Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.

EP 2 - Manufacturing Processes, Protocols and Tools Re-Imagined | Nicolet Plastics LLC | Jackson, Wisconsin

March 26, 2021 Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, Nicolet Plastics Episode 2
Wisconsin Made. The Podcast.
EP 2 - Manufacturing Processes, Protocols and Tools Re-Imagined | Nicolet Plastics LLC | Jackson, Wisconsin
Show Notes Transcript

“I can say that we were probably challenged more with trying to be fast, fluid and flexible in 2020 than ever before in the history of the company.” – Tony Cavalco | CEO | Nicolet Plastics

In the second episode of “Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. we highlight our first manufacturing story as we feature Nicolet Plastics out of Jackson, Wisconsin. In 2020, they lived by their trademark: Fast, Fluid and Flexible. Nicolet Plastics had a customer who manufactured disposable PPE that suddenly experienced a huge increase in demand due to COVID-19. In less than two weeks, the company added a third shift and increased production from 200,000 parts per week to 600,000. Over the next six weeks, they added equipment and began running shifts 24/7 to produce 1.6 million parts per week. 

Our guest joining us for this episode is Tony Cavalco, CEO of Nicolet Plastics who has an extensive background in managing complex manufacturing businesses with over 30 years of experience. Tune in to this episode as we discuss with Tony on how Nicolet Plastics adapted to the market and changes to what their customers needed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The team at Nicolet Plastics really responded to the needs of their customers in a big way in 2020 and really was critical in the fight against the pandemic with manufacturing PPE for front-line workers.

In this episode we answer:

  • Who is Nicolet Plastics and how did you manage your businesses throughout COVID-19? (2:16)
  • What did it mean to be fast, fluid and flexible in 2020 for Nicolet Plastics? (3:50) 
  • What does your production floor look like? What changes did you have to make in 2020 to keep people safe while still being able to respond to this pandemic and make critical PPE? (6:02)
  • How did your team react when you said we are going to ramp up on manufacturing PPE? (8:16)
  • Do you envision that this is going to be a new product (PPE) long term, or do you think you will transition back into your core products? Where do you see Nicolet Plastics going in the next year? (12:54)
  • Do you see a continuation in the growing challenge to find workers in 2021 and beyond? (17:23)

In next week’s episode, we are going to be talking with Christian Herrild, Director of Growth Strategies of Teel Plastics. We will learn about their personal story and what 2020 was like for them and how they navigated through all the challenges and even found success and opportunities moving forward. 

If you found value in this episode or want to hear the stories from Wisconsin manufacturers, please hit that subscribe button and share it with your peers. We really want to showcase all the good news stories of how manufacturing was critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Wisconsin Made. The Podcast." is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premiere annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC)

Tony Cavalco | CEO | Nicolet Plastics LLC
I can say that you're probably challenged more with trying to be fast, fluid and flexible in 2020 than ever before in the history of the company.

Voiceover
You're listening to Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Now, here's your host, WMC Vice President of Communications & Marketing Nick Novak.

Nick Novak (Host) | Vice President of Communications & Marketing | WMC
Hello and welcome to this week's episode of Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. The show that takes you inside the strength and resilience of Wisconsin’s manufacturing community where we hear from Wisconsin’s CEOs and executives to learn about their challenges opportunities and success navigating their business through the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m your host Nick Novak and today we're going to talk about Nicolet Plastics out of Jackson, but before we get started I’d like to thank our program partners Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, together we remain committed to our mission of recognizing excellence in manufacturing in our state.

Our guest joining us today is Tony Cavalco, CEO of Nicolet Plastics in Jackson, we're going to learn a little bit more about their company today and the story that was 2020 and a little bit of what's ahead with 2021 and beyond, so Tony, thank you so much for joining the Wisconsin Made podcast today.

Tony Cavalco
Well thanks Nick, thanks for having me on your show.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well I know that 2020 was a absolutely crazy year for so many manufacturers and we're very disappointed that we're not able to all be together at The Pfister Hotel  in Milwaukee celebrating all of our honorees, but obviously we still wanted to showcase what manufacturers did in 2020 and really some of the transformations that manufacturers went through, so if you could tell me a little bit first about Nicolet Plastics and then let's talk about what happened this past year as you went through COVID-19 with your entire team.

