Auto parts, Dolly Parton boots help push Greenleaf forward

GreenLeaf Industries custom molder

Families from the Lenoir City, Tenn area (outside of Knoxville) know about the Plastic Injection Molder, GreenLeaf Industries, but we are finally making waves across the industry. It was a matter of time, as GreenLeaf has grown steadily from its origins. Please enjoy the success story written by Crains’, Bill Bregar that was featured in Plastics News. 

NEWS: Lenoir City, Tenn. — Greenleaf Industries, a Tier 2 automotive molder, has run only all-electric molding machines since it began in 1999 — and the company is gaining more work from its existing customers, and now is molding some under-the-hood parts.

Greenleaf does molding, pad printing and assembly of parts such as air outlets, glove box hinges, trays and caps, and cup holders. Business is good because U.S. car and light truck sales hit nearly 17.5 million in 2015, a record.

Dolly Parton and Hurricane Katrina also played a role in the company’s growth, though not for automotive.

The Greenleaf leaders committed to performance excellence and upgrading the skills of its 45 employees about two years ago, CEO Lawrence Segrest said. Sales were $4.3 million in 2015. Automotive work, all of it for Japanese nameplates such as Acura, Honda and Toyota, accounts for 70 percent of business.

“One of the first things that we looked at was, what is the heart of our business? And that’s molding. We do assembly, we do printing, but the heart of our business is molding,” Segrest said. “And there’s two key things: The machines, and our mold techs. And our mold techs are the thing we can control the most, and that is the hardest thing to actually do.”

Greenleaf also standardized on Sumitomo Demag injection molding presses, again to simplify things for the plant employees, and because the machinery maker provides good service, parts, training and advice, molding officials said. The company sold off its few non-Sumitomos and replaced them.

GreenLeaf Industries injection molder Sumitomo SE280HD
Earle Segrest, Jason Tucker (Sumitomo Demag) and Lawrence Segrest

Greenleaf still operates its first three machines — Sumitomo SES presses. The company runs nine Sumitomo Demags, with clamping forces from 50-350 tons.

Three siblings in the ownership group talked about Greenleaf’s history and future, during an interview at the plant in Lenoir City, near Knoxville: Lawrence Segrest, his sister Beth Johnson, the vice president of operations and quality systems, and brother Robert Segrest, director of business development.

Their parents, Earle and Rosaland Segrest, also work at the company. Earle’s background explains why Greenleaf became an exclusive all-electric machine house well before that became a trend.

In the mid-1990s, Earle, an industrial engineer, was working at a major manufacturer of gas caps and radiator caps. Milacron was pushing the Roboshot all-electrics, made by Fanuc Ltd. He got interested. The company bought a few, but stuck them in the middle of its molding factory full of hydraulic presses.

Lawrence tells the story: “My father thought that the technology was right. … And he thought, ‘These should be managed differently than hydraulics.’ The hydraulic guys always want to go and tweak everything, so they’d want to go tweak the electrics, which isn’t necessary. And so every shift would run it differently just like they did on the hydraulics.”

Earle Segrest was executive vice president. Management sounded interested in his idea to set up a separate molding shop, with a dedicated crew, for the all-electrics. “And after two years, he realized that they were just telling him that, but they weren’t really going to do it,” Lawrence Segrest said.

So Earle asked his son if he wanted to start a business. Lawrence, who was doing diesel engine design at Cummins, said yes.

His dad wanted him to handle the finances. That’s not easy for an engineer, Lawrence said, so he got an MBA from Duke University, skipped graduation, and they started Greenleaf in 1999. The company began with four employees in repurposed industrial space at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. But the government decided it really did need some of the buildings, and Greenleaf and some other companies were forced to get out.

“So we were 3 years old, struggling, and now we had to spend $70,000 to move. We found the closest building that had a crane, that was available, so that we wouldn’t lose all our employees,” he said. That was important, since Greenleaf was QS 9000 certified for automotive, just nine months after it opened.

