Who knew? When celluloid (the first important plastic) was discovered around 1869, who knew that it was just the start of a seemingly limitless product roster that would include items ranging from automobile gears to soft contact lenses? Who knew that plastics would become ubiquitous in businesses, homes, manufacturing plants, food and pharmaceutical processing operations – everywhere, including outer space?
Curbell Machine Company, established in 1942 as a subcontractor to Curtiss-Wright and Bell Aircraft for government military contracts during World War II, obviously saw potential. Dedicated to custom fabrication of plastics, the business soon expanded its customer list to include Bellanca Aircraft, the Kaiser Cargo Corporation and the Argus Corporation.
In 1947, Curbell Plastics was incorporated to meet chemical manufacturers’ post-war need for distribution of the many new polymer materials that were being introduced to industrial markets. Ten years later, Curbell opened its first warehouse for supplying industrial plastics. By the late 1970s, the company had begun a major expansion program to create a national distribution network.
Today, Curbell Plastics is one of the nation’s largest suppliers of plastic sheet, rod, tube and related materials. The business operates 16 distribution centers with warehouses, all strategically located to serve key industries, and has hundreds of plastic products in its lineup.
One of two divisions of Curbell, Inc., Curbell Plastics’ business accounts for a large portion of the corporation’s more than $100 million in annual sales. The other division, Curbell Electronics, was founded in 1960 and is now the largest manufacturer of replacement signaling devices and related accessories for the U.S. hospital and nursing home markets. Both businesses have their home offices at corporate headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Shaping the Business
“Our goal is not to become the biggest. We want to become the best supplier that our industry has ever witnessed,” says Derek Garner, general manger of Curbell Plastics. “We’re looking to be the company that people choose to do business with because we understand their vision – who know that they can bring their problems to us and we will provide the right application solutions in line with our capabilities.”
The right application solutions and Curbell’s capabilities create a successful mix when paired with the right product. Described in Curbell’s “Full Line Plastics Material Guide,” considered one of the most comprehensive resources in the industry, the major product categories are:
• See-through, sign and display materials: graphic arts and display products such as acrylic, polycarbonate, mirror, PETG, PVC, graphic arts board, fluted polypropylene, coextruded thermoplastic film, and graphic art films;
• Engineering plastics: solutions for bearing and wear, chemical resistance, electrical, high temperature, and structural engineering using products such as ABS, acetal, elastomers, films, fluoroplastics, nylon; PEEK; urethane; PBT; PET-P; polyamide/polyimide, polycarbonate, polyetherimide, polystyrene, polysulfone, and semiconductor industry products;
• Corrosion-resistant materials: PVC, polyethylene, polypropylene, flame-retardant sheet, PVDF, and static-control materials;
• Thermoforming materials: ABS sheet, thermoplastic sheet, rigid acrylic/PVC sheet, engineering thermoplastic sheet, high-impact polystyrene sheet, and polypropylene sheet;
• Thermosets: high-pressure laminates, glass polyester laminates, solid phenolic laminate impregnated with thermosetting resin sheet, and vulcanized fibre sheet;
• Tubing: fluoroplastic, gas and oil, high-performance, polyethylene, PEEK, polyurethane, PVC, rubber, silicone, and medical tubing;
• Adhesives and sealants: anaerobics, cyanoacrylates, epoxies, hot melts, methacrylates, polyurethanes, silicones, stereolithography resins, tooling boards and tooling resins, aerosol adhesives, and lubricants;
• Pressure-sensitive tapes and fabrics;
• High-pressure laminates/thermosets/phenolics/polyesters;
• Formable materials.
Curbell Plastics employs about 170 people at 16 branch locations that have a total of over 400,000 square feet. Locations of the sales centers are: Albany, N.Y.; Atlanta, Ga.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Clearwater, Fla.; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Mich.; Erie, Pa.; Hartford, Conn.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Richmond, Va.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Rochester, N.Y. The warehouses hold inventory worth more than $10 million and are strategically located to bring materials closer to the customer.
Curbell Plastics prides itself on its adaptability to changing markets. Garner says, “Our industry is going through more change today than in the 60 years of its history since World War II. The dynamics are changing more now than ever before, and the great impetus is the consolidation of first- and second-tier distributors. Another factor is that there are fewer new plastics being invented, so there are not as many new products and we have to convert traditional material applications into plastic applications.”
Looking for substantial growth to occur in using plastic to replace materials such as glass, metal, paper and wood, Curbell Plastics is pursuing a program of investment in both its human resources training and plant operations. Garner describes seven areas in which the company is focusing its resources:
• Application engineering – “We’re dedicated to providing solutions to the industry through application engineering, and our teams work to close the gap between the customer’s specific application and the manufacturing process by understanding the specifications and then getting the correct material – new or existing – for that application.”
• Centers of excellence – “In our distribution centers we put the correct materials near the customer, so material management and logistics become the keys to creating a one-day shipping lane for our customers.”
• E-commerce – “The reality is that 10 percent of our transactions are electronically conducted between our customers and us.”
• Integrated supply – “We’ve done a good job of becoming the primary contracted supplier to the automotive industry, North America, for all MRO plastics, rubber, and adhesive products.”
• Facilities – “Over the past year we’ve built new facilities with designed systems and modules specifically for plastics distribution.
The new plants in Atlanta, Ga.; Clearwater, Fla.; Hartford, Conn.; and Rochester, N.Y.; have 20,000 square feet of planned space.
• Equipment – “Unlike a lot of companies these days, we are investing in the most modern precision equipment to achieve high-speed product movement.”
• Personnel training – “We’ve made more investments in the past two years than in the past 60 for the training of our people. This training initiative goes along with our new centers of excellence for distribution and operations in our new facilities.”
The wide range of industries served by Curbell Plastics runs the gamut from automotive through semiconductor, food processing, construction, architectural glazing, point of purchase, fabrication, transportation and aerospace. The distributor’s client base includes giant companies such as the Disney Corporation, General Motors, IBM, and Kodak, along with numerous mid-size companies and small local businesses. Garner says, “Anybody in the world can be our customer – anybody who needs plastics.”
Yet, when discussing the company’s goals for the future, Garner speaks in terms of commitment. He says, “Our long-term vision as a business is that we want our customers to be satisfied and we want to create customer loyalty. We want them to align with us. And we believe that an alignment between our people, suppliers, and customers in which everyone’s needs in that equation are met will help us get to that goal. This can only become a reality with the ongoing support and commitment of our valued suppliers” He then applies that same standard to Curbell Plastics’ staff and internal operations. “We want to be able to attract, train, and retain the best people out there because we believe that we are a good company and we want to become a great company. This is a second-generation family-held business, and those are its values.”
Curbell Plastics – a real player in the plastic distribution industry.