Tony Cavalco
Sure, Nicolet Plastics was started in 1986 in Mountain, Wisconsin and that's where our headquarters is. Business started out as a tooling business and then formed an injection molding business and continued to grow. Bob McIntosh ran the business for many years and sold it to North Cliff Corporation in 2017 which is a family-owned business that also owns Badger Mining, so we are a family-owned business. I came on board in 2018 and we had success acquiring a business in Jackson, Wisconsin so we now have two locations and we have about a hundred associates working for the business. About 75 up in Mountain, 25 in Jackson we are a custom injection molder so our customers own the tooling and we make plastic parts for them. Everything from very small plastic parts where we make hundreds of millions of them to very large plastic parts where we make maybe a couple thousand a year so we have a strong engineering background and really partner with our customers to help them get the best plastic part possible.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now I want to talk a little bit about 2020 and kind of some of the agility that you were able to show here and you mentioned in your in your application for the Manufacturer of the Year awards this year, your tagline fast, fluid and flexible. What did it mean to be those three things in 2020 as you navigated the COVID-19 pandemic?

Tony Cavalco
Yes, the tagline is really something that we believe in that the way we are going to best support our customers is to be able to adapt very quickly to changes in the market or changes that our customers may need and I can say that we were probably challenged more with trying to be fast, fluid and flexible in 2020 than ever before in the history of the company. You know, when the pandemic hit several of our large customers either slowed down their orders or canceled their orders and we really didn't know what was going to happen with the business. We were very fortunate that one of our customers who had been a long time customer came to us and they make disposable PPE products and they told us that they needed as many products or as much product as we could manufacture so we really pivoted. We worked with a local tool maker and turned 18 to 20 week lead time into a six week lead time so we had five tools made very quickly. We added a third shift, so we went from five days a week 16 hours a day to 24 5 and then 24 7. So we brought on a second shift within our third shift, I should say within just two weeks which is a pretty amazing feat. Our associates really stepped up working very long hours, working off shifts just to keep up with the demand for the customer and really showed a lot of pride in the fact that they were helping, you know, first-line workers in hospitals to provide them this disposable PPE to help in the fight of the pandemic.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now obviously manufacturing is the backbone of Wisconsin’s economy, you know, about 20 of our economy is driven by the manufacturing sector and in a typical year we'd be able to go out to manufacturers and be able to see, you know, all of these amazing products that you and other companies are making, but obviously it's a little bit harder now in 2020 and 2021. If you could you kind of walk our listeners through, you know, what's your production floor look like? What changes did you have to make in 2020 to keep folks safe and still be able to respond to this pandemic and make the PPE that you transitioned over to making?

Tony Cavalco
Yeah so our typical factory floor in our facility up in Mountain, we have 20 injection molding presses from fairly small presses to very large presses. One of the advantages we have on our manufacturing floor is that we are kind of naturally socially distanced, we have 45 to 50 associates who work on the floor typically 15 to 20 on a shift and because the machines are spread out, we do a lot of assembly work, we were able to very quickly adapt to make sure that we had our associates social distanced. When the guidance came out to have masks, our associates were very good about putting on masks, we hired people to do cleaning all the time to make sure that any common surfaces were cleaned, we switched schedules so people weren't eating together which all those things are difficult because especially up in Mountain where it's a very small town and a lot of people know each other, all of a sudden you're in a situation where you can't just sit and have lunch with friends and so it's a very challenging situation, but our associates really stepped up and adapted very quickly. In our Jackson location, we had 16 presses when the company came to us and said they needed as much product as possible, we actually expanded our plant. We bought five new injection molding presses and again hired seven or eight new associates to help us manufacture this product so we pivoted very quickly, but really also concentrated on keeping everyone safe.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now I want to I want to talk a little bit about that that pivot that you mentioned, the fact that you were able to ramp up production for something that you really weren't making all that much to begin with so when you first started, you were producing, you said a little over 200,000 parts per week, in a matter of two weeks or so you were up to 600,000 and then by the time summer hit you were doing, you know, 1.6 million parts per week. How did your team react when you came in and said we're going to ramp this side of the business up and we're going to make, you know, an entirely new product and we're going to be directly responding to this pandemic, how did that go over and how excited were your team members to be able to contribute to that?