Greenleaf moved at the end of 2002 to Lenoir City, not far from ORNL. The molder occupies about 30,000 square feet of the 55,000-square-foot building; another company has the rest.

Earle negotiated with his former employer and got some cap business from it. Lawrence Segrest said they sent four molds, and 12 more were supposed to come over. But it didn’t pan out.

“It was lean times,” he said. “Our cash burn was pretty high. And we didn’t have a sales program, because our mission in life was to get these 12 or so molds, figure out how to run them and all that.”

Getting work for a Tier 1 supplier to Nissan helped. Then Greenleaf also picked up some Honda air outlet assemblies, now a major business, Lawrence Segrest said.

Then came Dolly Parton. The country music star’s Dixie Stampede dinner show needed a new molder to replace one that went out of business, he said. Greenleaf bid on the high-volume, thin-margin job: a boot-shaped plastic mug. The Segrests invested in screen printing equipment, and learned how to print on the round boot shape, a challenge.

GreenLeaf Industries Custom Molder Dixe Stampede
Dixie Stampede Custom Mugs

The Lenoir City factory makes about 400,000 Dixie Stampede mugs a year. Oh, and they also make some complex automotive parts. “Other than the printing part it, that [mug] is kind-of our low-tech thing. But that’s the one where everybody says ‘Oh yeah, I know about that,’” Lawrence Segrest quipped.

Meanwhile, the company kept building its air outlet molding and assembly operation. Katrina in the fall of 2005 brought in molding of knobs for appliances in mobile homes and recreational vehicles. The customer had been buying them from China, but the spike in demand, as the federal government gobbled up mobile homes for temporary housing, meant the knobs had to be air-shipped from China.

Dometic knob Plastics Technology | GreenLeaf Industries | Lenoir City, TN
Dometic Knobs

Greenleaf won the work, using its expertise in molding and screen printing. It was 2006, making Greenleaf an early example of a molder winning work back from China, or reshoring.

Today the appliance knobs and Dixie Stampede mugs remain significant parts of the business.

Greenleaf Industries is owned by three siblings: Robert Segrest, director of business development, Beth Johnson, vice president of operations, and Lawrence Segrest, CEO.

For automotive, Lawrence Segrest said: “The thing that we’re most excited about now, is, we’re doing some under-the-valve-cover parts for Toyota engines.” Greenleaf molds the part for the customer, which laser welds the component to its own molded part, to assemble an oil delivery system, he said.

Beth Johnson GreenLeaf Industries Bill Bregar Plastics News
Beth Johnson and Bill Bregar tour the facility

And Beth Johnson, an engineer who had a background in medical catheters and stents before joining the family business, said Greenleaf could move into some medical, given its know-how in all-electric molding.

Lawrence Segrest said it’s a good time to look at diversifying. Auto sales are solid in the U.S., but the trend is production increasing in Mexico, thanks to low labor costs and that country’s free-trade agreements that fuel exports. Greenleaf covers the Southeastern United States.

The move to only Sumitomo Demags is part of Greenleaf management’s decision two years ago to aim for excellence, to move beyond a defensive mindset from the Great Recession. The molder has close ties to the machinery maker’s sales and service facility in Norcross, Ga.

“We had developed a battle-fatigued, kind-of defensive mentality. And survival, even, for 2008 and 2009,” he said. “That changes how you look at things.”

The Segrests decided: Greenleaf should be a great company, not one that just gets by.

About GreenLeaf: GreenLeaf Industries is an ISO 9001 registered manufacturer that consistently adheres to all its standards to provide our clients with consistent, reliable, quality automotive and industrial plastic parts. We are an American injection molding company, unafraid to compete in the world market and determined to succeed. Established in 1999, we take pride in our high-quality craftsmanship and superior customer service. Visit us:

GreenLeaf Industries
310 Bussell Ferry Road
Lenoir City, TN 37771
(865) 988-5661
www.greenleaf.biz