Inspiring the next generation

Feb. 22, 2021
As he looks forward to retirement, PLASTICS executive and industry veteran Steve Petrakis takes pride in the people he's mentored in the industry.

By Karen Hanna 

Catch-and-release fisherman Steve Petrakis knows the joy of making a brief contact that leaves a big impact. He’s been doing it his entire career, meeting and giving talks to up-and-coming plastics professionals, helping them find their way as they chart their own paths. Having gotten his professional start working at a grocery store, he believes most fields rely on one irreplaceable asset — human relationships.  

In a plastics career that has spanned parts of six decades, Petrakis has traveled to an estimated 1,000 plants, meeting and collaborating with scores of plastics professionals. He had hopes of launching the next chapter of his life with an informal farewell tour at NPE this spring; it would have been his 16th show. Speaking to Associate Editor Karen Hanna just days after it was canceled, though, he said he has no regrets about his plans to retire as VP, industry affairs, equipment and mold makers council for the Plastics Industry Association  (PLASTICS) and spend more time on the lake outside his home in Wisconsin. 

As you near retirement, what has been the best part of working in the plastics industry? 

Petrakis: The people. Ive just loved the people throughout the years. I have made lifelong friends. I have made business friends. I just thoroughly enjoyed working with all the people.  

How did you get your start in plastics?   

Petrakis: Well, my father [Myron Petrakis] was in World War II in the Navy. He worked on minesweeper.  

And [then] he got out. He used the G.I. Bill to go to schoolthe Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and he received one of the first plastic engineering degrees in the country. Once he graduated, he started working in a plastics plant, running a machine. 

He worked his way up to general manager.  

When I was 5, he took me to work with him one weekend. They were doing inventory, so when somebody asked me what my father did for a living, I said he counted boxes. Because thats what he was doing when I saw him. 

He started his own sales agency as a manufacturer’s rep in the Chicago area. Although I graduated from college with a degree in foods and was a grocery store manager in the Chicago area, the chain I worked for shut down all their stores.

Its funny, because when I was in college [in 1973], learning to run a grocery store, I had massive shoulder surgery and couldnt work or go to school for four months. My whole right side was in a body cast. 

But I also couldnt sit at home all day long, so my father would say, “Why don’t you come on sales calls with me? Get out of the house.” 

And I went on sales calls with him, and I watched him walk into companies and say, “Hey, I have an appointment to meet Charlie,” and this lady would say, “Oh, Charlies not here.” 

And we go through this for a while and I was like, “Why in Gods name would anybody want to do this job?” 

And here I am, 45 years later. 

Plastics has been kind to us. It has supported my family, through my father and through meand my daughter is actually in the fringes of the plastics industry, as well. Shes in marketing, and she works for Rockwell Automation right now. 

How long was your father in the industry? 

Petrakis: He started in the industry in ’52 and retired in the mid ’90s. In April, my dad will turn 99. 

In fact, two years ago, PLASTICS Equipment Council had a yearly conference in Itasca, Ill. My father only lives 20 minutes’ drive away, so I had my wife pick him up and bring him to the cocktail hourPeople in the room literally lined up to shake his hand and say hi. 

They thanked him for his service to the country and to the industryThat was very cool that he was able to enjoy that. 

I took him on an Honor Flight to D.C. [where World War II veterans can visit the World War II Memorial]. I had to take some classes and work as part of the crew that helped everybody, right? Because we took 90 World War II veterans, all in wheelchairs. 

We started at Midway Airport in Chicago; we had to check in by 5 a.m., and we landed at Midway the same day at about 10:30 at night. They were all working on adrenaline; I was exhausted. But when they got off the planes at Midway, there had to be 6,000 people in the airport, cheering them on.  

Once your father introduced you to the industry, how did your career progress? 

Petrakis: One of the product lines we represented was a company called EMI Corp. in Jackson Center, Ohio. 

In the 10 years I was with EMI, I worked my way from district manager to national sales manager. 

I got my masters degree in 1989 and started my own manufacturers rep company in Chicago. 89 was not a great time because that was the beginning of another recession. We held on for three years, and I closed the business and got hired as a regional manager at AEC for robotics and spent 12 years with that organizationworking my way up to vice president and general manager of the Sterling division. 

From there, I spent 18 months as a regional manager for SPI [the Society of the Plastics Industry, now PLASTICS]. It was regionally oriented, so I ran the Chicago office and handled the Midwest and Northeast regions 

After I left SPI, became president of Frigel North America and helped it bring a new cooling tower technology to the United States. 

The company was bringing people in from Italy to run the company, so I helped that transition and went to Conair as the vice president of sales and marketing. So I helped that transition and got the company going and went to Conair as the vice president of sales and marketing. 

Conair is part of the IPEG Inc., which owns Thermal Care, Republic and Pelletron, and I left them and came to the position I'm in now.  

Why did you decide to come back to PLASTICS? 

Petrakis: I thought with a couple of years left, working to help everybody in the industry was a good way to end my career. And thats what Ive been doing. 

You know, I can go in, I can help anybody.  

Somebody could call up and say, “We’re having a national sales meeting for all our reps. Can you come here and give a one-hour talk about the state of the plastics industry? What’s the future look like?”  

When I was in an area, I would look up what other companies are in the area. And instead of just flying in giving a speech and leaving, Id stay for two days, and just call on people and say, “Hows your business doing? Is there anything I can be doing for you? You got any questions? Are you getting the most for your membership out of the association?”  

My job has always been to help people fill a need. To this day, I can still do that. 

