The company specializes in making plastic vehicle parts that look like wood, leather, metal -- anything but plastic.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
SALEM -- Clifford W. Croley looks at a plastic Chevrolet Impala instrument panel the way a violinist would view a Stradivarius.
"That's a gorgeous part," he says with unabashed admiration. He points out the wood grain trim and metallic accents set into a leather-textured base. Everything, including the sections that look like wood and metal, is made of plastic.
Croley is president, chief executive and part owner of Blackhawk Automotive Plastics, a Salem-based manufacturer of plastic parts for cars, trucks and vans and this city's largest industrial employer.
Since joining the company in 1999, he's learned to appreciate the intricate details that make Blackhawk's products stand out from the competition, he said.
There are front grills for Cadillacs and Chevys that look for all the world like they're made of painted steel waxed to a high gloss, chrome or brush-finished aluminum. Nope. All plastic.
Plastic is not only much less expensive than steel and other metals, Croley explained, some plastics are nearly indestructible. Besides, because plastic is so much lighter than metal, its use results in a lighter vehicle that burns less gasoline.
Blackhawk specializes in larger, more complex parts, some requiring as many as 30 or 40 production steps. There are robotics chambers where machines do some of the cutting and produce the wood grain laminate, but most of the work is intricate and must be done by hand.
"They look simple, but a lot of our parts are much more difficult than they look," he said. "When you show one of these finished parts to an auto guy, he's going to say: 'Wow!'"
Careful attention to detail and quality have paid off in huge contracts for the company. Croley wouldn't divulge profit figures, but he said Blackhawk's sales for its Salem plant and two similar facilities in Upper Sandusky and Mason, Ohio topped $200 million in 2001.
The company does most of its business with General Motors, but it also has contracts with Toyota, Honda and Ford, Croley said.
It's also close to penning a deal with Chrysler Corp., and its product exports to China, Mexico, South America and Australia now make up about 5 percent of its business.
"We've got so many things cooking," he said. "I think we're proving that you can grow your company in a down year, and you don't do it by laying people off."
Quite the opposite, in fact. Blackhawk owners have increased its work force by 10 to 15 percent since they bought the three production plants in 1999.
The company employs 550 hourly and 73 salaried workers at its Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters at the edge of downtown Salem. With two other similar plants in Ohio and a technology center in Troy, Mich., the company's work force totals 1,750.
The average worker has 16 years seniority with the company, and some families have three generations working there, he said to prove his point that Blackhawk treats its employees well.
About 70 percent of the employees are women, said Ray Hanna, general manager of the Salem division. He said women seem to have a "second sense" for the part-making process, especially those with the wood grain finish that Blackhawk is known for.
Built in 1968, the 275,000-square-foot Salem plant and its sister plants were formerly operated under the name Worthington Custom Plastics and were primarily General Motors suppliers. In May 1999, Croley and an investment group called Bluepoint Capital Partners bought the three Ohio factories for an undisclosed amount.
Since then, Croley said, the owners have invested heavily to modernize and streamline the plants. They spent $25 million to $30 million for improvements at the three facilities, including a "seven-figure investment" for a high-speed vacuum forming machine, robot-operated laser cutters and other improvements in Salem.
The company's reputation for skill, quality and reasonable pricing are winning it new contracts, but there's still a lot of competition in the plastic auto parts market. Blackhawk managers are always looking for ways to economize without sacrificing quality or reducing jobs.
Hanna said they're adopting lean manufacturing techniques in some part of the plant, modeling the changes after methods devised by the Toyota Motor Co., which aim to reduce waste of any kind, including wasted motion, handling or materials.
As the company grows, officials will be forced to decide whether to expand existing plants or to build another plant at a new site, Croley said. They're also thinking of adding a sixth work day to keep up with product demand.
What they won't do, he said, is diversify into projects outside of vehicle part manufacturing. "We have a niche. We know what we do best and we're going to stick to it," he said.