Month: July 2017

Port Erie Plastics

My visit to Port Erie Plastics, in Harborcreek Township, was a reminder of how prevalent plastics are in our daily lives.

I was sitting at a table talking with some of the company’s managers about the business when Jon Connole, the sales and marketing manager, suddenly took notice of my keychain.

“That’s one of ours,” he said.

It turns out, he was right. My keychain is from Erie’s Munio, and it was made right there in Harborcreek.

As we toured Port Erie Plastics, I saw more everyday items coming off the production lines: Christmas tree stands. Storage bins. Pill boxes.

In a room tucked away in a corner of the 300,000-square-foot facility, specialty items were being imprinted by a laser printer. This division handles products made for a company run by Jim Kelly, the Buffalo Bills legend.

The broad range of products, serving a variety of industries, bear out the plastics-driven future that founder Henry Witkowski foresaw when he launched the business in 1953.

The company has grown since its founding, moving from Erie’s east side to its current site in Harborcreek in 1966.

“We were the only thing out here then,” said William Witkowski, Henry’s son and the current owner and CEO.

The Harborcreek facility, which has steadily grown in the decades since, is ready for another expansion (more on that later), in order to accommodate the steady growth of business.

The company, which has hired more than 30 people in the past few weeks, is looking to hire about another 20, said John Johnson, the company’s president.

“It’s new customers and new products,” he said of Port Erie Plastics’ recent growth.

About Port Erie Plastics: The company, which started with one injection molding machine, now runs 90 machines and specializes in custom plastic injection molding.  The company also offers other services to customers, and runs its own in-house tool room and engineering facilities. The company has more than 400 employees, both in its main facility on the east side of Troupe Road and at its 275,000-square-foot warehousing facility, just a bit south on the west side of Troupe Road. The company has been in growth mode for the past 15 to 20 years, Johnson said, with an extra boost coming in the past several months.

Why Erie County:  The leadership team at Port Erie Plastics sees many positives in the quality of life that the community offers for workers. That includes community assets, recreational opportunities and a relatively easy commute. In addition, the company has seen the advantages of having Penn State Behrend’s  plastics engineering programs in their backyard. In fact, the Witkowski family joined with other Erie-area plastics companies to help initiate and develop the program at Behrend. As a result, Port Erie Plastics and other local plastics companies enjoy the benefits of Behrend-trained interns and employees.

Challenges of Erie County: While Port Erie Plastics is able to find workers for its plastics engineering positions, filling general employment positions remains a challenge. The company struggles to find qualified workers. As that demand for workers is only expected to increase in the next decade, Port Erie Plastics identified a need for more pathways to manufacturing jobs – whether in high school or through a community college. Another challenge of being located in Erie County is even more pressing, however: Port Erie Plastics has been frustrated by delays in getting a permit to add on to their existing facility. The plans originally called for work to begin in the spring; due to delays, now the company is worried about getting the work done before winter sets in.

Fun fact: The Witkowski Building, part of the Engineering Complex at Penn State Behrend, was named for William Witkowski.

Address: 909 Troupe Road, Harborcreek, PA 16421 or www.porterie.com.

E.A. Mundkowsky Finishing

Elsie Mundkowsky might not be a conventional finishing-shop owner, but she’s a textbook entrepreneur.

Mundkowsky is self-taught in both business and deburring work. Family photos and a granddaughter’s artwork adorn the walls of her West Springfield business, E.A. Mundkowsky Finishing.

But Mundkowsky’s story is one of a true entrepreneur.

In 1993, as a mother in her 40s, she was looking for some extra money. When her husband brought home some metal pieces that needed filing, she took on the challenge, setting up a station in their garage.

The work was new to her. At first, she says, she looked at those 2,000 pieces and cried. And then she picked up a hand file, figured out the process, and got to work.

“I fell in love with the work,” she says. “I fell in love with the challenges.”

That love – and a passion for the business – pushed her to expand. She used her $83 paycheck from that first filing job to purchase a machine to make the work easier.

She continued to take on work and invest in equipment, eventually outgrowing her garage. She purchased a neighboring plot of land and built a shop, then added on to that facility to accommodate growing orders.

