Future Proof : Automatic Plastics

Alfred Lawless Jnr accepts that the only certainty in business is uncertainty, but he hopes being focused and planning forward will deliver a positive future for his company

Alfred Lawless Jnr took over running the company from his father in  1999

Alfred Lawless Jnr took over running the company from his father in 1999

 

With one machine and a set up investment of £10,000, Alfred Lawless returned to Wicklow in 1972 to establish Automatic Plastics after a brief trial emigration to Canada.

Located in a converted woollen barn, he used the skills he had learned working in a number of injection moulding businesses in Ireland before his travels. Interest rates at the time ran over 10 per cent and he often ended up sleeping on the sofa in the factory to make sure the work got done.

The company’s first customer was Novum International Freezers. It remains a valued customer today.

The business maintained steady progress through the late 1980s and 1990s, working with major customers like Memorex Tape Boxes, Atari Joystick (Atari games and Memorex tapes), Aer Lingus and a range of companies in the automotive sector. Pharmaceutical packaging was another important market.

Automatic Plastics weathered the 1980’s recession as many of the parts it moulded were going into low cost products, which consumers turned to during hard times.

In 1999, Alfred Lawless jnr took the helm. With a degree in engineering and experience in other sectors, he had worked at the factory every summer since the age of 13.

Initially, a conservative approach to strategic investments helped the company grow in the new millennium. It built a 15,000-square foot extension in 2002, creating the space required for further and rapid growth.

But when the recession hit in 2008, demand from the automotive business stopped overnight. Its diversity proved to be the saviour for Automatic Plastics; instead of a fatal blow, the downturn in demand from the automotive proved to be merely a rather painful thorn in the side.

“Pharmaceutical packaging is a key sector for us,” says Lawless. “Food packaging is another, with similarities to pharma in terms of the need for high volume and quality. And, with food, innovation is critical to attract the consumer.”

Diversification into these areas was an obvious and successful option. Achieving accreditation to ISO13485, the medical device standard, meant Automatic Plastics were well positioned to secure business from some of the global names in medical device manufacture and this area now accounts for around 69 per cent of revenue.

“Thinking ahead is crucial,” Lawless advises. “We recently launched our APL2020 vision outlining where we want to be as a company. This includes, for example, the upskilling of our staff – aiming to have a lean manufacturing yellow belt by 2020, with a core team of 12 accredited to green belt.”

He says engagement by his workforce has been instrumental to the company’s future success. Lawless has seen financial positives from investment in skills and says that Enterprise Ireland offers a range of excellent supports and businesses around Ireland that are willing to share their experience and journey.

Of the 95 employees at Automatic Plastics a significant majority have siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins or in-laws working alongside them.

“Our location in Tinahely provides us with a committed, loyal and customer focused workforce, with multiple generations of the same family currently or previously employed, and passing on skills, experience and knowledge.”

The Brexit vote was undoubtedly an external shock as business development was heavily focused towards UK growth but the company says it has realigned its strategy to alternative markets.

“Whilst there is uncertainty, our view has been that if we sit back and ‘wait and see’, it will be too late,” Lawless says. In addition to looking now for alternative export markets, the business is targeting import substitution.

“Many companies purchase injection moulded plastics from abroad, when they can in fact source in Ireland,” says Lawless. “This comes with all the advantages of having a local supplier and we are only too happy to support our customers through the whole process of resourcing.”

He argues that the impact of Brexit may not be entirely negative on his manufacturing business.

“In my experience, some of our competitors in the UK and mainland Europe are very large. That makes them slow to react, slow to innovate, and unresponsive. We want to continue to build on our client base, build on the progress we have made in becoming a lean organisation, and invest in our staff and our facility to make sure we maintain competitiveness.”

Lawless acknowledges that the only thing that is certain in business is uncertainty, but he hopes that being focused and planning forward will deliver a positive future for Automatic Plastics.

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