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Published on Tuesday, September 13, 1994
1994 The Press Democrat

Staff Writer

"I'm just gonna say one word, Ben, just one word about your future.... Plastics."

It was 1967. Dustin Hoffman. "The Graduate." Remember? He is floating in the pool, recent college grad, aimless. He is getting advice from the big E, the Establishment.

More than two decades later, Art Frengel, a rebellious, self-described flower child of the '60s, is trying to run his Santa Rosa plastics fabrication company on socially responsible and environmentally sound principles.

The irony is not lost on Frengel, owner of the small, 16-year-old Valley Plastics.

Building a business

"People have a hard time thinking an environmentalist runs a plastics shop. But environmentally friendly people need to run businesses like this," says Frengel, 39. "They have to get into the thick of the battle, or they will lose."

Five years ago, Valley Plastics stopped making parts for defense and nuclear contractors and over the past few years only has taken on contracts where the products are made out of plastics that can be recycled.

"We started this business when we were young," says Frengel. "As we got older and developed a sense of responsibility we didn't want to look back and feel guilty about what we have done."

"I sleep well at night," he says.

When Valley Plastics has scrap pieces to throw away, they go into 55-gallon drums and are sent back to plastics manufacturers for reuse.

"We have the smallest Dumpster you can get," says a beaming Frengel. He boasts that he only throws away 2 percent of the 40 tons of plastics he uses a year. He is shooting for 1 percent.

Frengel, who looks a bit like a surfer with his curly brown hair, pony-tail length in back, T-shirt, baggy shorts, sneakers and a beaded bracelet on his left wrist, is a little different than some business owners.

The first thing he talks about is not how good his product may be, but how good his manufacturing process is, and how much time the company has spent weeding out the "bad" contracts and "bad" materials.

"Businesses don't have to be wasteful to be profitable," he says. Frengel was on the young side of the Woodstock generation that grew their hair long, rallied at the first Earth Day celebrations and gave their parents a hard time about what they were doing.

His father worked at Lockheed, a defense contractor that was building weapons systems, as an engineer in management. Frengel says he spared his father no criticism.

"I used to hassle him all the time," says Frengel. "Then I got older and went into the plastics business. I was so caught up in the growth of my company, I didn't even stop to think about what my customers were doing," he says.

"One day, it may have been my father who said: `You turned out just like me. You are making parts for Lockheed."'

Today he is close with his father, and looks back on those days a little sheepishly.

"It was a bit immature of me. I was a peace-loving flower child who had blindly started a company. I was no better than what I had been condemning him for," says Frengel.

Frengel was only 19 when he went into plastics, answering an ad in the newspaper for someone with woodworking experience. Three years and two companies later, Frengel, married and a father, decided to start his own company.

Evil side of business

"They were tyrants and unethical. They beat you down, promised raises, and never gave them," he says of those other companies. "I learned all the bad things and swore I'd never be that way."

Business was relatively easy then. It was the '70s in Silicon Valley, and there were hundreds of high-tech manufacturers -- especially defense contractors -- looking for small shops.

"It was a gold rush then," says Frengel. "All you had to do was put an ad in the yellow pages."

Twice he mortgaged his house to bail the company out, but business nevertheless grew, mostly by repeat contracts and word of mouth.

But when housing prices started to soar in the South Bay, and his employees could not afford a home, Frengel looked for a place where they could afford to buy. He moved his wife and two children, the company and four employees to Sonoma County in 1987.

Soon, though, those long-simmering social and ethical ideals began gnawing at him again.

"I was thinking about doing something else. There were too many personal compromises I had to make," says Frengel.

Guidelines for stewardship

He thought about shutting down, going up to Oregon and making grandfather clocks. But he had nine employees he felt a responsibility toward. One of those, operations manager Rick Mahan, helped the company move in a new direction.

Four years ago came a mission statement. "We created guidelines for good stewardship. We put into writing what we had been doing and all the things we wanted to become. It had to be based on principles and ethics, not profits," says Frengel.

Within a short period of time, Valley Plastics cut off about 15 percent of its work, to a few defense contractors in the South Bay. Another 15 percent was lopped off because they did not use plastics that could be recycled.

They went from 120 customers to 80. But 10 of those customers account for nearly three-quarters of their work. And thanks to a boom just beginning in medical equipment, Frengel says Valley Plastics did not suffer.

Abbott Diagnostics in Sunnyvale has become Valley Plastics biggest customer, and Frengel says his company lately has been growing at about 25 percent a year.

Frengel dressed up and visited engineers, making an effort to convince his customers that they could make the same thing with different plastics.

Frengel says he does not bid work for a company that he thinks might not pay the bills. "I can't afford to get stuck with $40,000 worth of inventory," he says.

The standards of Valley Plastics have obviously kept it a small company, with $800,000 in annual revenues and 11 employees who work a 40-hour work week in four days to cut down on commuting.

"I believe you create your own destiny. Maybe we could be a $2 million company. Maybe we'd be bigger. But I could not have had these ideals," says Frengel.

*Since the publication of this article, Valley Plastics has over doubled in size- and no, we haven't compromized those ideals.



Valley Plastics Mfg Inc., 968 Piner Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Phone (707) 576-0236 | Fax: (707) 576-1613

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