 280,000 square feet. We have 500 employees. We are in the health and hygiene market [and] residential construction. We have a brand-new clean room that we just built this year. So we have a number of very diverse markets, we have 65 injection molding machines and we have two blow molding machines. I would say our business is a little bit different than other injection molders in North America. We do a lot of post-molding decorating and in-mold decoration for certain customers. They want us to be a little bit more of a full-service supplier, vs just making parts and putting them in the box.
Being an essential supplier like we are, we actually had quite a bit of growth in 2020.
Q: Can we talk a little bit more about 2020?
Everson: When we started 2020, we were kind of forecasting a flat year. COVID hits, and you can just basically tear up any plans that you had and put in the wastebasket.
Our No. 1 concern at that point in time was the health and safety of our employees. We did like everybody else did: We did barriers, temperature checking, you can’t come to work if you’re sick…. I mean all the stuff. And we were very fortunate that of our 500 employees, we never had anybody on our staff go to the hospital with COVID. And I think that’s our greatest accomplishment.
One of our customers is the No. 1 hand sanitizer company in the world and we make all the wall-mounted dispensers. So can you image how busy we became? We really felt like we were part of the solution to slow down the COVID spread. So it was very satisfying.
Q: Did you have that business prior to the pandemic?
Everson: Eleven years ago, all of that business was made in China. This was when H1N1 happened, and they lost market share because they could not get this product out of Asia fast enough. So they made a decision to re-shore it to the United States. We were fortunate enough to be the company to do that. We’ve innovated with them and we’ve expanded their product lines. And now all of that is made here in the United States.
Q: That must be very satisfying. Let’s talk a little bit about that new cleanroom coming online. I know you guys are not afraid of a construction project. When will it be operational?
Everson: It’s done. It’s going through certification right now. We have a number of customers waiting to get in there.
We’ve had cleanrooms in our facility, but they were kind of the mobile type that go around the machine. But now we have the full-blown walk-in, and we can do things, we can do assemblies. So we’re looking forward to having a whole new client base, using that cleanroom.
Q: I see you launched late last year a new logo and a website. What are you trying to convey with that.
Everson: We wanted to basically get our brand out there: modern, innovative, sustainability, you know, because this is kind of the culture that we have here in the business.
Q: As the CEO, how do you manage uncertainty?
Everson: We’re in for the long game. We’re a privately held business. It’s going to stay private. We need to be thinking five years down the road. We’ll all get through this. We just have to make the turns at the corners and at the proper speed. We’re looking for growth this year. we’ve got a lot of excitement because a bunch of new customers are coming online. And if you just keep being 10 percent better than your competition, that’s all you have to do.
Q: When you do look back to last year, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from 2020?
Everson: How important culture is. If we did not have culture, I don’t know how we would have survived. Because if people are just not working together, people that are going in all different directions. I think it could have been a real mess.