Today, the work has slowed from its heyday in the early 2000s. Mundkowsky is ready to retire, and is interested in finding the right buyer who will build on the business that she is proud to have created.

“I’d like to be able to watch this place keep going from across the yard,” she says.

About E.A. Mundkowsky Finishing: The business specializes in deburring and secondary machining. As Mundkowsky explains, “We don’t make anything. We make it better.” In the shop, we watched as metal pieces were added to a large drum – like a giant washing machine, Mundkowsky said – and were agitated around in tiny ceramic pellets. When they emerged, they were put into a second drum to dry and then were ready to go, smooth and polished. Today, the work is done by Mundkowsky and her husband, down from a staff of about 15 when the shop was at its busiest.

Why Erie County: Mundkowsky sees a lot of benefit in the people of Erie County. “Most people are good people,” she says. And she credits a lot of those good people with helping her along the way as she created, and then expanded, her business.

Challenges of Erie County: Mundkowsky has experienced not just the struggles of running a small business, but the challenges of doing so as a woman. It hasn’t been easy to make a name for herself in a field normally dominated by men, she says.

Fun Fact: Elsie Mundkowsky’s shop is located on land that once was home to another woman-run enterprise. She purchased the land from the great-grandchildren of a woman who used to grow onions in that field.

Address: 14415 West RidgeRoad, West Springfield, PA  16443 or www.eamf.net.

A. Caplan Co.

Anyone who’s driven through Waterford on Route 19 is probably familiar with A. Caplan Co.’s slogan: “If you cook, stop and look!”

As Luke Caplan describes, the slogan was a spur-of-the-moment creation from his father, Aaron, who founded the business in 1981.

The slogan, which now graces the sign of the Waterford Township business, perfectly sums up the draw of the kitchenware store.

On the retail side, at least, the store has become almost a destination of sorts for at-home cooks, Luke Caplan says. In the storefront, all manner of kitchen gadgets and gizmos jockey for space. There are stacks of gleaming silver pots, rows of coordinating china, racks of spoons and spatulas for any purpose.  There is also a collection of vintage items, including quirky or collectible kitchen tools and serving pieces reminding shoppers of days gone by.

But the retail side only represents about half of what the business does. A. Caplan Co. also serves commercial kitchens, supplying equipment to restaurants, taverns, schools, clubs and churches. That equipment, which A. Caplan Co. sells both new and used, runs the gamut: Huge commercial ovens and refrigerators, stainless steel sinks for proper sanitation, other devices like rice cookers, bread slicers, mixers and meat grinders.

The business has evolved over the years into its current form, with the Caplans tacking on extra room as needs required. They’ve grown slowly but steadily over the years, Luke Caplan says – and that was the intention. “Dad never was in it to make a ton of money,” he says. “Just to make a living.”

Today, that living supports a second generation of Caplans – Luke and his brother, James, as well as 10 other dedicated employees – and has carved out a comfortable niche for itself in Erie County. Even so, the Caplans are cognizant of their main competition – the Internet – and have had to make their mark as a unique presence.

“We know we have to get out there and sell the experience,” Luke Caplan says, “and sell ourselves.”

About A. Caplan Co.: Aaron Caplan started his business in the former Dog N Suds, and the drive-in’s old awning remains. Today, the commercial side of the business serves customers in a fairly wide radius, serving customers as far south as Pittsburgh and delving into eastern Ohio and western New York. The retail side of the business has been bolstered by a nationwide trend of home cooking, evidenced by the variety of cooking shows and competitions. In addition to supplying equipment, the business offers services as well – including installing equipment, advising customers on kitchen layout, and even professional knife sharpening.

Why Erie County: A trend in Erie County to support locally owned restaurants has proved beneficial to A. Caplan Co., Luke Caplan says. In addition, A. Caplan Co. enjoys a good relationship with other restaurant equipment dealers in the county. “There’s a camaraderie” in their industry, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: As previously mentioned, one of A. Caplan Co.’s biggest challenges as a retailer is from the Internet, in the form of online shopping. However, the company also sees challenges here at home, particularly when it comes to attempts to expand the business. The company might have the resources to expand, but not necessarily the time or money to invest in the process – including permitting – that must be undertaken before the expansion can actually take place, Luke Caplan says. The obstacles can be disheartening, he says, for a company that is trying to grow.

