A three-part series based on an interview with the Founder, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Techmer PM, a company with a significant presence in Clinton.
Part 1: Techmer PM’s Founder has an aversion to risk aversion
Two personal priorities – a strong focus on technology and a willingness to take risks – have driven John Manuck as he has led the growth of Techmer PM, LLC, a multi-location technology company that has its largest plant and many of its business operations in Clinton.
“We’re a material design company that works in polymers,” the Founder, Chair and Chief Executive Officer says in describing the company he founded in 1981. It’s also a description that has evolved over 25 years, but an easy way to get others to ask for more information.
Manuck is a soft-spoken, smiling, and engaging executive who says Techmer PM is where it is today thanks to his willingness to take chances and forge partnerships.
“I graduated as an engineer, went to work for a big company, and decided I could do it better.”
That philosophy and unabated drive earned Manuck entry into the “Crain 100,” a listing of the top “innovators, disruptors, and change-makers in business” that was published in late 2016 by Crain Communications. The latter company is a publisher of leading industry publications like Advertising Age, Automotive News, Plastics News, and Modern Healthcare.
In Manuck’s case, the recognition among notables such as Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Craig Venter validates a lifelong journey personified by the innovative technology company he founded more than 35 years ago.
Today, Techmer PM (the first name based on combining parts of the words “technology” and “polymer”) has six manufacturing locations and about 650 employees. Local readers of teknovation.biz may recall the January 9, 2015, visit to the Clinton plant by then President Barack Obama and then Vice President Joe Biden to announce the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, a public-private partnership better known as IACMI.
The event was another validation of Manuck’s vision for embracing technology and risk. Techmer PM created a unique carbon fiber-based formula to help meet Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s goal of building a 3-D printing system that was 200 to 500 times faster as well as being able to print components ten times larger than what was previously possible. The Techmer PM contributions were clearly visible in the body of the fully functioning Shelby Cobra displayed here.
For Manuck, the professional journey started on the streets of his native Brooklyn, NY. After earning an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, he went to work for Monsanto at a plant in Massachusetts. The inquisitive and driven engineer devoted his evenings to earning a Master’s Degree in Management Science. After his second college graduation, Manuck moved to Michigan where an experience with dunnage trays changed his career path.
“A GM (General Motors) executive asked why we couldn’t reuse the trays,” Manuck explained of the customized packaging used to load and secure cargo during transportation. In this instance, it was automotive parts being shipped during an era when models changed almost annually, necessitating newly designed dunnage trays every year.
“I thought it was a pretty big deal,” Manuck says of the GM executive’s cost saving and environmentally friendly idea. “I knew it was easy to recycle them, so I wrote it up and submitted to my management.”
After waiting for weeks and hearing nothing, Manuck asked his supervisor. The response was telling and disturbing to the young engineer.
“No one in headquarters is going to stick his name on this,” Manuck was told. “It would be a career ender.”
That corporate risk aversion was something the scrappy engineer could not accept, so he left the corporate world and moved to California where he joined a small manufacturing company that was committed to his philosophy of driving business growth by embracing entrepreneurship and taking risks. This is where he was introduced to the plastics compounding business where custom formulas of colorants and other additives are combined.
Part 2: Techmer PM built of building, sustaining relationships
The year was 1979, and John Manuck was working in California for a New York-based manufacturing company that produced high quality colorants and additives for the plastics industry.
“I was attending a plastics convention in Chicago, and a colleague insisted I go to dinner with some people from Rehrig Pacific Company,” he explains, noting he really did not want to go, but did. It was no doubt one of the best business decisions Manuck ever made.
“They (Rehrig Pacific) were thinking about installing a production line to produce color concentrates for dairy and beverage crates molded by the company at its six molding plants,” he says. The key challenge was ensuring a consistency in the colors of the crates and their durability after exposure to sunlight. Rehrig Pacific was not satisfied with the quality of the colorants from existing producers.
“I warned them that this was very different than their existing business and would not be a simple task,” Manuck said. “However, I told them if they had problems, they should contact me.”
Rehrig went ahead with their plan but soon found that the production line was underutilized and their costs were too high. Enter Manuck with a plan that launched Techmer PM, LLC. He assumed responsibility for the production line in November 1981 with a vision of filling a growing need for a western U.S. manufacturer with technical expertise in formulating plastic colorants and additives.
“At the outset, it was a matter of survival,” Manuck says in describing those early years when his focus was limited to the West Coast where there was limited quality competition. Yet, from the outset, the personable founder had a vision.