You’ve been active in mentoring younger professionals and students, too. Why? How do you help them? 

Petrakis: There are just too many people my age that are going to retire. And Im doing my best to download whatever knowledge I have, so that it stays within industry. 

Ive been big on mentoring. I mentored freshmen at my old high school over the years. 

Ive mentored new members in the FLiP group for PLASTICS. Anybody who wants to pick my brain and learn what Ive learned, Im always glad to help.  

Every year, I get a new young person as a mentee, and I do my best to mentor them. Some of my past associates have gotten promotions and grown within their companiesand I’m very proud of them. 

Over the years, at the NPEs, every last Friday has always been Student Day. The group that I took through the last NPE were actually high school students who are preparing to go into not just junior college but trade schools. 

And I was just shocked at just how sharp these kids were. They asked questions. They looked at one molding machine, and they asked one of the people working for that company, “Whats that fluid?” And he said, “Well, you know, thats hydraulic oil.” And theyre like, “No, we know its hydraulic oil. We want to know the specifics of the hydraulic oil that youre putting in there.” 

I think the biggest lesson that Ive used over and over again is how to learn. 

lot of people said, Well, you get a degree in foods, you know, you are a grocery store manager, how do you relate to plastics? I said, People are people. And whether its a can of beans on the shelf or material, dryer and plastics, my job has always been to help people fill a need. 

Ive talked to so many young people and they look at the industry and they say, Well, I dont want to be in manufacturing.” And then I said, Pretty much short of being a doctorI cant think of a career that you cant fill in the plastics industry. Youre good with your hands; you can work on the flooryou can be a mechanic. You like numbers; you can get into the finance side of business. You can be an engineeryou can work your way up to engineering manager, vice president, president of a company. Its endless. 

Its an industry that keeps growing. 

And it supported my fathers family, and Ive supported my family with it. 

What challenges and opportunities do you see for the plastics industry? 

PetrakisThe one thing that I always recognized was at the beginning, when you went to a trade show, it didnt matter whether it was NPE or other shows, you would see brand-new technology that nobody had ever thought of before. 

At the 82 show, I remember Husky was showing a 96-cavity cap mold, anit was running 2.5-second cycles. 

And that was absolutely unheard of.  

What stuck in my brain over the years was there was a very long line down the aisle to get the opportunity to stand in front of the door and watch two shots. You got 5 seconds. Somold open, closed, open, closed, and you had to move on. 

Now, people stand in line down the aisles to get something to take homemost of which ends up at the airport anyway, because they wonlet it on the airplane. 

Weve got to flex our brains and think of whats the next thing that nobodys ever thought of that will make our industry better.  

Obviouslythe industry is now big on trying to figure out how to create plastics that are biodegradableHow do we recycle better? How do we recycle more? 

Whether its plastic, or wood or metal or anything else, the biggest offenders are people. I mean, a plastic bottle doesnt throw itself in the ocean. 

Sothere are a ton of challenges left. 

This industry is in a mature stage right now. It is full of a lot of people my ageI think in the next 10 years there is really going to be a changing of the guard, and we will all fade into the sunset. Hopefully, the young people will be very creative and keep the industry growing and prospering. 

With NPE canceled, how will you say goodbye? 

Petrakis: Under the circumstances, I havent talked to anybody that doesnt understand. Theres not much we can do about it. SoI guess Ill keep working until Im not working, and go from there. 

Its going to be a disappointment. But I keep trying not to be selfish about it. Its for the greater good of all the people, and although after 45 years, Im terribly disappointed, its not about me, you know? 

Since we got locked down in March, I have been at my desk every single day and … I feel like Im not working. Normally, Im in a hotel every week, walking plastics plants, talking with people and helping with issues. Even though every day we have meetings and I have plenty of work to do behind the computer, Im too old for this to feel like work. 

Im so much a people person, watching them on the screen just isnt the same thing. 

I guess, little by little, the super-close people Ill see somehow and, as things open up, I still have from March to June to get on airplanes and go visit people. 

What’s next for you? 

Petrakis: A lot of people have been asking me. Theyre like, “You cant retire. 

And Im like, “Well, all I can tell you is, a lot of my friends who are in the industry who retired have come back to the industry after a short stay away. I cant come back until I leave the first time.” 

You never know whats going to happen. Ive been working non-stop since eighth grade when I had a paper route. I have always had a job, even through college. Its been a long time … 60 years of work. 

My wife finds more stuff to do. Well spend more time with family and friends. Ill keep myself busy somehow. 

Ill get to spend more time with my grandkids. And since we live on a lake, taking them out in the boat, teaching them more about fishing. 

We usually get all of them in the summer for a week or two together. We get them out on the boats and we play in the water and make campfires, and its a lot of fun. And when they leave, Grandma and Grandpa and the dog sleep for about two days.  

What do you think your legacy is? What would you like it to be? 

Petrakis: would say I think Im leaving the industry better than I walked into it. 

I have always tried to do the best I can wherever I was. If I was in charge of sales, I helped sales grow. But I think my biggest legacy is the people. I can look back and look at how many lives that are in this industry right now that I touched. I hired a gentleman out of college into a company that I worked for, as an inside sales engineer, and today, he is president of a well-known company. 

Theres just a tremendous amount of people that Ive worked with in this industry that have grown in the industry, have stayed in the industryIm very proud to have been a part of their career in some way. 

Ive always tried to help and been very proud of the people Ive worked with. 

This isnt about me. Im just so grateful. Im just so thankful to have been in this industry. I thank my father for that. 

Karen Hanna, associate editor

[email protected]

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.