Falcon Plastics: All in the family

BY:Jill Fier

_Jay Bender, president of Falcon Plastics in Brookings, looks at the pieces of a pill splitter molded at the company’s Premier Source location on Western Avenue. Premier Source was started about three years ago and designs cost-effective solutions for the manufacturing industry, such as custom automation, precision machining, prototypes and specialty molding.Falcon Plastics is a family business._

But more than that, say its owners, it’s a community business.

The company was founded in Brookings and has grown here for 35 years.

Don and Carol Bender chose to settle their family and open their business in Brookings because of the space provided by another local entrepreneur.

Now some of the company’s top customers are Brookings-based businesses.

And because of the assistance Falcon received in its early years, the company chooses to pass on its good fortune to others, by supporting local economic development efforts and contributing to other area nonprofit organizations.

Started with three employees

A custom injection molding and blow molding company, Falcon Plastics makes plastic parts for other companies to use in their products.

“We’re producing components, or assemblies, that another manufacturer is going to buy and put into its product,” explained Jay Bender, company president and son of the founders. He now leads the company with his brother, Guy, and his brother-in-law, Shaun Riedesel.

By any measure, Falcon Plastics is a success story.

Falcon opened its doors in Brookings in 1975, operating in 5,000 square feet with just three employees. First-year sales were a respectable $230,000.

Thirty-five years later, the company operates out of three communities – Brookings and Madison in South Dakota and in Lexington, Tenn. – with a total of 187 workers, 118 of whom are in Brookings. Annual gross sales reached $30 million for the first time in 2008.

Bender said his parents moved the family from Minneapolis to Brookings after his father’s previous employer went bankrupt. Raven Industries of Sioux Falls was Falcon’s very first customer and also was a partner in the business.

Dale Larson offers location

Bender said his parents looked all over eastern South Dakota before settling on Brookings as a place to start their business.

“Back then there weren’t a lot of economic development people with assistance like there is now.” he says. “We actually ended up in Brookings, in part, due to Dale Larson. He had space that he had leased from Paul Moriarty, and they both allowed us to sublease a portion of that.

“It started from the ground up. It was definitely an ‘entrepreneurial adventure’ for my parents. They basically sold their home in Minneapolis, took all their equity and put it into this business and started over.”

Bender said that after that first year, Falcon Plastics was doing business with Larson Manufacturing and 3M, and about 10 years later, Daktronics was a client as well.

“So we have some very good local customers here in the Brookings community that have really helped us grow.”

Giving back

Bender said his family subscribes to the notion of “paying it forward.” They were given a hand up, so they’ve offered their assistance to others. Falcon Plastics, for example, gives back to the community by supporting charitable organizations and other local entities. But like his father, Bender says he personally found his community service niche in economic development.

“I think it’s good for the community, it’s good for the citizens, it’s good for the business owners, it’s good for the university, and it’s good for the state. And certainly if there’s more manufacturing in the area, it gives us more opportunities to find suppliers or customers with that growth,” Bender said of local economic development efforts.

“This town certainly has the capacity to grow. Most communities in South Dakota are dying, so having a little bit of growth means at least maybe we can maintain what we have.”

Bender is the immediate past chair of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Locally, he’s a past chair of the Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce, current chair of the Brookings Economic Development Corporation and was just named chair of the SDSU Growth Partnership, the group that manages the South Dakota State University Innovation Campus.

“I see the research park as a huge opportunity for SDSU, Brookings and the State of South Dakota, to transform the way that we’ve done economic development and go after some higher-paying, higher-level jobs – and maybe more of an entrepreneurial-type growth spinning off the university.”

Falcon Plastics is a big supporter of the United Way, matching $2 for every dollar company employees give to the organization. “The reason is how localized it is and, in my opinion, how efficient and powerful those groups are,” Bender says. “Many of them are running on volunteer power, and you get a lot of bang for your buck with those organizations. … It helps your neighbors and your friends in your immediate communities.”

Support from the company also goes to SDSU scholarships, Vision Brookings, Teen Challenge of the Dakotas, and more.

Junior Achievement even benefits from financial commitments and volunteers from Falcon Plastics, Bender said.

“We feel this is an opportunity for us to help young people understand that competition isn’t always a bad thing, and it can bring out the best in you. The free market system is one of the things that’s made this country great.”

Beyond Brookings

While Falcon Plastics has always been based in Brookings, the company’s reach extends much farther than that.

The company opened a manufacturing plant in Madison in 1990. Its largest customer, Mitchell-based Toshiba, was concerned about all of its plastic components coming from one source and wanted to get its molds into two different locations. Falcon chose to open up another facility rather than let a competitor take the business.

Five years later came an expansion request from another customer. Bender says Falcon was molding product for a Michigan-based business that had a facility in Flandreau. The company moved its operation to Tennessee and wanted to continue its relationship with Falcon Plastics but wanted Falcon closer. So the Brookings company started its Lexington operation.

Some jobs in Brookings were also shifted to that Tennessee plant three years ago. Bender says there was a lack of workforce here, and the company currently does not have the room to bring the positions back.

Competitive business

Bender said companies turn to places like Falcon Plastics because it costs less than handling molding themselves.

“This is all we do, so we’ve got to be good at it. It’s a very competitive business. There are about 50,000 competitors in the world. Our customers shop worldwide, but customers typically prefer to have a supplier that’s close to them.”

Four years ago, Falcon started a new business unit in Brookings called Premier Source. The engineering company, more focused on the entrepreneurial side of the business, designs cost-effective solutions for the manufacturing industry, such as custom automation, precision machining, prototypes and specialty molding.

While the parent company continues to evolve with technology, certain aspects of the business have remained relatively constant over the years – some of Falcon Plastics’ employees have been with the business nearly as long as it’s been open.

“We’ve got a pretty loyal group of employees, particularly in Brookings, because this is where we started. … We have lots of people who have stuck with us through thick and thin. We try to treat our employees like our family.”

Family business

Bender and his siblings were all involved in the business when it first started. “I think my dad and my older brother actually lived in the plant for a week or two before we even had a place to live here.”

Bender left Brookings after he got his engineering degree from SDSU, as did his brother-in-law, and both went to work for other companies.

Bender returned in 1987, and Riedesel started running the Madison plant in 1990.

In 1997, Falcon Plastics bought out Raven Industries’ half of the business, and eventually Bender, his brother, brother-in-law and sister bought out their parents to become the current shareholders of the company.

Bender said that when Falcon Plastics got its start, no one knew it would become the family business it is today.

“We all worked in it, kind of liked it, and we liked Brookings. … I came back here to start and raise a family as much as I did to work in the family business. This just felt like home.”

So will there be a third generation of family members running the operation?

Bender says there’s not much interest so far in engineering, but his son and niece, both SDSU students, are working at Falcon Plastics part-time this summer.

“We’ll see where that goes, … but our parents never pushed us to be in this business, and that’s kind of the method we’re taking with them. We want them to do what makes them happy and have a career that they can feel good about. If it happens to be Falcon Plastics or something in this line, then great. If not, we just want to support them and help them be successful.”

Contact Jill Fier at jfier@brookingsregister.com.

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