Zelnick has reach from A to Zed
Peter Zelnick is the CEO of Zed Industries, which was founded by his father, David, in 1969 as an offshoot of Atlas Vacuum and Machine, a company David founded in 1954. Between the companies, Peter said, “We’ve been from A to Z.” And that was purposeful: The name Atlas was used so it would be among the first in the industry directory, and Zed would be at the back, next to the index. Zed — a name used by non-U.S. English speakers for the last letter in the alphabet — perfectly reflected the international market the company wanted to reach. It is most known for vacuum packers, heat sealers and thermoformers.
Zelnick discussed his career with PMM correspondent Lisa Jo Lupo.
You essentially grew up in your family’s companies. Did you work there in your youth?
Zelnick: Yes, ever since I could count to five. My first job was to count out the locating pins into bags of 100, but I could only count to five. So, I had 20 thermoformed, vacuum-formed cups and I would put five pins in each cup. I went to my first trade show when I was about eight; back then, there wasn’t the 18-year-old age-of-entry for shows. But probably because I went to a plastics show and stuck my finger in a hot-melt machine is why they now have that rule. I burned the hell out of my index finger! As a little kid, I got excited, “What is that?” so I reached in and touched it — it was hot! I can still see the salesman reaching for me because he was petrified; there weren’t any guards on the machines in the ’60s like there are now.
Back then, it was just the five of us: Dad, Mom, my two brothers — Charles, who is now a doctor, and Mark, who is in the clergy — and me. We worked seven days a week. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have joined the high school basketball and track teams if I hadn’t been working seven days a week — I had to get the hell away from work. We had a barbecue set up out back and a crockpot; we built machines and had to get the orders out. Even once I went to college, I came back every summer to work there.
Your college years took a bit of a different route, as you attended the University of Arizona for a degree in chemistry, ecology and evolutionary biology, then got hired at McDonnell Douglas. Tell us about that.
Zelnick: I was going to save the world, so I went for a biology degree. But about three years into college, I realized you can’t eat with that, you need a master’s, then a PhD, then you need to beg somebody for a grant so you can work. So, I switched to polymer chemistry, which I had an affinity for, and eventually studied under professors from Corning and under Professor Carl Marvel, considered to be the father of copolymerization. I recall arguing with Professor Marvel on my senior paper regarding crystal growth in polymers. Proved him wrong, but I had the data. But I was young and learned that irritating the boss wasn’t so smart.
After graduation, I had a lot of interviews. When I walked into the interview with McDonnell Douglas, within five minutes, he said, “We want to hire you.” I had no idea who they were then, but I took the job. I ended up working for all the guys who built the Skylab and the Gemini and the Mercury. I ended up in charge of five labs; one of the guys who worked for me even built Neil Armstrong’s boots. But I wasn’t really cut out to be in a big corporate structure.
Then you went back to Zed?
Zelnick: No. I quit. Then I lived in my car for a year. I drove to about every state and national park and monument west of the Mississippi taking photos. With gas prices, the money I had saved was going faster than anticipated, so my dad said, “If you make a call up there in Montana, you can make some gas money.” Then little by little, I realized he was reeling me in; I was doing more business calls than shooting 35mm. Then, I met a young lady and got married, and you can’t be on the road with a new wife and family as a traveling salesman. So, I went back to the factory. I’ve now been CEO for 20 years.
What has changed the most in those 20 years?
Zelnick: It’s probably been the big loss of manufacturing in America. We’ve been touting ourselves as 95 percent American construction since the ’70s, but people at trade shows started saying, “Why do I care?” Now everything has gone offshore, you can’t find a valve or the things you used to be able to buy.
The best way to produce machinery is with parts off the shelf. When we build a system, it has all parts that can be sourced locally in North America. A customer needs to solve his problem; he doesn’t need me to gouge him on the spare parts. For the most part, all the bearings are off the shelf, all the valves and seals are standard. Competitors sell proprietary parts, you have to go to them for parts. That’s just not right. He’s honored you with his business; why do you want to gouge him?
What is the company’s greatest contribution to the plastics industry?
