The Sheboygan Press, Bruce Halmo, Associated Press
PLYMOUTH, Wis. — Inside a Plymouth manufacturing plant that built its reputation producing foam insulation for the construction industry, an unlikely new product line has emerged to help the company navigate a still down economy — toys.
Over the winter, the company, Plymouth Foam, ran up to three shifts at its 150,000-square-foot Sunset Drive factory producing molded-foam toy airplanes.
The most high profile toy just went on sale at major retailers, including Target, Walmart and Toys "R'' Us, and is modeled after the character "Siddeley," a talking British twin-engine spy jet featured in the new movie "Cars 2."
The toys are among a wide range of new products Plymouth Foam has begun producing as part of an initiative to diversify the company's product line.
The initiative, which was launched back when the economy was still strong, was aimed at making the company less reliant on housing and commercial construction and to capitalize on new markets.
As it turns out, it was a wise move.
"It wasn't serendipitous or happenstance. We saw things were beginning to slide, and it ended up bringing everything we'd hoped in terms of keeping us strong," said George Palmer, the company's vice president.
Today the 33-year-old company — which is owned by the surviving family members of brothers Vance and Scott Roberts, who died in a 2005 plane crash — and its 170 employees are emerging from the recession with plenty of momentum, despite a still slumping construction industry.
The opportunity to begin producing toys came about in 2009, when the Canadian toy manufacturer Spin Master approached Plymouth Foam to produce a toy glider.
That project later led to the deal to produce the toy glider tied to the "Cars 2" movie.
"It's a little more interesting for our employees to come home and tell the kids what they did at work. It's better dinner table talk," said Dave Bolland, the company's president and CEO.
The toys are just one of many products the company is now emphasizing. Others include foam-packaging products, coolers and store displays.
As a result, insulation and other construction-related items, which once provided more than half the company's sales, now comprise about 30 percent of the business.
As part of the shift away from construction products, the company shrunk its total payroll, including locations in Minnesota and Ohio, from a high of 220 people eight years ago, to 170 today, with about 120 of those jobs in Plymouth.
Though layoffs weren't avoidable, company leaders figure the strategic changes they've made in recent years helped save far more jobs than were lost.
"We were fortunate that we had a head start before the recession hit," Bolland said.
The company's new emphasis also required significant investments in equipment to automate certain production processes, all with an eye toward giving the company flexibility to produce a range of products.
"We're a heavy capital company to start with, and we've added a lot to be as flexible as possible," said Mark Schuh, the company's director of operations.
Going forward, that means the company will likely produce other toys, according to Bolland, who said they're already in talks with Spin Master for another toy project.
"It's really helping carry our company forward," Bolland said. "We're optimistic about our future."
Information from: The Sheboygan Press, http://www.sheboygan-press.com
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