It’s not Spiderman. And it’s certainly not Superman. Matt Hlavin’s hero growing up was his grandfather, Jack Thompson — a man he dreamed of working for one day. Hlavin admired him for starting and growing a business from nothing. He looked up to the man he describes as tough, honest and innovative.
“He loved what he did and he was very hard working,” Hlavin says of his grandfather. “He was a visionary; he started the metal-to-plastic conversion in the late ’50s. He was a true entrepreneur.”
World War II veteran Thompson founded Master Mold & Die in 1950 and quickly established a name for his business as a tool and die shop specializing in building molds for the developing plastics industry. In 1958, Thompson bought his first injection molding machine, gave his only employee, Walter Gus, a small stake in the business and they co-named it Thogus Products Company.
Hlavin would eventually join the family business in 1996 as a sales representative and work his way up to vice president of sales and marketing and, finally, CEO. But first he had to gain experience and work for someone else — it was a family rule. So throughout his time at Cleveland State University, Hlavin worked for numerous companies, mainly cold calling for brokers. It wasn’t until his grandfather fell ill and passed away that Hlavin knew it was time to join the business.
Today, as CEO of Avon Lake-based Thogus Products, Hlavin, 35, is following in his grandfather’s footsteps. However, in this tough economy, he has had to be creative and do things differently. When he joined the company in 2008, 56 percent of its business was in automotive. But Hlavin knew it had to diversify so it didn’t rely on one industry to be successful. Thogus now operates in a plethora of industries, including medical device, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, plumbing, aerospace, agricultural, chemical and consumer markets, such as sporting goods and electronics. It makes an array of products, including tube and hose fittings and moldings. It also replaces metal components with plastic for manufacturing.
The adjustments have worked. In just two short years, Thogus Products has experienced explosive growth, weathering the economic storm without a scratch to speak of. The company has grown to 82 employees, 27 of whom were hired this year. Its revenue has increased 82 percent, compared with 2009.
“I didn’t want to limit myself by industries that plastic companies could call on to generate revenue,” says Hlavin. “So, I remodeled the business and started a repertoire of manufacturing [opportunities]. We now have an engineering division that does product development.”
Hlavin’s first task as CEO was to fire the Big Three — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — which made up more than half of Thogus’ business. Instead, he looked to engineered materials, replacing metal and other current products in the marketplace with plastic — just like his grandfather once did. Thogus then partnered with its neighbor, PolyOne Corp., a supplier of specialized polymer materials.
For example, Thogus has developed a material that is as heavy and dense as lead, and shields radiation in the same way, but is environmentally friendly. Hlavin and his team have developed a manufacturing solution for this material that reduces the number of production parts and streamlines the process, passing along those savings to its customers. With strong demand for this product, Hlavin launched the spin-off company, Radiation Protection Technologies.
Through the collaboration, Thogus was able to offer solutions to its customers to help them save money, instead of waiting for the customer to come to them. “We turned our suppliers into sellers for us,” says Hlavin. “We’re not just a manufacturing company, we’re also a product-development business. I believe in bringing engineering into the business because it helps our customers develop products faster and more efficiently.”
In January 2009, Thogus didn’t have a single engineer on staff. Today, the company employs 15. In addition, Hlavin completely reorganized the company from top to bottom. First Thogus spent more than $2.5 million on advanced technology, capital equipment and automation. He then set out to hire the next generation of employees. Hlavin and his team visited local high schools and universities to promote manufacturing and reverse its negative connotation. The company partnered with Penn State Behrend College, which offers plastic-process engineering degrees, and has hired five employees from the school to date. He even started a paid co-op program.
“It lets us farm our own talent for the next generation of employees,” says Hlavin.
But Hlavin hasn’t stopped there. His team is constantly working with its suppliers to determine the next big thing. In fact, he hired a small research-development team solely for this purpose because, to him, the supplier is just as important as his customer. Currently, two small spin-off incubator companies in the medical device sector — Thogus’ fastest-growing market — are in the works to launch next year. This is all because of the idea flow from Thogus’ product development division.
“My proudest day as president and CEO will be when an employee comes to me and says, ‘I want to start a company’ because we trained them and gave them the tools to do that,” says Hlavin, pointing to an employee of less than one year who will already co-own a patented product generated from his own idea. “Our goal is to continue to innovate and establish new relationships.”
But among all this explosive growth and reorganization, Hlavin has never forgotten his grandfather’s beliefs and values.
“Without a doubt, I still try to guide myself on his principals,” he says. “I’m more outside of the box because you have to generate revenue in different ways in today’s economy.”