Zelnick: We’ve always pushed the bar. My father built the first plastics forming machine that ran 45 strokes a minute with a small bed — 10 by 10 [inches]; a couple years later, we came up with an all-electric machine that ran 50 strokes a minute. Then we came out with a full bed — a 36-inch impact plastics forming machine that ran 60 strokes a minute. We were ahead of everyone by six years.
Another innovation we came out with was for the health of the operator. We determined that RF [radio-frequency] technology, if not handled properly, isn’t the best for the operator because it produces low-level X-rays, so there are health concerns. Plus, they’re slow — five or six strokes per minute. We tried other technologies, and finally settled on hot-cold. We weld two plastics together, then we freeze them back into flat shapes, so they don’t warp or wrinkle. That machine runs over two and a half times as fast as the fastest technology that’s out there. So, we’re running 15 strokes a minute.
Zed has designed machinery specifically for educational settings. Can you discuss this? How does this benefit the plastics industry?
Zelnick: Through donations from others in the industry, we built a half-million-dollar thermoforming machine that went to the University of Wisconsin in 2007. It is a little smaller than a full-size production machine, but it does everything and has all the bells and whistles of that time. It became a platform not only for teaching people about forming, but the school also uses it to teach about tooling. They use it for the hydraulic and electrical schools to look at, play with and understand the systems that are on it.
Zed also made a small machine for educational purposes. It’s not real high-tech, but it runs off a 110-volt line, and you can wheel it into a classroom, plug it in and run it. It doesn’t need any air, it’s self-contained. Zed also offers discounts to universities, trade schools, etc.
Have your partnerships with major brand owners such as Kodak, Elmer’s, DuPont, GE and Bic led to any particular machinery innovations?
Zelnick: The company was founded right across the street from Kodak when it was in its heyday. My dad got a lot of help from Kodak because they’d ask if he could do something, and he’d do it, so he developed a lot of machines by solving problems for Kodak.
Still today, most of the time people come to us with a problem and we solve it. That’s where we shine.
Since we build heat sealers, die cutters, seal-and-trim sheet formers, form-filled sealers, heavy-gauge sheet formers, 160- to 260-ton presses, etc., we can steal from one expertise for a solution in another.
What evolutions in machinery technology have had the most impact on your business or the industry as a whole?
Zelnick: I think servos, obviously, have helped. You do need to be a little smarter; your technicians have to be a little smarter to run them. But it has kind of had a split in the industry: We’ve had people come to us and say, “I don’t want any high-tech computers that I need a PhD for, give me an old farmer’s hydraulic, pneumatic-type construction.” So, we still have that line. Others say, “I don’t want any hydraulics, I’d like to get rid of all my pneumatics. I want to use an all-electric machine.” So, we produce that solution, too.
Also, the touch-screen computer basically revolutionized everything. Especially now that the kids all have phones, you can train an operator on a touch-screen machine in an hour; they’re already predisposed to it. This has helped in the education part, and for troubleshooting, self-diagnostics — there’s all sorts of advantages.
Zed has been in business for over 50 years. To what do you attribute the company’s success?
Zelnick: I had a great dad — I still do. He’s probably the best reason for the success. You can’t build a house unless you have a strong foundation. And dad gave us that. He always felt it was important that we learn things from the ground up. When I was in junior high, I wanted a motorcycle. Dad said, “No, but you can build one yourself.” I had it finished by the time I graduated from high school.
That and innovation; we’re innovators. We always seem to be a little too soon, though. We’ve solved a lot of problems for people with machines that then get refined later by somebody else. I make machines for customers to solve their problems. Will I build 100 of them? No, that’s not us.
What is your greatest contribution to the plastics industry?
Zelnick: My scientific background is probably the best; I had great teachers, and that’s been a great strength when we have a problem. Also, as years go by and I’ve watched older folks leave, one of the things I’ve required here is to document everything; get it all written down. Too many companies go through generational change and lose that knowledge base. “Bob” in the back has been doing it for 20 years and if you don’t document that before he leaves, you’re in trouble. He doesn’t want to give up his secrets because he thinks it’s job security, so you have to get him to see that he’s doing a great thing, he’s passing the torch. And that’s what we all need to do, too.