Editor’s Letter: SPE Is 80, Strong and Moving Ahead

Letter from the Editor
Pat Toensmeier, Editor-in-Chief, [email protected]

80 Years and Counting

Exactly 80 years ago, Fred O. Conley of Detroit and two colleagues signed incorporation papers in Michigan and the Society of Plastics Engineers was born.

Conley was a major figure in the development of SPE: He was the first president, formed the Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland Sections, and supplied much of the funding that the nascent organization needed in its early years.

Born in 1899, he had been in the industry since 1920. By the time he started SPE, he had a record of accomplishment in plastics, his profession, as well as automotive plastics, one of his specialties. Conley was a successful manufacturer’s rep, and a designer and developer of several “firsts” in plastics. In automotive these included a cowl ventilator and a patented interior sun visor. He’s also credited with designing the first plastics cabinet for a portable radio. In addition to being inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame and being a charter member of the Plastics Pioneers Association, he was named to the Automotive Old Timers, which became the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Conley had a vision for SPE. Promoting plastics products would certainly have been one goal, as well as developing an organization with a global reach and, through Chapters and conferences, a local presence. Education would be an important benefit in the early days of SPE—as now—and the ability to network, make friends and learn about opportunities would have provided unparalleled collegiality among members.

He may also have envisioned an organization that would encourage students to make plastics their career and so promote mentoring, scholarships, internships and other supports to help make it happen.

Conley was a visionary and an achiever who saw the need for SPE at a particular time and place—1942 in wartime Detroit, then a major manufacturing center—and worked diligently to make it happen. One could not expect less from someone who claimed he could trace his lineage to Charlemagne (yes, that Charlemagne).

The organization he founded 80 years ago is still in business, stronger than ever and fulfilling its commitment to members, to education, to developing the next generation of plastics engineers, and importantly, to reaching out to people from underrepresented groups who also see plastics as a viable career.
The fact that SPE is 80 is remarkable. It is unusual to find companies or the trade associations that support them as long-lived as SPE.

Wasim Jabbar, writing in Business Data List in April, noted, “In any given year, about 50 percent of new businesses close within their first year. In the next 12 months after that, nearly half of those that didn’t close in the beginning are gone for good. After three years it’s 90 percent, and after five years it’s 99 percent.”

In 2016, Stéphane Garelli, emeritus professor at the Institute for Management Development of Lausanne, Switzerland, wrote about a then-recent McKinsey study which “found that the average lifespan of companies listed in the Standard & Poor’s 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today (i.e., 2016), it is less than 18 years. McKinsey believes that, in 2027, 75 percent of the companies … on the S&P 500 will have disappeared. They will be bought out, merged or will go bankrupt …”

Garelli cited British economist E.F. Schumacher who, in 1973, published Small Is Beautiful, a book that exposed the “inefficiency of large enterprises.” According to Schumacher, “What characterizes modern industry is its enormous consumption to produce so little … It is inefficient to a degree that goes beyond imagination.”

SPE is hardly inefficient. It gets the most from its resources and the people who make it work every day—executives, staff and members—are tireless and successful in their efforts. I daresay that 20 years from now SPE will be celebrating its centennial as robustly as it now marks 80 years, and with many more successes.

“Dreams are the yeast of accomplishments,” said Charles Breskin, a Plastics Hall of Fame inductee in 1973. Fred O. Conley was still alive then, and one hopes he was at the ceremony to hear that. Because if anything can sum up what drove him to lay the foundation for SPE, it was that observation.

Thanks, Fred!

Happy Birthday, SPE!

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By Plastics Engineering | March 1, 2023

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