by Daisy Wakefield
Kaveh Soofer is waxing sentimental about a first meeting with a 45,000 square foot industrial space in East Hills Business Park. You can hardly fault him for falling in love. The facility is in Lawrence, after all. And this town tends to have affect people in that way, even a local manufacturing plant.
Soofer, the vice president of Plastikon Industries, says that the facility on Kansas Highway 10 is the perfect fit for a new plant to manufacture plastic vials. Plastikon, headquartered in San Francisco, is in its 28th year as an injection molding plastics manufacturer, with 8 plants in the US and 5 in Asia. Heading into a new market of pharmaceutical plastics, Soofer was frantically looking for a warehouse space to house a manufacturing plant using a "blow-fill-seal" technology.
"I was in a panic late one night, searching on the Internet," says Soofer, "And I came across this facility in Kansas that looked perfect for our needs. But I didn’t know anything about Kansas. All I knew was that it had tornadoes, and I didn’t want to jump from earthquakes to another natural disaster."
Soofer was relieved to learn that Lawrence is located in an indention in Kansas which shields it from most tornadoes. Still, he had to pitch the idea to the main client who was concerned about the earthquakes.
"During our discussions about this location, there happened to be earthquakes in New York City and Florida that made the national news," Soofer said. "But all was quiet in Kansas. So with that concern alleviated, I contacted the broker and came to tour the facility with a consultant. We saw that this was a solid building that had the infrastructure that we needed — a large number of tanks, a good water system. It had good bones, basically."
Those good bones transferred ownership to Plastikon at the end of January and have received $2.5 million in renovations thus far. All available warehouse space has already been converted to the clean rooms, and before production has even begun, the plant is stretching the boundaries of capacity. With a "if we build it, they will come" philosophy, plans are underway to expand the existing facility or acquire more warehouse space in the business park.
While Plastikon expressed interest in locating in East Hills, Lawrence’s key economic developers have not played coy. The new business is bringing obvious benefits to the city’s economic base, with $7 million in capital investment for facility upgrades and equipment over a five-year period. Employment is to be boosted by 50 jobs in the first year, and 126 jobs in a five-year span, with an average wage of $42,000 per year. Plastikon received a $700,000 incentive from the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which allocates funds to attract and support new bioscience initiatives in Kansas. The company did not seek tax abatements from the city, but rather asked for an incentive to help subsidize training costs at a total of $63,000, paid over five years. The funds, unanimously approved by the city’s Public Incentives Review Commission, will be split between the city and the county.
Stacey Falco, Office Manager of the Lawrence branch, is already planning the expansion.
"We plan to begin construction an additional warehouse by the first of next year," Falco said. "We need, essentially, a big empty room to store the hundreds of thousand of vials we will be producing."
The vials will be completely produced, filled, stored and shipped from the East Hills location.
"Really, it’s a self-contained business," Falco said. "We will be entirely servicing one client with this facility."
Beth Johnson, Economic Director of Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, says, "Plastikon did not qualify to apply for a tax abatement, since the capital outlay did not meet that criteria. But offering an employee training incentive was a way that we could show them how much we wanted them here. Our hope is definitely to position Lawrence as a solid growth city for the biotech field, and Plastikon’s coming to Lawrence helps that significantly."
"This was a company that we wanted to have in Lawrence, as they would bring in the type of jobs that we wanted to attract," said Mike Amyx, City Commissioner and Lawrence mayor during the transaction. "There was a lot of work done to make sure that they did locate here. We sold the community as a great place to do business, with a great pool of employment and a well-educated employment base. We also stressed that this is a continued partnership — we’ll be staying in contact with the company, and looking for ways to continually help them."
And that employment base would be crucial, as Plastikon does all hiring locally, from office to manufacturing to management. In fact, with the exception of Soofer coming in from California at intervals to get the plant off the ground, all other positions are to be filled locally. Plastikon also sources all of its commercial needs locally. Lawrence engineers, architects, and construction crews have done all the building renovations. Local lawyers represent the company, and a local bank transacts their funds.
"We intend to source as much as possible from the local community," Soofer said. "If the people we hire are from this area, they’ll be more stable in the long term as they have a vested interest in where they live — much more so than if we brought in people from outside."
Soofer didn’t have to look far for his first employee, building maintenance manager and Lawrencian Charlie Garzillo. Part of the original construction crew that broke ground on the facility, Garzillo became the maintenance manager for original owner in 2003. Garzillo has rolled with the punches in each of the four ownership changes, maintaining the building through its empty states.
"My goal has always been to keep the facilities as functional and operational as possible, so that it would be marketable," Garzillo said.
As an employer, Plastikon states "building trust and teamwork among our employees" as a critical value. This may sound like typical corporate-speak, but Soofer, an executive with a laid-back and approachable demeanor, does much to lend authenticity to the statement. For now, Soofer comes to Lawrence every few weeks to oversee the hiring and renovations. Eventually, Soofer’s trips here will taper off. But he isn’t in a hurry.
"Lawrence is a great town — community-oriented, tight-knit, great art scene, fabulous food," Soofer said. "I’m never in a hurry to leave like I am on other business trips. I absolutely see why people want to live here."