Often there is more romance and real drama in the background of a business venture than is generally known.
The spark of this company’s founding was struck when Mr Beene was unable to obtain a plastic part he needed without an unacceptable long wait. He was told that if he wanted the part sooner, he would probably have to make it himself. So that’s exactly what he decided to do!
PI Inc. first opened for business in a one-story frame house on Pope Avenue in September of 1952. Mr. Beene and the work force of Rubye Maupin and Thurston Thompson began making plastic letters for signs and store displays and eventually expanded to making hosiery inspection forms.
From its small Pope Avenue site, Plastic Industries — as the company was known then — moved to its first industrial building in 1955. That building expanded several times and was known for many years as Plant #1 on Congress Parkway.
In 1956, Mr. Beene was approached with an idea of making furniture legs out of plastic. This new product line would be the turning point int he company and has remained one of the largest volume and most profitable lines produced.
Due to the cost of molding machines, PI contracted with Patton Button in Knoxville to mold the leg shells; assembly was then done in Athens. Roy Nankivell, Jr., who had joined Plastic Industries in 1958 as Vice President and Production Chief, engineered a washer to hold the bolt in place and a machine to assemble the washer to the bolt.
By 1960, PI had expanded its line of legs to several heights and sizes. The company had also purchased one four-ounce injection-molding machine to make small leg shells. The leg business showed great potential, so the company hired Chuck C. Redfern as its first sales manager.
Another breakthrough was the development of solid-molded furniture parts. This innovation gave makers of medium-priced upholstered furniture new styling options, allowing them to give consumers features once seen only on expensive pieces.
The chemical companies and their engineers said it couldn’t be done, that after being molded in thick sections, polystyrene would collapse as it cooled. Fortunately, no one told the production people of PI. In March of 1963, PI produced the first molded “solid” French-styled furniture leg. This revolutionized the furniture business.
The “secret process” developed by Plastic Industries in molding solid parts and legs was not something that could be patented; it was a process developed by using blowing agents and cooling systems. With this process, PI attracted the attention of furniture manufacturers and the trade magazines.
Another major breakthrough was created when PI developed and manufactured a plastic saddletree for the western saddle industry. The technology used to make solid furniture parts allowed PI to make a solid, molded saddletree, which was stronger and less expensive than wooden ones. Today about 60% of all western saddles are built on PI saddletrees.
Because of the proximity of Chattanooga, a major western saddle producing center, Roy Nankivell, Jr., using the process developed by PI in molding heavy thick furniture parts, engineered an injection-molded saddletree.
The so-called “Ralide” saddletree was as revolutionary to the horse tack industry as molded legs had been to the furniture industry. Not only was the saddletree now always the same size, which allowed for mass production, but it had added strength and was less expensive than the hand made saddletrees.
In 1969, Plant #1 had reached its capacity and an additional facility was needed. The company purchased a former furniture plant on Dennis Street that had both the size and a much needed railroad siding. The plant, known as Plant #2, housed the warehouse, the sales department, and some additional molding capacity. PI seized the opportunity to go into the finishing of parts for customers, so a finishing line was installed. This move was beneficial and profitable both to PI and its customers.
Plastic Industries’ first out-of-state expansion occured in April of 1971 when PIM (Plastic Industries of Mississippi) was opened. This operation was established to provide the large volume of products needed by the furniture companies in the North Mississippi area.
On August 19, 1971, Mr. Beene and the Rev. Benjamin Cole died in an airplane crash near the McMinn County Airport. Mr. Beene, pilot of the plane and accompanied by the Rev. Cole, also a PI employee, had gone to Knoxville to pick up business associates Mr. and Mrs. Max Shnider of Australia. However, the Shniders had missed a plane connection in Atlanta, so Mr. Beene and Rev. Cole started back to Athens without their guests. As the plane approached the McMinn County Airport, it reportedly burst into flames and crashed to the ground. Tragically for the families, the company, and the community, both men lost their lives.
In 1975, New Directions, Inc., was founded with an objective of selling outdoor casual “pipe” furniture. Market penetration was never fully achieved and the generally slow economy forced the closing of New Directions and the sale of PIM in 1977.
Dupont, Inc., PI’s largest custom molding customer, was developed through a targeted and extended effort by the sales department.
As the 1980s began, the new President, J.J. Beene Jr, son of the founder, faced an immediate dilemma. The chemical workers union filed a petition to organize PI. Although the union was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin, many problems had manifested in the two months of campaigning. This led to a company-wide commitment to a revolutionary concept called the “Positive Employee Philosophy”. PEP is not a plan or program; it is a value or belief, a way of life — “The Golden Rule” applied in the workplace. It is an understanding that companies must effectively develop and use all the God-given capabilities of their people in order to succeed. Jeff said that PEP is treating others the way you want to be treated. This applies to everyone who comes in contact with PI.
In 1982, PI began assembling and marketing rotomolded kayks under the Hydra line. This venture lasted two years before being sold to a Knoxville, Tennessee, company.
