SOUTH BEND -- Enjoying working with your co-workers can be a huge factor in becoming a successful company.
That's what company CEO Bob Tennyson, President John Burgess and sales director Fred Fuller seem to be proving at Plastic Solutions Inc.
In 1991, the trio formed the company, which makes injection molded plastic prototype and production components and assemblies, mostly for the automotive industry.
It was important to Tennyson that they not waste time trying to correct another company's mistakes. So, rather than buy an existing company, they took out some major loans and set out on their own.
These days some of the machines they own cost about as much as the several hundred thousand dollars in loans it took to get started.
But the company's premise remains the same: work with people you want to work with.
In May, the company, which has grown to about 100 employees, relocated from the south side of South Bend on West Chippewa Avenue to 3615 Voorde Drive. "When we started this company 21 years ago, that was the premise. We would only work with people we wanted to work with," Tennyson said.
These days that might mean a two-hour interview with a prospective employee that tests not only their aptitude for the work they'll have to do, but how well they fit in. Plus, there's plenty of background checks. To add three people recently, it took interviews with 11 different candidates.
And even after a person is hired, they are given six months to prove that they were the right hire and that this is the right company for them, Tennyson said.
"It's really tough, really tough," he said of the hiring process for both sides.
But to Tennyson, it's worth it. He figures it costs about $50,000 to train an employee the first year and about $25,000 the second besides what they're paying them. So hiring mistakes are costly.
"Our customers are so demanding," he explained. "If we ship one bad part, we are in trouble. So we have to have employees that know everything about our business. It takes a year or two to know all the parts we make, all the little nuances, and it costs a whole lot of money to train them."
It's for that reason Tennyson and Burgess are quick to praise Steve Schmidt, vice president of manufacturing, and his workers for long stretches of mistake-free work on parts.
One part wrong in a 2.5 million parts order would require several employees to fly to Mexico to sort and check things out, Tennyson said.
Despite the constant focus on precision, Plastic Solutions is a great place to work, said Nina Bert McLean, of South Bend, who's worked for the company for 18 years.
"I don't mind coming to work," she said. "I look forward to it. It's family oriented. Everybody gets along. The management treats their employees very good. Besides our company picnics that we have every year, it's just a warm atmosphere."
Even with the high expectations, the atmosphere is relaxed and the selection of employees is backed up with good training, McLean said.
"They have a good training program," McLean said. "You work with another operator for a couple of days on different jobs. You kind of get the hang of it and then the team leader checks on you."
And if a person does not know quite what they're doing, they are quickly pointed in the right direction.
New location allows growth, streamlining
Employees enjoy working in the roomy facility on Voorde, which once housed Fortis Plastics. The larger building gives the company room to grow by 30 percent, said Tennyson, adding that they were turning down work at the old facility on Chippewa.
But the new site also allows for an improvement in work flow and productivity.
"The flow is perfect. The production area is extremely efficient," Schmidt said, pointing out that it is much quicker than at the old site, partially because of the use of overhead cranes.
And when problems arise, they are not ignored.
"You can't have wasted labor out on the floor," Burgess said. "You have to have problem solving and keep everything running smooth."
Plastic Solutions makes plastic car parts for Subaru, its largest single customer, as well as Honda, Toyota and Lexus.
It's also had a long relationship with Bell Sports, making bicycle seats and helmets.
But all of Plastic Solutions' success comes back to teamwork, said Tennyson, explaining that he learned valuable lessons of serving in Army special forces in Vietnam. There he gave everyone a say, as commander, while taking the blame himself if something went wrong.
Burgess, like Tennyson, believes it begins with everyone working together.
"When we started the business we knew that people out on the floor really make things happen," Burgess said.
And treating them right -- from wages to air conditioning to simple cookouts on a Saturday at work -- matters.
But treating them with dignity when they do make a mistake matters, too.
"If somebody makes a mistake, you learn from it and you move on," Burgess said. "They already feel bad.
"If anybody is worth their salt, you shouldn't have to chew them out about their mistake. They've already beat themselves up 10 times over it."
"We all trust one another," summarized Tennyson. "We all respect one another. We all have a lot of fun together."