Maguire's all work and no play — the way he likes it

Feb. 26, 2015
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Most people find their life's work in two or three tries. It took Steve Maguire 24 tries. But once he built his first piece of auxiliary equipment for the plastics industry he knew it was time to stop looking.

He built that first machine — a liquid color pump — because he did not like anything on the market. And that set the path he followed in building Maguire Products: Think about a problem processors have, work out various solutions, then build a reliable, low cost machine.

The humble inventor has developed a long list of products that changed the way plastics processors handle and blend molding and extrusion resins. He is still hard at work on new products.

Maguire recently answered questions for Plastics Machinery Magazine.

A longtime executive at your company described you as someone who "works seven days a week, hates to take vacations, spends about 90 percent of his time looking forward on new products and 10 percent running the business." Does that sum it up?

MAGUIRE: That's about right. I just enjoy solving puzzles and looking at a product and thinking whether there is a better and less expensive way to do it. If there is a particular need in the industry — a problem that has not been solved — I love to just work on that and to see if I can solve it in an economical way. I have always enjoyed doing that.

Describe your college and early work experience.

MAGUIRE: I went to Drexel for one year. It was nothing more than just reviewing high school math and I didn't enjoy it. So I dropped out and did a whole lot of other things. From age 16 to 33, I had 24 different jobs. I wasn't really on a career path. I would just get tired of whatever I was doing and go do something else. In fact, when I started this business, it was just like 'OK. I'll try this. This will be fun.'  I never anticipated building this business to the size it got to be.

How did you get started in the plastics industry?

MAGUIRE:  My father-in-law from my first marriage had an extrusion business. He made light diffusing panels. He bought an extruder and I ran that extruder for him, so that was plastics. Later I had other jobs, including some where I designed equipment and did computer programming. I got back into plastics with a job at ATZ Plastics in Willow Grove, Pa. It was an injection molding plant.

They needed a pump for liquid color. I didn't much like the ones on the market so in 1976 I built one. It worked so I thought that maybe I could sell them. I spent six months turning the prototype into a salable product, then started building them in my apartment.

The first pump went to a company north of Philadelphia that made plastic coat hangers. I sold it for $750. I took it there as a trial and set it up and ran it. I planned to take it back home with me but they said 'No, we will keep it.' I had to figure out a system to bill them because I was still working at my other job and doing this part-time. I sold 25 of the pumps before it even occurred to me that I needed to put a serial number on each one.

So the business was launched?

MAGUIRE: I was living in an apartment across the street from where I worked. I bought 5,000 feet of urethane tubing from a company next door. I put that big box of tubing in my apartment and started building pumps. I had just gotten divorced and didn't have much furniture, no TV, no phone, not even a radio. I put a board on top of the box of tubing and used it as a chair. I loved every minute of it! That's how it started. My boys would come up to Willow Grove on weekends and we would all have to sleep in one king-sized bed.

I needed more space to assemble pumps so I moved back to the house where my ex-wife was living with the three boys. She moved out and we agreed I would have the kids stay there. So in 1977, I became a bachelor father with boys that were 7, 9 and 11 years old. That's when I started the business to sell those pumps.

For a year I worked by myself. Then in 1978 I hired a friend, Jay Aigeltinger, who stayed with me for 30 years. The third person I hired in May 1979 was Virginia (Ginny) Lynch to be our secretary. She eventually became my wife. She ran the place like a real business instead of a place where two guys were working in the third floor of a house. She did everything as we grew except design equipment.  She was 27 years old when I hired her. She passed away last summer.

Ginny was a high school graduate. And Jay — I don't think he even graduated from high school. The three of us were a great team and we built the business to $25 million.

In that 90 percent of your time that you think about new products and improving current products, do you work in a corner by yourself or do you collaborate with others?

MAGUIRE: I do most of it lying in bed at night staring at the ceiling, with the lights out. Every night when I go to bed I think of a product, either one I am working on or one I am going to be working on. That's where I get my ideas.

I don't want to know how other people have solved the problem. I just start with the problem, think about it, then think about ways to solve it. When I think of a possible solution, I work it through in my head to the point I know it will or will not work. Then, without putting anything on paper, I think about solving it in a different way. I will do that four or five times, continually improving or discarding possible solutions. When I get to what I think is the best solution, I take the design as far as I can in my head, then I stand behind one of my engineers and tell him what to draw in the CAD program. Then I spend a few more days or weeks changing and improving it.

What guides your thinking when designing equipment?

MAGUIRE: There are five principles I follow by instinct:

1. The solution has to solve the problem.

2. The product has to be reliable.

3. Serviceability is important.

4. It has to be easy to use.

5. The price the customer pays has to be as low as possible.

The word "affordability" seems to be included in every one of your product descriptions.

MAGUIRE: That is where most of my experience and skill is applied — to get the cost down. Too many engineers just solve the problem and leave cost up to the purchasing agent. They just hand it off to the next guy to figure out how to make it cheaper. That's not how you do it. I work like crazy to get the cost down. To reduce cost is the most exciting thing to me.

Gravimetric blenders on the market in 1989 were selling for $30,000 to $50,000 and about 50 per year were being sold. I brought out my blender at $6,500 and eventually we were selling 200 per month.

What are you working on now?

MAGUIRE:  I am working on a low cost vacuum receiver. I can't say much about it yet. We are also working on a lower cost blender for the small blender market. I've got five or six things going on, but I tend to focus on one for about a week, then another. This week it is the vacuum receiver.

I am also looking at all our product lines — Maguire Products and Novatec — to make them more suitable for international sales.

What is the future for Maguire Products?

MAGUIRE: I see the future of Maguire Products as consolidating our position in the world market and gaining world market share by refining our products so that the prices go down. And continuing to provide excellent service and carry inventory worldwide. About 50 percent of Maguire's products are sold internationally, and I see that going to 60 to 70 percent. Novatec is about 5 percent or less, but I see them going to 50 percent. That's real expansion.

I understand you are dyslexic.

MAGUIRE: Yes. That has always been looked at as a negative. I see it as a positive thing. When you are dyslexic, it means your brain is wired differently and that can be to your advantage. I have a visual brain and guys who have a good visual brain are not as verbal and they may not read a lot of books. But they can design things in their heads. This country's education system is based on reading, and if you don't read everything, then you are considered not as smart. I was one of those.

It seems it all worked out quite well for you.

MAGUIRE: I don't think there could have been a better path than the one I took. I get to design stuff and run the company. I really like to be my own boss. I don't like negotiating with someone on what we can and cannot do.

I've just had an awful lot of luck. The part I did well was design equipment. A lot of it has been people who came to work here. I gave them free rein to see what they could do. The result is that the business has grown and everyone loves to work here.