In 1983, PI acquired J.J. Avery, a vinyl sealing company of Denver, Colorado, and relocated it to Athens as the Sealtech division. J.J. Avery had manufactured products for the recration industry, flotation, devices for whitewater kayaks and canoes, toxic waste clean-up suits, and custom jobs for other manufacturers. Sealtech introduced the PI Medical line, a proprietary line of “Hot and Cold” therapy products in 1990.
With the acquisition of Sealtech and the purchase of two 500-ton structural foam-modlign machines, PI was able to enter the inground swimming pool business in 1984. This division, Hydra Pools, started producing a line of structural polymer wall panels, braces, and vinyl liners. Hydra expanded its market presence with the purchase of Cacade and alter Calco Pool Distributors in 1989. PI later sold these distributorships in 1995 and relocated Hydra Pools to Sweetwater, Tennessee.
At the beginning of 1985, PI purchased a manufacturing plant in Ferrum, Virginia. This operation was set up to manufacture polyester and polyurethane furniture parts. The purchase of the Ferrum plant enabled PI to develop new products for the injection molding furniture components business. The company accomplished this by the ability to introduce new products without the expense of building injection-molding tools/molds. Other products lines developed at the Ferrum operation were polyester figurines for the crafts industry and polyurethane mirrors marketed under the Mirrorcraft line.
Mayfield Dairy Farms approached PI about obtaining a unique dairy cap and applicator for the dairy industry. This product was special because the cap or closure was tamper-evident with an unstrippable four-thread design. The twist cap looked like a standard screw cap but was truly tamper-evident and only required a quarter turn to remove and replace. Easy on — easy off. PI responded and Dynaseal was born.
In 1987, utilizing the experience of being the world’s largest western saddletree producer, PI purchased the Flor Saddle Tree Company of Demorest, Georgia. This was the first step in a proposed fully-integrated equine supply company. Also, this was the time that saddle makers were starting up in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area, so raw materials were plentiful and a market was close. This acquisition enabled PI to offer a complete line of saddletrees, both injection-molded plastic saddletrees and the traditional rawhide-covered wood saddletrees.
As the new decade began, PI acquired the Wofford Saddle Company of Gainesville, Georgia, to first enter the saddle market. Wofford had been a major vendor to Sears, Inc., supplying them with western saddles until Sears phased out the saddle line. Wofford produced a line of quality working saddles with basic designs. PI moved the manufacturing operation from Gainesville to the Saddletree plant in Demorest. In 1993 because of the labor-intensive nature of western saddle and saddletree manufacturing, PI closed the Georgia operations.
In 1988 PI again moved to the forefront of innovative design in the furniture industry with the design and introduction of the lever actuator. This gave the furniture industry and the company a new boost.
PI’s leadership in furniture supply was evident in 1992 when Just-in-Time Furniture Supply (JIT), a new concept in furniture distribution, was created. This operation stocks upholstery supplies in addition to PI products and distributes these to manufacturers in East Tennessee.
Also, in 1992, a strategic plan that identified several important areas of change was established to make PI a world class company — to be among the very best in product quality, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and innovation. The plan called for a gradual change from a traditional management structure to the use of self-managing teams and an ambitious employee education program where every employee received a basic sklls assessment administered by the local school system. Based on the results, employees were offered onsite and offsite opportunities to improve basic reading and math skills.
The company began a program to upgrade and replace its equipment assets in 1994, and in 1995, made significant facility expansions at Sealtech and Plant #2.
In 1997, anticipating the growing threat of offshore competition, PI formed PIWW (PI World wide) to import wooden furniture legs and source other products and tooling. Also, PI purchased Pakster, a line of chicken coops and egg crates. Later that year, the company implemented a fully-integrated ERP system.
In 1999, HRSS (HR Sources & Solutions), an employment services company, was founded to support PI in the current labor market and to market these services to other companies.
The year 2000 brought the new millennium and major changes. Because of economic conditions, a program of restructuring and consolidation was instituted. Some product lines were discontinued while others were consolidated with other divisions and moved to different locations. The new millenium also brought new leadership support with the addition of the sons of President J.J. Beene.
PI has continued to grow and thrive as the 21st century unfolds. Despite international competition and the economic volatility of the last decade, PI continues to innovate and manufacture for customers around the globe with great success. The 2000s have seen tremendous growth in multiple divisions, and introductions of new product lines have added to PI’s bright future.
Sealtech and PI Medical have seen an influx of new business with Professional Therapy Products (piptp.com) for the medical and chiropractic professions. These products have thrived through ecommerce while still maintaining a high standard of customer service.
Hydra Pools continues to grow and expand. In 2010, Hydra launched the Hydra Liners brand of winter pool covers, and Hydra now manufactures steel panels through its new facility in Centerville, Iowa, to provide faster service to customers in the West and Midwest.
PI’s latest acquisition was both an unlikely and yet perfect choice in 2010: Knight Rifles (knightrifles.com), a premier brand of muzzleloading rifles and accessories for the hunting industry. Knight is a household name that is already seeing success in its first full year of business as a part of the PI family, and there is much more to come. PI is proud to continue the Knight brand and carry it into the future, especially as a product line that is 100% American made.
PI is still a family business, as Mr. Beene’s grandchildren and now great grandchildren continue the work their grandfather and father started. PI has been holding true to its mission — developing ideas into quality products, but we’ve only just begun.