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Plastics exec aims for higher performance for his new firm

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Steve Bowen

PlastiComp President Steve Bowen. (Andrew Link/Winona Daily News)

Steve Bowen was no stranger to long-fiber thermoplastics when he founded PlastiComp in 2003.

After starting his plastics career with General Electric Plastics in 1973, he worked as the vice president of a plastic molding company in Nashville, Tenn., while completing a master's degree in business administration at Vanderbilt University in the early '80s. After he graduated in 1984, he became president at Ticona Celstran, a Winona plastics company, where he worked for 17 years.

After taking three years to find investors, Bowen was ready to open PlastiComp, manned by a five-person staff.

Today, the business employs more than 30 and has seen rapid growth. Sales in 2011 have already surpassed 2010 numbers, and the company recently purchased Southeast Technical's airport campus, a move Bowen said will nurture even more growth.

You were already successful in plastics in 2003. Why start a new company?

I started PlastiComp to focus on producing high-performance materials.

A significant part of our business comes from working on development programs for companies. We mold products and develop materials.

For example, an aviation company approached us about needing lighter seating material for their planes. We replaced the metal frames with a plastic carbon-fiber material.

We also recently got a patent for a reinforced plastic rebar, which is a great example of our innovation.

How do you make doing business with PlastiComp different?

We really focus on the customers. Rather than invent and market, we understand what our customers need and invent a product to fit that need.

We try to understand what our customers need first. It's kind of backwards. Many of our materials are specific to a single customer.

What inspired you to adopt that business model?

We strive to be different and create some advantage against our competitors. As businesses have gotten more global, many of them have reduced the service component of their business and focused on lean manufacturing. We try to increase the service aspect and create products with higher value.

That's the big difference; we're creating the most unique, high-performance product, not just going for the lowest cost.

What have been some of the biggest factors in your company's growth?

Because my previous company was in the same town, I was able to rehire many people. That's a big advantage for a small company, getting experienced people I had worked with before.

Our company also licenses our technology to other companies. At the end of the year, we'll have 12 product lines around the world operating with our technology, including locations in Germany, Spain, Korea and India.

Samsung came to us because they saw a growth opportunity for LFTs. We now manufacture materials for them. It's nice to have Samsung as a partner, because they have capabilities we don't have. Their diversity gives us access to new markets.

Looking forward, what does your company need to do to remain successful?

The most important thing is to continuously innovate and make new products. In order to stay profitable in this world, you have to constantly produce new and high-quality materials to meet customer needs.

We want customers to see us as a leading company in the industry and for our employees to feel secure in the company. Since 1984, I've never laid workers off because sales went down. Employees are very valuable resources to us.

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