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Wilmington Machinery founder finds flexibility brings opportunity, record backlog

Mar 11, 2023

When Wilmington Machinery Inc. President Russell La Belle founded the company in 1972 to build structural foam injection molding machinery for the furniture industry, polystyrene coffee tables and chests of drawers were gaining popularity.

However, in the next couple years, resin prices went through the roof, wreaking havoc with the Wilmington, N.C.-based company's successful entry into the furniture market.

The Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut oil exports to the United States in 1973 in retaliation for the U.S. decision to resupply the Israeli military for leverage in the post-war peace negotiations.

"During the oil embargo, the price of styrene, which had been about 15 cents a pound, skyrocketed to about 75 cents a pound," La Belle recalled in a phone interview. "The furniture industry lost interest in plastics when all of a sudden wood was a less expensive material and it could be carved for less money than you could mold something."

Wilmington then focused on the brush industry, making machines that produced millions of brush handles from polypropylene.

"And, we were off and running in a totally different industry," La Belle said.

Shortly after, in 1975, La Belle received an inquiry about manufacturing a product that would become a focus for the privately held company.

"Out of the clear blue, one day I got a call from someone asking if we could help make plastic pallets. We could. Back then and today, we stay flexible to opportunity," La Belle said. "That led us to move into bigger machines. If you were making brush handles and the like, you have parts that weigh 2-3 ounces. A pallet weighs several pounds."

Wilmington's first machine for the market produced 30-pound-plus pallets.

"What we furnished [for] that customer — someone who never molded anything from plastic let alone pallets — helped them in their startup venture," La Belle said. "They were successful and bought more machines and that launched our pallet making business."

Then came advances in molding small bottles and bottles with handle ware.

For nearly 50 years, Wilmington has been building rotary blow molding and custom molding machinery for major producers of high-volume plastic products.

Looking back, La Belle points to the introduction of five- and six-layer barrier blow molding machinery in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a game-changing point in his career and for the industry.

"The notion of laying layer over layer over layer and one is a barrier — only the thickness of a human hair and you need two adhesive layers near it — was interesting," La Belle said of the development for oxygen-sensitive food that opened the door to replacing glass in food packaging as well as using recycled plastic material in food containers.

One of Wilmington Machinery's early customers for this innovation was American Can Co. following NPE 1979.

"They gave us an order for a five-extruder system," La Belle said. "We didn't even know what it was going to do. They were highly secretive. It turned out to be the Heinz ketchup bottle, which was the first high-volume produced barrier bottle made. And, in very short order, we were doing similar things for other companies."

American Can's plastics division debuted a six-layer PP/EVOH squeezable bottle for Heinz ketchup in 1983 but later switched to coinjection blow molding with PET to enhance clarity and recyclability.

Wilmington Machinery also worked on six-layer bottles. La Belle said he met two men from Japan who invented multilayer molding at a conference in New Jersey and learned about the die head involved.

"We got an exclusive on that die head for North America and built a complete rotary for six-layer bottles," La Belle said. "That was a first. We can't say it was a solo effort or that we invented it. We were just at the right place at the right time with the right know-how. We built the coextrusion systems for just about everyone."

La Belle had business contacts at American Can going back to his job prior to starting Wilmington Machinery. He worked at National Robber Machinery Co., which was later bought by Davis Standard Extrusion Systems, and his specialty was sheet.

NRM also is where La Belle worked under Bill McCormick, who he says taught him the basics of extrusion and how to be an effective process engineer.

"Bill had small staff, a handful of process engineers each with a specialty," La Belle said. "He was the greatest teacher I ever had. He could take things that are very complex and explain them in the simplest terms. What makes plastic melt? How to get it melted consistently so when you extrude it's extremely consistent with no variation in the product. He was the greatest teacher and best boss I ever had."

La Belle earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering from Muskegon Community College in Michigan and his bachelor's degree in industrial management from Western Michigan University. He attended college with benefits from the GI Bill while working as a setup supervisor for Fabri-Kal Corp. in Kalamazoo, Mich., which manufactured thermoformed packaging for margarine tubs and other containers.

"It was a great place to learn with wonderful people to work with," La Belle said. "When I graduated, they tapped me to start up and manage their first satellite operation in Pennsylvania. But the engineering juices kept kicking in and I knew I wanted to work for a machine builder."

Now he has owned a machine building company for 49 years. Most of the business involves injection molding and structural foam.

"Between the pallets and what I call infrastructure components — enclosures that go underground for cable TV and water meters — we're seeing a lot of growth," La Belle said. "The good news is today, as we speak, we've got the best backlog we've ever had in the history of the company."

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