Chamber, Magnet Honor Boardman Molded Products

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Milton Kessler had an idea back in 1951, around the same time he went into business with his brothers to build a plastic injection molding plant on Lake Park Road. His idea was a plastic hoop that people could spin or dive through.

“They could not give it away,” his son, Ronald, recalled.

Five years later, a fraternity brother phoned one of Kessler’s uncles to suggest putting the hollow plastic circle around someone’s waist, he continued. That led to a joint venture with television and radio host Art Linkletter to market what became known as the hula-hoop.

On Thursday, the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber and Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network – Magnet – presented Kessler’s company, Boardman Molded Products Inc., with the inaugural Excellence in Manufacturing Award.

They honored Kessler at the chamber’s annual economic forecast breakfast at Mr. Anthony’s Banquet Center.

For nine months, Boardman Molded Products manufactured all of the hula hoops east of the Mississippi River for Linkletter Enterprises, which “led to the full growth of the company,” Ronald Kessler, now president, CEO and owner, said.

Kessler’s father founded the company in 1936 in the auto wrecking industry, he said. After his brothers returned from serving in World War II, they went into business together. “He had a chance to go into the aluminum extrusion businesses but instead ended up in the plastics extrusion business,” he said.

Today the company – which has plants on Thalia Avenue here and in Juarez, Mexico — manufactures a range of products that include its proprietary Space-Links entrance flooring for commercial buildings. The flooring is sold in retailers such as Target and Walgreen. Its products also include automotive components and the plastic parts on Werner ladders as well as other specialty molded products.

“Success in business is a journey, sometimes with open roads but also with lots of detours, flat tires, getting lost and sometimes even running out of gas,” Kessler told the audience.

“One of the most important things I learned from my dad is if you can keep moving, somewhere there’s a new and often better destination, if you’re willing to be open to new opportunities,” he continued. “He called it timing and perseverance.”

An example of the value of timing he cited was the Kessler brothers decision in 1951 – “long before” the iconic line was delivered in “The Graduate” – to build the plastic injection plant, he said. The initial response to the hoop represented “a flat tire,“ he said.

Guests at the economic forecast breakfast also heard from Joel Elvery, an economist in the external outreach and regional analysis department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, and Chris Cwiklinski, senior vice president and director of portfolio management with F.N.B. Wealth Management.

Nationally, as of January, employment has grown for 76 consecutive months, a new record, and output grew at a modest 1.6% rate, Elvery said. “It is expected in 2017 that growth will actually be faster than it was in 2016, more in the range of 2%,” he continued. Inflation is expected to grow at a 2% rate.

Last year was “difficult” for the Youngstown area economy, he said. Between June 2015 and June 2016, the region shed 1,700 jobs. “Part of what happened was that the steel industry had a very difficult year, due to cheap imports and declines in the [oil and gas] extraction sector,” he said.

Vallourec Star, which manufactures pipe for the oil and gas industry, laid off workers at its Youngstown mill and Exterran Energy Solutions Inc. shuttered its plant in the city, where it manufactured compressor stations and other equipment for companies exploring the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.

“In the last few months we’ve seen more growth in extraction as well as changes in the steel tariffs, and so steel producers are very optimistic for 2017,” Elvery said. “That should translate into a better 2017 for Youngstown.” Moody’s projects the local economy should grow 1.4% this year and employment about 0.2%, he noted.

The region is likely to see a continued slow recovery this year, Cwiklinski agreed, but he hoped the policies of President Trump’s administration “will help that continue along.”

Trade “was a big issue during the election and it does speak directly to this area,” he said. “There’s a lot of argument whether trade policies have been good or bad for manufacturing,” he said. “But it’s hard to argue that manufacturing hasn’t had a rough road, especially since 2000.”

He also expressed caution about the tariff Trump has mentioned as a way to rebuild American manufacturing and “level the playing field” with some U.S. trading partners.

“Trade wars are not fun for anybody,” he cautioned. “They can be highly inflationary.”

During the event, the chamber provided an update on its economic development efforts. In 2016, the chamber was involved with projects that represent $1.01 billion in value, resulting in 828 new jobs and new annual payroll of $35.73 million. The projects accounted for 1,084 retained jobs and retained payroll of $43.78 million.

A video shown at the breakfast highlighted those results as well as several local projects that got underway last year, including the Lordstown Energy Center in Lordstown and the Joseph Co. International’s $20 million chill-can manufacturing plant and research center on the east side of Youngstown.

This year, the chamber is managing 24 projects for a potential cumulative investment of $1.9 billion in the manufacturing, warehouse/distribution and professional and technical services sectors, Sarah Boyarko reported. “The forecast for 2017 is promising,” she stated.

Boyarko is chamber senior vice president for economic development.

Pictured: Ron Kessler, president and CEO of Boardman Molded Products, was presented the chamber and Magnet’s inaugural Excellence in Manufacturing Award.

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