Fun fact: Luke Caplan might just be destined to work in the restaurant supply business. His father’s parents were in the restaurant equipment business, long before his father opened A. Caplan Co. And his mother recently found a paper from his elementary school days that revealed his childhood hopes for this future. “It said, ‘When I grow up I want to sell restaurant equipment,’” Luke Caplan says with a laugh.

Address: 12607 U.S. Route 19, Waterford, PA 16441 or www.caplancookware.com.

Locust Grove Nursery

Greg Fuhrer tells a story that illustrates the deep roots of his family’s business, Locust Grove Nursery.

He was working in a field recently alongside son Doug, who also works at the nursery. “You realize,” he told his son, “that we’re doing just what my dad and granddad did.”

Greg Fuhrer and his wife, Sharon, started Locust Grove back in the 1980s, selling mums from roadside stands. As customers began requesting different kinds of plants, the Fuhrers took the initiative and started growing new varieties to meet the needs.

Today, they’ve gotten out of the retail business and now work as a wholesaler, supplying plants to landscapers, schools and garden centers. But the business remains firmly in the Fuhrer family, with several family members intrinsically involved in the operations.

More family members work at the business, including another of Greg and Sharon’s sons, Jason, who is Locust Grove’s co-owner. He sometimes takes his own son, 5-year-old Caleb, along for the ride when he makes deliveries. “He’s getting to know the customers,” Jason says.

The strong family connection is apparent as Greg and Jason show us around the business – and so is the pride they take in their work.

The Fuhrers grow 45,000 to 60,000 plants – including trees, shrubs, perennials and bedding plants – across their 13 acres in Waterford Township. Nearby, they lease 14 acres from a neighbor to grow arborvitae and boxwood.

They make their own potting soil, taking care to ensure a proper level of nutrients. They try to be earth friendly, using coconut husk for weed control.

And above all, they try to serve the needs of their customers – following the same drive that expanded their business from a small roadside stand. They study trends and keep tabs on what customers will be looking for. The latest trend, they have found, is edible landscapes, like berry bushes and herb gardens.

For Locust Grove Nursery, change is necessary – changing seasons, changing customers, changing plants. What remains constant, though, is the dedicated family behind the business.

About Locust Grove Nursery: The business has four full-time employees and a handful of part-time workers – often high school students. The nursery, which primarily serves customers around northwestern Pennsylvania but also in neighboring areas of New York and Ohio, is strict about sticking to the wholesale business and not selling to the general public. If the general public asks to buy plants, the Fuhrers refer them to one of the local garden centers that they supply. Locust Grove does not sell to big box stores.

Why Erie County: The Fuhrers say they enjoy having their business in a place like Erie County, which is a welcoming home for their multigenerational family. They also enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere in general, and they see Lake Erie as an enormous asset for the county. In addition, they find that at least in their business, there is a strong support network. They have good relationships with other nurseries in Erie County, and even help each other out. If Locust Grove doesn’t have something a customer is looking for, the Fuhrers will send the customer to a competitor – just as the other nurseries will send customers to Locust Grove.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges that Locust Grove faces are just part of the nature of their business – literally. They constantly work to keep deer, rabbits and woodchucks from eating their plants. And they also grapple with the most unpredictable challenge, the weather. They work outside as long as they can, until the snow flies. And over the winter months, they propagate plants, service equipment, and rest up for spring, and the launch of their busy seasons. In addition, they see Erie County’s distance from the state capital as a challenge. Officials in Harrisburg sometimes forget about this corner of the state, the Fuhrers say – so it is up to Erie County residents and businesses to keep fighting to get recognition.

Fun fact: The Fuhrers start about 80 percent of their plants themselves, either from seeds or cuttings. They are not permitted to start some patented plants.

Address: 2291 Old State Rd, Waterford, PA 16441 or www.locustgroveplants.com

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