Tony Cavalco
That's really a great point that our associates really were excited to be able to help in this, you know, unprecedented situation where we're trying to support the people who are really, you know, putting themselves in danger every day and so our associates, a lot of them ended up working, you know, 10-11 days in a row. Once we started ramping up production and they really felt a sense of accomplishment to help ramp up so quickly so everybody was exhausted I mean everybody was working so many hours and yet they kept on doing it because they felt that they were doing something positive when there was so much negativity going on and the local tool maker, you know, to take something that would be 12 to 18 week delivery and delivering tools in six weeks unless we purchased the new presses and we got the product and presses right away and each product has to be touched by an associate to package it and so we had to hire 10 new associates just to package it and we leveraged our plant up in Mountain to also produce this product, so fortunately our ownership allowed us to invest a lot of money very quickly in order to take on this new business and both facilities really stepped up and embraced doing something that was this difficult, but doing it for the right reasons, that we're trying to help our first responders.

Nick Novak (Host)
Normally we would be in The Pfister Hotel like I mentioned, you know, we'd be celebrating in a group of, you know, three or four hundred people all you know talking about the great things that manufacturers had done over the last year. Our partners at Baker Tilly and at Michael Best and us at WMC, we wish we could be in that room really celebrating all of you. Obviously we can't do that and so we're doing this podcast and trying to honor as many manufacturers this way that we can, if you were up on that stage at The Pfister Hotel hotel holding up one of those trophies you know, what would you tell your team members about the last year?

Tony Cavalco
I would say that this was an incredibly difficult and challenging year and yet our teamwork really showed that we can be successful and grow the business and support our customers. The reason we have a job is because of our customers and when a customer comes to us and says we need you to scale quickly, it really takes our associates to be bought into the fact that our customers are the reason that we have a job and that we really need to use all of our resources possible both with people and equipment to be able to meet their expectations and I’m really proud of the team this year for what they were able to do to step up to this challenge and really support our customers even when our customers who had slowed down all of a sudden picked up so you know our business grew even faster than we were expecting because of the situation and yet it's really because of our associates and their dedication that we're able to do so.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well we're talking with Tony Cavalco of Nicolet Plastics, one of our honorees for Manufacturer of the Year awards here in 2021 and we are going to talk a little bit more about the future of manufacturing in Wisconsin and kind of what 2020, 2021 is going to look like, but we are going to have a short message from our program sponsors more with Tony right after this.

Voiceover
Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. is brought to you by Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year, a premier annual awards program celebrating excellence in manufacturing in the state of Wisconsin. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well we are back with Tony from Nicolet Plastics and I want to talk a little bit about the future now. We've talked about what happened in 2020 Tony, your team just did a fantastic job of really responding to the needs of your customers in 2020, but there's still a big question mark about 2021. When will we have enough people vaccinated? When will we get back to this new normal that everyone talks about? So I want to talk a little bit about Nicolet Plastics first and kind of what you're seeing for the company in in 2021, so do you envision that this is going to be a new product long term for you? Do you think you're going to need to transition back at some point to more of your core products? What are you seeing happening over the next year?

Tony Cavalco
Well I think you are going to see a slowdown in some of the PPE, especially as COVID cases start to decline. Our customer has reduced their demand for these products, but it's still much stronger than it was pre-COVID. Fortunately, for us, we have a really diverse customer base and a very strong Wisconsin customer base and as you said Wisconsin is a manufacturing juggernaut when it comes to looking at the percentage of a product manufactured and so we're really fortunate to manufacture product for many really blue chip Wisconsin companies and we've really seen that demand rebound. It slowed down in March, April, and May. Started to rebound in the summer and I can say, right now, we have a lot of new projects going on, our customers have bounced back to pre-COVID levels. You're seeing a lot of new projects which is really one of our areas of expertise is working with customers to enhance their plastic product and really make sure that we're helping them produce the best product possible, so we really see 2021 starting off strongly and really an opportunity to continue to expand our business.

Nick Novak (Host)
Now obviously there were a lot of changes in 2020, you know, here at WMC, we went to a work from home model right at the beginning of the pandemic and then you know for the last six months or so, we've been kind of having an optional work from home if you want to come in the office, do your social distancing, wear a mask you can if you want to work from home you can. You don't have that luxury when you're building something, you can't work from home and make PPE in a manufacturing facility and so obviously maybe some of your employees can, you know, maybe if they're in engineering, maybe if they're in the front office, but obviously if you're on that factory floor it's a little bit different, so where do you see us going over the next year as we have some people who still want to work from home as some people are still kind of figuring out this new normal? Where do you see the manufacturing industry going?

