When a customer called BF Goodrich in the mid-1970s looking for a polyurethane-coated strap, a small group of engineers couldn’t locate the product the customer wanted. So they decided to make it themselves.
What started as a one-time special order grew into a part-time business out of a home basement and ultimately evolved into BioPlastics, the 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in North Ridgeville that specializes in BioThane.
BioThane is the brand name of all coated webbing products made by BioPlastics. It is a polyester webbing with a PVC coating that makes it more durable, waterproof, easy to clean and even weldable. BioPlastics’ straps have become a leader in the equine industry.
It is BioPlastics’ belting that holds together the hard plastic sections on some of the most popular brands of football shoulder pads. It is also used on chinstraps in football helmets.
The polyurethane makes it easy to decontaminate, making it popular within the medical industry. It’s also cleaner and lighter than leather, so it is commonly used with horses for farming and transportation.
“We buy narrow fabric or webbing, put a coating on it, roll it up and sell it,” says Frank Boron, one of the early founders of the company and one of the engineers who first began at BF Goodrich. His official title is CEO, but he is essentially retired. His role is strictly tied to long-term goals of the company, which has come a long way in 35 years.
Now BioPlastics employs 46 workers, and the North Ridgeville facility has transformed with three expansions to meet a growing demand. The company now distributes internationally to 16 major markets, including Europe, the Middle East, South America, Central America and the Far East. Domestic markets include medical equipment, sporting goods and canines, although the Amish remain among its best customers.
It’s a wide-ranging field that continues to grow, requiring extensive research in all areas.
“Every time you move into a new area, there’s a hell of a lot of homework you have to do and knowledge you have to garner,” says Boron. “You go from Amish equine to football shoulder pads to medical patient restraints to infant high chairs, every one of those is a separate world with different technologies. They each have different requirements. It’s a chore to learn all of that and relearn it for a new market as you attempt to grow.”
Leaders in Equine industry
Throughout the evolution of the business and all the additional markets that have been created, the most consistent and lucrative market remains the equine industry and particularly the Amish community.
Whereas the old leather straps used with horses proved difficult to clean and maintain, the BioThane straps used in both work harnesses and driving harnesses are lightweight and low maintenance.
“The leather requires continual care. You have to clean it and oil it on a regular basis,” Boron says. “The leather is also heavy. We were told early on in the game the elderly farmers in the Amish community love our products because they could put it on the horses without requiring help from anyone else.”
BioPlastics’ development into a steady business was accelerated by an exit package offered at BF Goodrich. The group of four engineers debated — even agonized — over which path to take. Boron recalls plenty of sleepless nights and healthy doses of heartburn while contemplating his future.
He had kids just entering college. The leap was risky, but the reward seemed worth it. Boron took the buyout from BF Goodrich and committed to BioPlastics. Now his son, Ethan, who was just entering college at the time, is the company’s president.
Throughout a period of about 20 years, Boron slowly gained sole ownership of the company. He learned plenty of painful business lessons along the way, but says two stand out: Never enter a business with a 50/50 partnership and never hire friends, because one day those friends may get fired.
“Over a period of time, things change, people change,” Boron says. “Even though at one point you may have thought you’d both have the same goals in mind, those have a way of altering, and then you start finding yourself at odds with each other, and that’s a problem.”
BioPlastics has survived because of its unique, albeit pricey, product line that continues to adapt to its customers’ demands. What began with one item, offered in one color, has grown into a product line of several hundred — and more continue to be added. The most recent is a strap on an infant’s highchair that Boron says mothers love.
“When the child throws up or spills something, they can very easily clean it from our belts,” he said. “Prior to that, they used an open-weave webbing. When you get food into that webbing, you can’t get it out. These are much easier to clean.”
While there are plenty of domestic competitors, none offer the width and breadth of BioPlastics’ product line, Boron says, and none inventory products and develop new products like this, either. Competitors have tried to buy their way onto BioPlastics’ turf by offering lower prices, but Boron says customers are staying with them because of the unmatched quality.
“It has been and continues to be a very specialized product, and we charge a handsome price for it,” Boron says. “In most situations, the product has got to solve the problem for the customer before they’re going to shell out the money for it. The cleanability and resistance that the coating brings to the table are the primary attributes in all of the different markets. Customers love it and we do, too.”