The common wisdom says that basic manufacturing has left the United States. Ashley Thompson, CEO of 50 Strong, a Lima, Ohio-based plastics manufacturer is trying to prove that common wisdom wrong.
Thompson, 37, a former lawyer, grew up in the plastics manufacturing business, and created the 50 Strong brand. The company makes plastic water bottles and other basic plastic products. Today, the family-owned business has 100 full-time employees, sales of more than $10 million, and nationwide distribution in Walmart. It recently won a contract to produce 5 million plastic water bottles for Walmart, replacing a former supplier that had made bottles in China.
At Walmart’s recent open call extravaganza for American manufacturers in Bentonville, Ark., Thompson arrived dressed in a blue jacket and big red beaded necklace to make the case for making products at home. “We want to prove that made-in-America products can be done at the same price as imported products,” she says.
Open call is the one day a year when Walmart opens its doors to pitches from American manufacturers, however small, as part of the retailer’s pledge to add $250 billion in U.S.-made goods to its shelves by 2023. At this year’s event in late-June, more than 500 entrepreneurs trekked to Bentonville from across the country to pitch their products, Shark Tank-style, in 30 minute meetings with the retailer’s buyers. Nearly 100 of them – including Thompson, who was pitching new, inexpensive plastic storage pockets where consumers could put kitchen or bath products that clutter the countertops – received an immediate yes.
Thompson’s father, Randy Carter, started the family’s plastics manufacturing business, called Precision Thermoplastic Components, or PTC, back in 1982. The business did contract manufacturing for other companies, and had expertise in injection molding, extruding, blow molding and product assembly. It was a tough business as manufacturing moved overseas, where costs were cheaper. “We would have products where we would have the business, and then lose it to a supplier in China,” Thompson recalls.
Growing up, she vowed never to work for the family business, and, instead went to law school at Ohio State University, and practiced as an attorney at a small firm. In 2012, she was ready for a change, and with her husband, Brendan, who already worked at PTC, she came up with the idea for 50 Strong. The new division is named for the country’s 50 states. Flipping over water bottles at trade shows, she realized that most were made overseas, and she vowed to make all her products in the Rust Belt. “We knew we had the manufacturing capabilities, and we saw the need for a made-in-America brand,” she says.
Slowly, but surely, she started to make inroads at retail. PTC had first gotten into Walmart with a tire inflater in the automotive department for which it made a piece of tubing. Today, 50 Strong has 16 items in Walmart’s stores, and also sells on Amazon and its own website.