Soltysiak Learns To Ply Trade

May 13, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — He caught the business bug growing up.

But rather than run a business as an employee like his father did when general manager of a small Grand Rapids machine shop, Tom Soltysiak wanted to own one.

Years later, he’s “living the American dream” as the owner of a successful business that has him riding the ups and downs that go with entrepreneurship.

“It’s the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” said Soltysiak, owner and president of Polyply Composites Inc. in Grand Haven, a molder of polyester fiberglass that produces products for a variety of industries — from electrical insulators to wash tubs, pool table legs, bowling alley hoods and the covering on the boards surrounding skating rinks.

The small company presently is on a high, recording double-digit sales growth in recent years, securing a $1 million financing package to buy its facility that was previously leased, and winning recognition as one of the best small businesses in Michigan for 2001.

Polyply Composites was named the regional winner of the Michigan Small Business Development Center’s 2001 Best Small Business Award.

The award is in recognition of the high growth that Polyply has experienced since Soltysiak purchased the company in 1995 from a former customer, after leaving a position selling resin and glass across the state.

Polyply, with a workforce of 42 employees, grew sales 48 percent in 2000 and another 32 percent in 2001. The recession has kept sales growth to a minimum this year, although Soltysiak expects to get back on track with a projected 18 percent to 20 percent revenue growth next year, he said.

A mechanical engineer who ventured into the fiberglass business years ago, Soltysiak credits the company’s success to a dedicated workforce and a highly diverse customer base.

It’s a customer base that Soltysiak maintains close contacts with — in addition to being president, he also handles sales. Doing so allows him to maintain face-to-face communication with customers and better understand what they need from his business.

“Even in a world of technology, it’s still something that’s important,” he said. “It keeps my fingers on the pulse of the industry so we can make directional changes based on what I hear out there.”

Soltysiak’s path to business owner began after he graduated from Michigan Technological University in 1972 with an engineering degree. The Grand Rapids-area native wanted to pursue owning and running his own business.

His first stop was at Blackmer Pump in Grand Rapids, where he worked as an engineer. He later went to another pump company in Battle Creek, and then came back to Grand Rapids, where he connected with a Belding company that made fiberglass tanks, which introduced him to the industry.

He saw the industry as holding a lot of potential, but it was intriguing to him as well because of the chemistry involved in the molding and production process. “It was interesting to be able to take two liquids and put them together and it comes out hard,” Soltysiak said.

Soltysiak later became involved in a partnership in a Muskegon company that bought and sold resin and glass. When he left the partnership in 1991 after seven years, his contacts led him to a sales position and taught him plenty about the business and its players.

“It was a good education to see what everyone was doing, which ones were successful and which ones were not,” Soltysiak said.

Through the sales job, he got to know Roger Knowles, then owner of Polyply Composites. In late 1994, when Knowles began to prepare for retirement and was looking to sell the business, Soltysiak saw it as an opportunity to put his experience and knowledge to work again as a business owner and approached him.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” said Soltysiak, who bought the business in 1995.

His first goal was to shore up the company’s lagging quality control operation so he could get a better handle on his raw material and scrap costs. That process led to Polyply earning its ISO certification in 1998, a process that generated new business opportunities and has helped the company grow, Soltysiak said.    

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