Tony Cavalco
Well we have seen most of our customers that have really adopted a work from home, you know, between purchasing and many of the functions that you don't need to be in the office. Our company, we do have some people work from home, but most of them are choosing to come back into the office and so we've set up our offices so that our office space so that there's plenty of space between people but I think it's a real collaborative work environment and I think it's difficult to do that from home and I think a lot of our customers, it's going to take middle to the end of the year before they're back and we can visit our customers so we are doing a lot of Zoom meetings, we are doing a lot of Teams meetings and Go-To meetings and Webex meetings.

Nick Novak (Host)
I think we are all Zoom pros at this point, you know, although there are still to this day, it's you know people start talking like you're on mute you got to you know eventually we'll all figure that out.

Tony Cavalco
Clearly an issue that we're still dealing with and it's very difficult to manage a project when you can't do it in person and I think that's been the biggest challenge especially with some of these new projects is that while Zoom and these types of meetings are a great tool, it's easier to be collaborative when you're all in a room and you can get all your questions answered right away but we're adapting as everyone is and I do look forward to when we can visit customers again and you know, but on our factory floor and our team leadership of running the manufacturing they're at the office every day which is part of what you have to do.

Nick Novak (Host)
I will say one of the good things about this past year is that my truck has a lot fewer miles on it because I used to, you know, drive from Madison to Green Bay and then I go to Wausau and then I’d be in Milwaukee, you know, and now I drive to the office each day you know or work from home someday so it's definitely good for that, but there are still going to be some challenges as we as you know try and get back to this new normal. We've talked a little about working from home and kind of you know the Zoom lifestyle that all of us are in you know, what do you see from a workforce standpoint because before the pandemic that was a big issue was trying to find enough employees to actually fill the jobs that were available, you know obviously there were some you know thoughts that maybe that would go away. We're now hearing from a lot of manufacturers that that's not the case, do you think that that's going to be a growing challenge as we go throughout the rest of 2021?

Tony Cavalco
Yeah and we've already seen that challenge. It is difficult to have to find enough people to come in and manufacture the products and work on the factory floor. We have been able to add to our team from a talent standpoint, from a management standpoint which is really going to help us this year, but it's still difficult to find people who will come in and work eight hours in a factory and you know hopefully people will appreciate those opportunities more and I will say some of the associates that we have brought on board have been just terrific and are very appreciative of the opportunity to work and know that there's going to be steady work down the road.

Nick Novak (Host)
So we have about a minute left here and I want to ask two questions and so we'll try and break this up. Quick looking back at 2020, what was the biggest thing that that you and your company learned in 2020?

Tony Cavalco
That we could adapt I think faster than we ever thought we could, that when we were challenged with a lot of unknowns that we just looked at the opportunities that were in front of us and made the investments necessary to get through this tough year and looking towards the rest of 2021 and into the future.

Nick Novak (Host)
If you could give advice to you know not only your colleagues at Nicolet Plastics, but to the rest of the industry, what would be your words of wisdom you know looking at the rest of this year?

Tony Cavalco
I think it really dovetails off of that that if there are opportunities even if there are risks associated with taking on new opportunities that in order to grow sometimes you have to take those risks and we took a lot of risks in 2020 and are really fortunate that our ownership was so supportive of that, but because of those risks we're able to grow and have a really positive outlook on 2021 and the future after that.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well Tony Cavalco, CEO at Nicolet Plastics, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. Congratulations on being an honoree this year for the Manufacturer of the Year awards and just congratulations on really making it through the year that was 2020, so thanks again for joining us.

Tony Cavalco
Thank you, Nick.

Nick Novak (Host)
Well that's been our conversation with Tony Cavalco, CEO of Nicolet Plastics in Jackson. Next week, we're going to share more stories from other manufacturers who've adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and will highlight Teel Plastics from Baraboo. They've had a numerous amount of challenges but also found some different opportunities and ended up having a very successful year so we're looking forward to having that conversation about Teel Plastics and the future of manufacturing here in Wisconsin. We really appreciate you joining us and if you did find value in this episode and you want to hear more of it, I encourage you to hit that subscribe button and also share it with your peers, we'll continue to be highlighting all of the Wisconsin success stories that we've had here in manufacturing throughout the past year. This is Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. I’m your host Nick Novak, thanks for listening.

Voiceover
This is Wisconsin Made. The Podcast. The show that takes you inside the strength and resilience of Wisconsin’s manufacturing community where we hear from Wisconsin’s CEOs and executives to learn about their challenges, opportunities and success navigating their business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you to our program sponsors Baker Tilly, Michael Best and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.