Made in the Tri-States: Unlimited potential for Jackson County plastics business

Matt Vozenilek (left) and Danielle Klosterman lay fiber glass on product at Plastics Unlimited in Preston, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

PRESTON, Iowa — Long before Travis and Dakota Kieffer became owners of Plastics Unlimited, the brothers already were pitching in at the family business.

The bus would routinely drop the boys off at the business after school. Travis and Dakota would spend their afternoons helping in whatever way they could.

“They have been involved for a long time,” recalled their mother, Nancy. “We treated it like a family farm, where everyone has to pitch in and do their part.”

The Preston business has come a long way from its humble beginnings more than 25 years ago.

Nancy and her husband, Terry, started the operation in 1993 and the couple originally operated the business out of a machine shed on their farm. They moved Plastics Unlimited to its current location four years later.

The business has grown by leaps and bounds since.

It now employs 70 workers and inhabits a 100,000-square-foot space at 303 First St.

Travis and Dakota Kieffer took ownership of the business from their parents in 2018. Nancy said it is the ideal scenario.

“We couldn’t ask for a better situation,” she said. “We feel so fortunate they wanted to buy in.”

EXPANSIVE REACH

Plastics Unlimited might reside in a small town, but the company serves a long list of well-known clients.

The business counts Deere & Co., Rite-Hite and Procter & Gamble among its many customers. Dakota Kieffer said the business maintains its longtime clients and secures new ones by working hard and sticking to the truth.

“I think the key is just being honest and building that trust with customers,” he said. “We don’t over promise and we show our customers that we will do what we are asked to do.”

The employees at Plastics Unlimited are asked to do many things and create a wide variety of products.

Dakota said the business makes side panels, cab roofs, back rests and other parts for a variety of vehicles. It also creates parts for vending machines.

Some creations are oddly specific: For instance, the business makes the handling trays that transfer empty tubes of Crest from the facility where they are manufactured to the one where they are filled with toothpaste.

Whether employees are making parts for a combine or trays for toothpaste, the process generally follows a basic formula.

Staff members start with a raw plastic sheet, place it in an oven and heat it to about 325 degrees. Once the plastic is pliable, a mold is used to alter the material into its desired shape.

Employees used a CNC trimmer to cut excess material from the product then add things like holes or mounting points to the plastic. Eventually, the product is packaged and shipped to its destination.

Nancy explained that the excess plastic is ground down and returned to the supplier, which ultimately reforms the material into a new plastic sheet.

“We make sure that very, very little goes to waste,” she said.

STARTING SMALL

Nancy and Terry Kieffer were married in 1984. At the time, the couple envisioned a life as farmers.

“Unfortunately, we both had health issues that prevented us from doing that,” Nancy recalled. “We had to find other things to do.”

Terry did extensive research in hopes of finding an up-and-coming industry in which he could start a company. He discovered that there was money to be made in the plastics business.

The Kieffers ultimately discovered an auction where a plastic “thermoformer” was on sale. They placed the high bid, purchased the machine and the business was born.

At first, their expectations were modest.

“I just hoped we could make it into something we could do full-time and make a living,” Terry recalled.

Plastics Unlimited started strictly as a family business. By the time they moved out of the machine head and into their First Street facility, the company had 10 employees.

That number has since grown to 70 and the Kieffers plan to hire about 10 more in the next year.

Travis Kieffer said he is grateful for the tight bond the owners feel with their experienced staff.

“Many of them have been here so long that they feel like family, too,” he said. “We know we can rely on them.”

The building also has grown steadily. Nancy estimates that they have expanded the facility around a half-dozen times.

The most recent expansion was completed this year, adding about 30,000 square feet.

The products created under that roof have an extensive reach. Dakota said about 20% of products are shipped outside of the U.S., although the majority stay in the Midwest.

Today, Plastics Unlimited serves customers in the agricultural, construction and recreational industries, among others. Dakota said he and his brother hope to established a foothold in the aerospace and medical industries as well.

“Our hope is that we continue to grow and we continue to diversify,” Dakota said.