Today, he describes it this way: “We custom modify polymers and give them properties that enable them to perform in a wide variety of applications. We can change how something looks and feels and greatly increase its strength and durability. You tell us what product you want to design and produce, and we will formulate a polymer system to perform this function. ”
The company has come a long way from those early years when there were four people besides Manuck. A key turning point occurred in 1985 when the founder met with some Japanese business executives from Tokyo Printing Ink and Mitsui & Co.
“I got lucky,” Manuck says of the meeting and subsequent interactions. The Japanese were pitching one of their businesses that was coloring plastics, and Manuck invited the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Tokyo Printing Ink to tour Techmer PM’s then newly relocated and upgraded manufacturing facility.
“I learned later that inviting them to tour the plant was totally unheard of at the time,” he explained. That gesture caused the Japanese CEO to reciprocate with an invitation for Manuck to tour one of its polymer plants in Japan. By then, Manuck had decided that Techmer PM would expand into synthetic fibers, and he made the trip to Japan.
“I had seen all kinds of polymer plants,” the chemical engineering graduate said. “This one was something special.”
The word “special” took on much greater meaning when the Japanese visitors who had been treated so special by Manuck became investors in Techmer PM and helped the company expand to Clinton.
The experience also reinforced another guiding philosophy of Manuck’s.
“I have preached to my team about partnering and collaboration,” he says. As illustration of this point, the alliance with the Japanese group has lasted more than a quarter of a century.
PART 3: Toffler’s third wave concept guides John Manuck and Techmer PM
Brooklyn born and then California-based John Manuck said he had never been to Tennessee when he began planning in 1987 to build a plant in the South. In fact, his focus was on the Atlanta area.
The Founder, Chair and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Techmer PM LLC pointed-out a frame in his office that displayed an article from an old National Geographic magazine. The title was “Rising, Shining Tennessee.”
It captured his attention, so he decided to look at options in the Volunteer State.
“This (Clinton) was the last site I saw,” Manuck says of a number of visits to locations in several states. Yet, when he came to Clinton, his reaction was simply “Wow, this is it.”
The proximity to major interstate systems – 40, 75 and 81 – plus a nearby university for talent were deciding factors.
Today, the Clinton facility is the largest among Techmer PM’s locations that also include Los Angeles; Batavia, Ill.; Dalton, GA; New Castle, DE; and Wichita, KS. In addition to manufacturing, the Anderson County facility also houses many of the business functions for the 650-employee firm.
Manuck and his wife maintain two households – one here and a second home in the Los Angeles area.
One of the famous sayings in economic development is “it’s all about location, location, location,” and that is certainly the case for Techmer PM in recent years. The company that is so driven by technology is right in the middle of world-leading developments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in areas like low-cost carbon fiber, advanced manufacturing, and 3D printing.
The emergence of this region as a hotbed for these new, dynamic technologies plays so well to a philosophy that drives Manuck’s professional life.
“I’m a real fan of Alvin Toffler and his book The Third Wave,” Techmer PM’s CEO explains, noting that one of the key concepts the author espoused was customization during the third or post-industrial wave.
“I wanted Techmer PM to be a third wave business,” Manuck says, a fact illustrated by the company’s ability to meet the unique needs of its customers.
To do so, he has fully embraced Toffler’s philosophy as described in Manuck’s words: “If you fight the wave, you’re probably going under. If you ride the wave, you will succeed.”
Another key principle is the importance of good teamwork and communication. Perhaps those are key factors in the company being cited by Plastics News as a “Best Place to Work” two of the last three years.
For a technology company like Techmer PM, workforce is a critical factor, both in terms of recruiting and retention.
“We must create a culture to attract people where a high percentage will be able to advance and stay for the long term,” Manuck says. “We need to show our blue collar work force there’s a path to $20 an hour and beyond that will support a family, home ownership, and a car payment.”
The company also hires several new college graduating engineers each year – providing initial training, then rotating them through various positions until they get “drafted” for the long-term.
“I’ve had people ask why we make these hires when we don’t have an immediate opening,” Manuck says. “I tell them to let me know when we have too many qualified and talented engineers. Also, it is about having a committed philosophy of growth and opportunity for all members of the team.”
The Founder has clearly embraced Toffler’s philosophy, taken a number of risks, and warmly embraced new technologies. It’s proven to be very successful for the company.