In Other Words: Vince Witherup finds second act in government

June 8, 2021
The retired Conair executive and Plastics Hall of Fame member is civically engaged in his town and county.

By Bruce Geiselman 

Vince Witherup jokingly credits the famous line from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” for prompting him to pursue a career with Conair. In the film, a character gives Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, a one-word piece of career advice: “Plastics.”  

After working at a steel company, Witherup entered a consulting agreement with Franklin, Pa.-based Conair to study whether the auxiliary equipment maker should begin offering complete material handling systems. Not only did he recommend it do sohe also told the company to hire him to head up the new business segment. 

His confidence paid off, and he spent the rest of his career with Conair, starting as a salesman and working his way up to VP of international sales and marketing. 

Witherup retired in 2007 but continued to serve as a consultant for IPEG Industrial Group, which owns Conair, for a couple more years.  

Witherup, who became chairman of the NPE show in 2000, has attended every NPE since 1968. This year, he was named to the Plastics Hall of Fame. 

He went on to a career in local government, serving as a county commissioner in Venango County, Pa. He left office in 2019, but he continues serving on boards for the county and the city of Franklin. 

Witherup spoke with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman. 

What was your first job after college? 

Witherup: The first job I took was in sales with Inland Steel Co. in Milwaukee, Wis., and I worked for them for a couple of years until I became disenchanted with big companies, I guess.  

I was still working but I was looking around and I happened to get a call from Conair. The vice president of sales wanted to know if I would be interested in taking a big pay cut, moving back from Milwaukee to little Franklin, Pa., losing a company car and working for $160 per week. I said, “Yeah, I might be interested,” and by golly, that is what happened. 

Back in that day, they built dryers, blenders, loaders and equipment like that. They wanted to see if it might be feasible to get into the business of putting in complete turnkey packages. I had some construction business experience with my father’s company, which was a small [outdoor storage] tank manufacturing company, and they thought I could do this study. 

I did what I thought was a fairly thorough job, and I suggested that they pursue getting into the material handling systems business, and I also recommended that I head it up. They took me up on the deal, and I spent my entire career at Conair after that. 

I didn’t know how long it was going to last when I started with Conair, but I knew that I wanted to make a change. I thought it would give me some breathing room to see what else was available. When you get out of college, you don’t really know what you want to do. 

What attracted you to the plastics industry? 

Witherup: I keep telling everyone it was the movie “The Graduate” where the man says plastics is the future or something like that.  

When you’re selling auxiliary equipment, products for blow molding, injection molding, extrusion, and whatever, you see all kinds of manufacturing, businesses and systems that are completely different. Very seldom did you have the same identical thing day in and day out. Back in those days, this was in the ‘60s, it was the real heyday for the growth of the plastics industry. 

Who was your mentor? 

Witherup: I probably had two or three mentors. One was my dad. He was a welder at Joy Manufacturing Co. when I was growing up. He decided to go out and start his own business with a couple of his brothers, and he worked day and night like anybody starting a small business does. He really mentored me in a lot of the business decisions that I was making. 

The vice president of Conair at the time I was hired, Roger Doherty, was a huge mentor of mine, as was John Reib, who was the founder of Conair.  

What major challenges did you face in your career? 

Witherup: I guess at the beginning, the major challenge was that I ended up marrying John Reib’s daughter. That was a little challenging at first, but we got through that, and I stayed with Conair for 20 years after John sold the company. 

To what do you attribute your success? 

Witherup: No. 1, in Boy Scouts, I learned the old Scout motto, “be prepared.” There’s also what I learned playing football in both high school and college about the discipline of hard work, and I was fortunate to have good people around me my entire life. 

Do you hold any patents? 

Witherup: I don’t personally hold any patents, but I will tell you a side story. John Reib was a high school graduate. He had a few patents, but he hired a kid right out of high school basically to wash the company airplane who ended up being the head of our R&D department that had 26 or 30 patents. All the patents that Conair received, obviously, were a collaboration of all of us. 

