Co-owner Brian Parker is reinventing the family plastics shop with an eye on process management, automation, and market diversification.
The LTM in LTM Plastics stands for Lawrence Tool & Molding, the company’s moniker before a new generation of ownership rebranded the company in 2019.
“Lloyd Lawrence is my father-in-law, and he’s the one who started the company in 1977,” says Parker, whose partners in the acquisition — his wife, Gina Parker, brother-in-law Darryl Lawrence, and sister-in-law, Debbie Burry — are all family members. Gina and Darryl are Lloyd’s children.
After the acquisition, the company moved production from its longtime facility just south of downtown Denver to a 26,000-square-foot plant on the northeast side of the city. “The previous shop was down on 8th Avenue and I-25, and we still hold it as a storage facility,” says Parker. “What we wanted to do is we wanted to build a lot of efficiencies into the business. The machines that we use as injection molders are very large rectangles, and that particular building was shaped like a pizza slice, so you couldn’t get very many rectangles into that triangle. It didn’t allow us to create a good product flow.”
Parker says the new facility was designed with quick response manufacturing and multi-machine production cells in mind. “The whole system is built around how to get parts out the door in a smart fashion,” he explains. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for customers. We build each process specific to the goals of our customers, and by doing that, we’re able to give them more value for their dollar and keep more of that work in-house, which keeps all of my people fed.”
He adds, “I think all of this is about time management, as opposed to batching and resource management.”
That’s not the only change Parker and his partners have instituted. “We reconsidered how the business could be most profitable, and we have replaced every piece of equipment in the building,” says Parker. “All I have left from what I bought in 2019 is a forklift.”
The leaky, old, hydraulic injection-molding equipment has been supplanted by electric and hybrid machinery. “Even though I’m running more presses, my electric bill dropped 60 percent,” says Parker. “We save $6,000 a month, and all of my products are built with greater consistency and higher quality because I’m on modern equipment.”
LTM is also more efficient in terms of waste: Its 1 percent scrap rate is far below the industry norm of 3 to 7 percent in the U.S., and often more than 10 percent overseas. “That’s what you’d throw in a dumpster,” says Parker.
Running four shifts 24/7, LTM Plastics has also invested in robotic automation. “We built in a million-dollar material-handling system to get rid of impurities and make every job more efficient,” says Parker. “If I was going to sum it all up, we took the older principle of: ‘Just throw bodies at a problem’ and changed it to: ‘What’s the right way to make each body most effective?’ Each person here now has a greater skill set, and they get paid more to go with itbecause they’re higher functioning, more capable people.”
Parker describes LTM as industry-agnostic. “A lot of injection molders deal in specific industries, and I don’t do that. If I had a guy who has good backing and he’s got a product that he wants to bring off the ground, and he goes and talks to some of my competitors, they’ll say, ‘Well, your volume isn’t high enough,’ or they’ll say, ‘All we do is medical here.’ We don’t really have those types of criteria.”
The company’s fortes are complex parts, engineered resins, and parts with performance requirements. “We like the kind of people who want control over their product and their supply chain,” says Parker. “We’ll also do packaging, assembly, and kitting. We’re just now looking into CNC machining and some metalwork to go alongside it.”
“We also added a 3D-printing shop and an industrial engineer, so I can help people modify ideas before they invest $90,000 in a mold.”
The ultimate goal is transforming LMT into a turnkey shop for many customers. “We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet,” says Parker.
“We think a lot of customers are going overseas because they can call one point of contact, and without knowing anything, that one contact is going to connect them to the metal guy, the packaging guy, the printing guy, and all they get is a finished part in a box. In America, what we have is a bunch of companies that specialize- to where somebody shows up on the doorstep and the molding guy says, ‘Well, I’ll mold it but you have to get somebody else to build your tool.’ We think it makes more sense to be that conduit, so our job is to connect those people so they can go about running their business, and we’ll help them get the most efficient and desired results out of the manufacturing process.”
“I’ve got a little bit of everything,” says Parker. “I’ve got a guy doing drones, a guy doing wheels that won’t go flat for ATVs; I’ve got somebody that is doing rescue equipment on alpine helmets, and then I’ve got beer bongs. It’s really bizarre.”
