WILTON, Maine — While most manufacturing has left this Western Maine town, a plastic cutlery mill in the East Wilton neighborhood is thriving.
Committed to efficiently producing a quality product, Jarden Plastic Solutions has grown by leaps and bounds over the past six years, General Manager Steve Veilleux said. He attributed the company’s success to his team and the workers in the plant.
A new injection molding machine, one that forms polystyrene pellets into plastic-ware, is expected to arrive this month. “It will fill the mill space,” he said.
A division of Jarden Corp., Jarden Plastic Solutions is the company’s only mill in Maine. The company is considering adding a new building, as well as five more machines and potentially, about 30 new jobs to its 206 positions, he said.
Veilleux is looking at options and estimates for a new, 100- by 80-foot building, but there’s no guarantee the company will invest more capital, he said. It’s his job to come up with a good proposal. Part of the search includes seeking help from the town and state.
The mill is producing 10 million cases (5.7 billion pieces) of cutlery. It produced 6.5 million cases in 2003, he said.
Workers use 135,000 pounds of polystyrene pellets each day. Production runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day. White, clear and black cutlery is produced for Jarden Plastic Solutions’ sister company, Jarden Home Brands in Dryden, which distributes the product under 50 brand names. Walmart makes up 45 percent of the company’s business, selling the Wilton-made cutlery under private labels in their 3,500 stores, Veilleux said.
Ten years ago, the picture wasn’t quite so rosy.
“It looked like the mill work would all go to China,” Veilleux said. “We were on the edge of losing and completely leaving the area.”
He was determined that wouldn’t happen on his watch. His employees’ work ethic and commitment to efficiency has earned the local mill the claim to being No. 1 in quality, he said.
The company still has a few suppliers out of China, but some of the previously outsourced work has returned to the local mill.
“They make some items for us, things we can’t make,” Veilleux said. “Changing colors (for the cutlery) would take time and slow production.”
It’s a tough market now, and there’s not a lot of money in plastic cutlery, he said. Machines help drive prices down with more productivity and more business.
On the flip side, they acquire more business daily in the United States and Canadian markets, enough to keep more machinery and people working, he said.
The mill has a long history, starting as an old broom factory, Veilleux said. Charles Forster bought the mill and started producing plastic cutlery. The first injection molding machine was brought down from the Forster mill in Strong and another was purchased. Former General Manager John Beach bought more machines in the 1990s.
In prior years, 18 employees in Wilton would hand-pack the cutlery into boxes. It was an all-touch product, he said.
Now, the white cutlery, which makes up 75 percent of the work, is produced by machine. Robots pick and place products using something similar to a suction cup, he said. The clear cutlery production is not automated.
Although employment means a good wage, insurance and a 401(k) plan, there’s still worker turnover and constant hiring.
“It’s labor-intensive work,” Veilleux said.
With 18 years of company service, he recently earned a highly respected Jarden Corp. award, the Chairman’s Award of Merit.
He modestly attributed the company’s success to its workers. They’ve worked on efficiency and sustainability, he said, bringing 140 tons of landfill material down to 40 tons.
Wilton selectmen recently met with Veilleux at the mill as part of a new effort to visit local businesses. They later unanimously moved to seek ways to help the mill continue growing.
“We do have manufacturing in Wilton,” board Chairman Terry Brann said.