How did the business change over 40 years? 

Witherup: When you talk about auxiliary equipment, in my mind, a loader is a loader  it sucks material or blows material or whatever from one place to another. A blender blends material, and a dryer dries material. The basic job functions haven’t changed much except from the control side of it.  

I graduated from college when there wasn’t a computer, or in the early days of computers. The major change in the auxiliary equipment market primarily has been on the control end. 

There was another major change I was involved in  the international aspect of the business. We went from a regional company to a nationwide company to an international company. 

When I started with Conair, we did a little over a million dollars in sales [annually]. When I retired from Conair, we were about $160 million. I was the 20th employee of Conair. When I retired, there were probably 600 employees, and we had grown into a truly international business. 

How did you get involved in NPE and do you still play a role in planning it? 

Witherup: I went to my first NPE in 1968. That was after McCormick Place burned down, and they huddled over in the stockyards. I had never seen anything like it before. I thought it was a real marketing bonanza. It was the best thing a company could participate in. 

Then I worked my way up through the NPE board. The only thing I do now is, as past chair, I get a nice seat when I want to go to the NPE if they ever hold another one. 

How did you go from Conair to serving as a county commissioner? 

Witherup: There are three county commissioners in our county of Venango, and we run about a $60 million budget. I was looking for something to do to really give back to the area. That’s why I sit on all these boards and everything else.  

Venango County is about three times the size of Singapore [in land mass]. Singapore has about 5 million people. Venango County has about 55,000 people, so we’re a real small county. 

How did your business experience prepare you for becoming a county commissioner? 

Witherup: If you say government business is identical to private practice, you’re crazy. If you make a business decision, you talk about it, and if it makes sense, you go and do it, right? With government business, you say, why don’t we do this, and there’s 400 reasons why you can’t do it. It’s just much more complicated.  

At the end of the day, to get things done, you have to really work as a team and do a selling job, and that’s basically what I did for 40 years with Conair. 

What did you do after serving as county commissioner? 

Witherup: I served for nine years as a county commissioner, and that was over in 2019. I believe in term limits, and I didn’t run for a third term as county commissionerstill keep my fingers in a few of the functions of the county as far as the county land bank and the tax assessment claims review board and things like that, and I keep active as far as in some local redevelopment authorities, both the [Franklin] City Redevelopment Authority and the [Venango] County Redevelopment Authority. It’s not like I’m sitting around doing nothing, but it’s not as hectic as when I had a full-time job. 

What are your hobbies? 

Witherup: My hobbies have changed over the years. I used to love whitewater rafting and hunting.  

As you get older, you realize your limitations. I’m now relegating myself to learning how to play golf, which is as frustrating as anything I’ve ever done in my life, and I like duckpin bowling. It’s an old style of bowling with the same length alleys. There are short, squatty pins and a bowling ball that’s about the size of a grapefruit, and it’s even more frustrating than golf. 

I am trying to get my golf score and my bowling score reversed  I’m bad at both of them, is what I am trying to say.  

How would you like to be remembered? 

Witherup: I would like to be remembered as a good guy and a straight shooter. What I want to leave behind is a better place for my family, my kids, the community and the industry. That’s one of the reasons I work so hard at PPA. It’s more of a giveback to both the community and the industry. 

Is there anything you would like to add? 

Witherup: When I look back at whether I have any regrets, I wish I could have spent more time with my kids. During their formative years, I was traveling all over the world. My kids all came out fine, but I wish I could have spent more time with my kids at that time. 

Just the facts 

WHO IS HE: Vince Witherup, retired Conair executive 

AGE: 78 

HONORS: Eagle Scout; Plastics Pioneers Association (PPA) inductee in 1996; SPI Businessman of the Year in 2000; chairman of NPE 2000; PPA Distinguished Service Member Award in 2016; named PPA president in 2016; Plastics Hall of Fame member 

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in metallurgy from Grove City College in Pennsylvania 

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.