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Being successful in manufacturing requires a lot of marketing savvy, business acumen, and a great idea. Many years ago, I interviewed the winner of an SPI Western Region award, who told me that the secret to the success of any product is that it must be something everyone wants. "Invent for the masses, eat with the classes," that gentleman told me back then. But, he added, if you "invent for the classes," then you'll only be able to "eat with the masses."

Clare Goldsberry

September 26, 2011

5 Min Read
Invent for the masses, eat with the classes; David MacNeil reflects on more than 20 years of manufacturing

Being successful in manufacturing requires a lot of marketing savvy, business acumen, and a great idea. Many years ago, I interviewed the winner of an SPI Western Region award, who told me that the secret to the success of any product is that it must be something everyone wants. "Invent for the masses, eat with the classes," that gentleman told me back then. But, he added, if you "invent for the classes," then you'll only be able to "eat with the masses."

David MacNeil made the former his mantra, inventing for the masses, as he explained in his opening keynote address to the attendees of the 20th annual Thermoforming Conference in Schaumburg, IL (Sept. 17-20). In 1989, when he founded MacNeil Automotive Products and the company's WeatherTech brand in the garage of his Clarendon Hills, MI, home, he already had a considerable amount of automotive business experience under his belt.All-Weather-Mat-W31TN-08-GL450.jpg

Macneil Automotive WeatherTech

The company's WeatherTech brand of products includes an extensive line of protective floor mats for nearly every vehicle make and model in the world, along with a wide variety of aftermarket accessories. According to MacNeil, the company is the largest consumer of plastic sheet in the United States.

In addition to thermoforming, MacNeil also performs injection molding, and among its stable of injection molding presses are four 1000-ton multi-shot machines. A product the company introduced a year ago at the SEMA show is the 2-shot Tech Floor shop floor covering. Through the company's mold-manufacturing division, it builds approximately 50 molds, both injection and thermoforming, per month.

MacNeil Automotive's newest manufacturing facility in located in Bolingbrook, IL, joining existing locations in Downers Grove, IL and Parma, Italy, with more than a quarter million square feet under roof at its facilities. MacNeil Automotive exports its products around the world.

Exporting products, not jobs

"It's great to export products, not just jobs" stated MacNeil in his opening remarks to attendees at the Thermoforming Conference. "I've hired 200 people over the past 10 years, without any help from the federal government."

MacNeil acknowledged that it's very expensive to start a business in the United States, but it can be done and it can be done successfully. However, the first key to building a successful business is making the customer happy. "If you make your customers happy, everything falls into place," he said. "If the customers are not happy with your products or service, nothing else matters. We make high-quality, American made products that fit vehicles perfectly."

The company imported many of its products when it first started. Later MacNeil began marketing a universal floor mat to the big box stores to "replace the smelly floor mats made offshore." The company also injection molds a cargo mat and mud flaps, and thermoforms cargo liners for pickup trucks. Today, MacNeil Automotive has more than 6000 applications for its products. "He who has the most tools wins," MacNeil joked.

MacNeil provided some advice when approaching new product development: "Ask yourself, 'What's the best way to do this regardless of cost?' I don't let the bean counters influence my product decisions," he stated emphatically. "Now, how can we make it affordable to the customer? Then make the best product you can in America!"

MacNeil is gung-ho for "buy American." He emphatically stated, "I'm all for balance of trade -- I'll buy 10 from you if you'll buy 10 from me. I don't have a problem buying from the Germans, for example. But I pick where I buy my products and work with countries that play fair and have good environmental practices. You can probably guess where I don't buy products."

To make products that fit perfectly and customers love, MacNeil invests heavily in new technology and equipment, as well as in vertical integration to ensure high quality. "I'm one of the most vertically integrated companies you'll ever find," he stated. "It pays off every time I add something."

For example, the company invested in additive manufacturing, and creates dozens of SLA models of its products to ensure perfect fit for each and every vehicle. Because of this attention to perfection, the company supplies nearly all of the European automotive industry. "It's an honor for us to supply the European auto makers," he said.

And he's always innovating. "Don't ever underestimate the power of a drawing on a napkin at lunch," he advised.

Another critical component to business success is a marketing strategy. "We get marketing," said MacNeil. The company advertises heavily, always promoting that its high-quality products are "Made in America."  MacNeil covers 35% of the U.S. market in television ads, primarily in the "slush belt," and has 70 magazine ads running. In keeping with his idea of vertically integrating all activities, MacNeil noted that the company has an in-house photo studio and a professional photographer with 30 years experience shooting cars in Detroit, to create the innovative, high-tech ads that appear in print.

The company's mold manufacturing division is also dedicated to innovation and creativity in its molds that are designed, developed and built in-house. Machine tool utilization is another key to MacNeil's success, and they run 24 hours a day. "And these are machine tools that are made in America," MacNeil is quick to point out. "And we use aluminum that is also made in America."

MacNeil's tooling group has developed a process in which it can change out a thermoform tool in 90 seconds. The company also created a patented process for multi-shot injection molds that allows technicians to change out those tools in 12 minutes. "I'm in the car accessory business, but I'm patenting tooling," he said, emphasizing the importance of innovation and patents.

MacNeil believes in patents, but notes that a patent is only as good as your ability to protect it. "I'm involved in two federal lawsuit patent infringement cases currently, and it costs a million dollars to file a federal patent infringement suit. But, I want to make it clear I will come after you if you infringe on my patents. Our patent attorney is very busy," he stated.

Bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. and creating more manufacturing jobs in this country is extremely important to MacNeil. "If my neighbors don't have jobs, I won't have a job," he said in closing. "We need manufacturing. We need to preserve manufacturing.  When you walk into a store, buy American first, then from a country with who we have good trade policies. Automation plus American labor equals good products at a good price. Build it here and sell it here."

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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