An in-house brand, LTM Concrete, targets contractors with spacers and forms for concrete jobs. “It fills the gaps; I can run it on short notice. I can ship out a pallet or I can ship out four boxes,” says Parker, noting that it currently accounts for less than 10 percent of the company’s total sales.
The company’s best year was 2019, with about $14 million in sales. Then COVID-19 hit demand and the head count went from 70 employees to 30. It’s rebounded since and with better margins. “We’re much, much more efficient,” says Parker.
“We’re recovering. It was an ugly couple years where we knew that we didn’t have enough business to keep everything rolling and profitable. What we needed to do is build our business, and that’s why we bought the material-handling system when everyone else was buttoning up their wallet. It was just the right thing to do, so when we came out of COVID, and all of the customers opened up their pipeline again, we were ready to go, but we were ready to go with a lower scrap rate and more efficiency than we’d ever seen.”
Challenges: Perception. “Plastic is a four-letter word right now,” says Parker. “The truth is plastic is incredibly environmentally friendly, depending on how you use it. If you abuse plastic or you don’t recycle or you throw scrap away, then you’re right, it would be really damaging.”
For that reason, LMT is aggressively exploring biodegradable and recyclable materials, including hemp plastic, he adds. “It doesn’t work unless there are molders who are willing to take a risk and learn new materials. . . . We kind of view ourselves as a laboratory.”
The perception issue also comes with lowball expectations on price. “Cheap plastics aren’t really cheap in the end, and people don’t know that up front,” notes Parker. “In plastics, there’s a direct correlation between the amount of money you put in at the beginning and the amount of money that you get at the end.”
Hiring can also be challenging. “It’s been very difficult to find the right character in the workforce,” says Parker. “We run a really tight ship and our people take care of each other here.”
He adds, “It’s hard to find people who are willing to put themselves aside for a larger goal.”
“Forecasting internally” is another: “Our customers can’t always do it, or they don’t always do it,” says Parker.
Opportunities: Parker highlights the opportunity to grow with small customers. Take Trash Panda. “The owner of this company, as a small startup, was trying to make discs in his own garage, but he knew that was not sustainable and he needed to go into manufacturing,” says Parker. “His angle for his company was that everything he did stayed within a 20-mile radius, so all of the materials, the recycled goods I’m using, the boxes, the shipping, nothing leaves this area until it’s a finished product. He couldn’t find a molder that would work with somebody that size, and then he couldn’t find a molder who would work with somebody that wants to use recycled resins. We were willing to learn and do those things with him.”
The result? “It took time to get here, but once his first discs hit the market, he’s doing very well and his product line is expanding,” says Parker. “We buy into people and their missions, and that has resulted in some really nice partnerships. . . . These little companies aren’t going to be little for very long, and we really relish that.”
Parker is also bullish on the in-house brand, LTM Concrete. “With the amount of money that will trickle down from the government for infrastructure spending and things like that, there’s some real potential for the precast side of my world,” he says. “It might be a legitimate spinoff business at some point.”
Local inquiries often come from the outdoor industry. “For some reason, I’m getting a lot of sporting goods type of customers knocking on my door,” says Parker. “We have an outdoor community here, and the locals tend to bring me outdoor type of projects.”
Needs: “We’re internally working on client diversification,” says Parker, noting that the one client represented the vast majority of sales until recently. “I’m trying to bring on a handful of partner customers who are interested in learning or they want support. . . . We really like that collaborative conversation, so I’m looking for people like that, projects with potential that are just fun to work with.”
Talent is another need: LTM is looking to hire 15 to 20 employees by the end of 2023. “We’re trying to figure out a way to get more young people interested in manufacturing,” says Parker. “It’s not like the videos you saw from the ’50s, where Rosie the Riveter is wrapped in grease. It’s not that kind of world. It’s programming, it’s digital, it’s clean and efficient. We’re looking for smart people who want to understand logistics and manufacturing chains, and that’s just not a pipeline of talent that exists here. I think that’s going to be a real problem for the country.”