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March 1, 2000

5 Min Read
Family-value-added molding

Custom molder Lee Plastics Inc. of Sterling, MA is located in an area considered to be the birthplace of the U.S. injection molding industry. But the company traces its roots back across four generations to a time before injection molding was born and before there were plastics. Today, it faces the future with confidence, trusting in a sales and marketing approach it believes will continue to stand the test of time—continuity in family ownership.

"We are problem solvers," explains Leo J. Montagna Sr., the family patriarch and director of sales. "The problem: Can you mold it in volume? We inherit a lot of molds from our friendly competitors. When they can’t mold it, they say, ‘Go up and see Lee.’ It’s always been like that. Our sales are mostly through word of mouth. I don’t talk to anybody on the phone unless it’s God.

"My stipulation to a customer is this—you can’t tell me how to do it. We know how to make a part. You’re buying this," Montagna Sr. says, pointing to his head. "Customers trust our experience, our reliability, and our quality. The relationships we form are very long term. They’re downsizing and it’s too expensive for them to put too many eggs in too many different baskets. They know Lee will always be there for them."

Staying Power
Montagna Sr. celebrated his 81st birthday on January 15, 2000. He says he is "numerically" in retirement, but he’s still in the shop most every day. He has three daughters and one son. All have run molding machines. His son, Leo J. Montagna Jr., a Lowell Tech graduate, is the founder and president of Lee Plastics. His daughter, Mary, runs the office. His grandson, Christian D. Smialek, a UMass Lowell grad and a materials expert, is project engineer. "We’ve got plastic in our veins," Montagna Sr. says.

"Before the turn of the [20th] century, my Dad worked in a factory where they fabricated things like combs and buttons from horn," he says. "I was there when they invented cellulose acetate." Montagna Sr. got his first job as a floor boy at DuPont, which was in Leominster, MA at the time, through family connections. In 1939, he started a company called Phoenix Plastics in Clinton, MA.

Witnesses to change

The folks at Lee Plastics are fourth-generation molders who have seen it all. We asked them what have been the biggest changes they have seen in the molding business. Leo J. Montagna Sr., 81-year-old director of sales, says it’s been in tooling.

"Domestic molds have gone the way of all flesh. They can’t compete with the foreigners. We used to get molds locally—we could go right up the street and get a mold. Not any more. We’ve had to start looking nationally for cheaper molds. The next thing you know, we’ll have to go to the Far East. They’re not any smarter than us over there. It’s the price."

Stephen A. Leal, tool manager, says the introduction of CNC and CAD/CAM has been the biggest change he’s seen. Christian D. Smialek, project engineer, says it’s the availability today of so many different molding materials.

Leo J. Montagna Jr., president, says the biggest change has been in the way the business is run. "Nobody wants to hold inventory anymore. All we get are blanket orders with a ‘release date to be determined’ on them. Normally, for us, it’s one day. And you have to deal with give-backs and price reductions to keep a job these days. That was never the case before. The part quantity numbers go down, but customers want the prices to go down, too."

"We did some extrusion with casein [a ren plastic, derived from milk solids] until 1945, after the war, when the injection molding industry started getting warm and I bought a Reed. Reed started building injection molding machines in 1937—they were the first. But the machines had no timers. We used an alarm clock to tell us when to open the mold when I started out. The lead time for a mold in those days was about a year."

His son started Lee Plastics in 1976. "I didn’t want to work for him anymore," jokes Montagna Jr., pointing at his Dad. "He’d show me something and ask, ‘Do you get the message?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, Dad.’ He’d say, ‘You can do better.’" His father helped him get his first press—a used Reed plunger that Montagna Jr. kept up and running for a dozen years. In the early 1980s, he says, Lee Plastics was the largest-volume user of PC anywhere. "Buyers may jump ship to work for other companies, but they remember us."

Continuity Sells
Lee Plastics has around 50 active accounts and about 1000 active molds. Sales are around $4 million. It still uses Reeds, 14 of them, including some recently purchased vertical shuttle presses for insert molding from Reed-Prentice. It also runs four Milacrons. Capacity ranges from 33 to 400 tons. Its specialty is the tough stuff—tight-tolerance precision molding of industrial components in high-performance ETPs and specialty compounds.

Decorating and insert molding services also are provided. Lee employs 40, working in three shifts, five days a week at the company’s impeccably maintained 40,000-sq-ft facility. Molds are changed up to six times a day. Rejects are at .5 percent.

Montagna Jr. summarizes, saying, more than anything else, what a customer wants is what you know. "You may think you have everything you need to accomplish anything, but it’s what your customers think you can do that’s most important," he says. "You have to know materials, know how to mold them, and know tools and how to run them. They know they can always expect the best from us."

"There’s a lot more foreign competition," concludes Montagna Sr. "But, overseas, they’re going to start liking steak and lobster soon, too, and their prices are going to go up." The playing field will level out. It’s going to take time, he says, "but we will still be here."

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