By Bruce Geiselman
Eric Lattanner, a long-time sales, business development and Royalite product manager for Spartech LLC, in October received the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Division’s Lifetime Achievement Award for four decades of service.
Lattanner spent his entire career with the Royalite product line of fire-rated and specialty sheet products through multiple ownership changes. Progressing through a variety of job titles in locations ranging from Indiana to Dallas, Northern California, New Jersey and most recently Colorado, Lattanner worked with customers and communicated their needs to his R&D department to ensure products met the necessary specifications.
Lattanner recently spoke with PMM’s Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman about his career, his retirement and his new role as a consultant with Spartech, as well as his passion for ranching and travel.
You were recently presented with the SPE Lifetime Achievement honor during SPE’s Thermoforming Awards Dinner in Cleveland. What was that like?
I was shocked when I was told I was going to get that award, and I was quite humbled by it.
This group of SPE thermoformers that I have dealt with through my 45 years were customers and clients of mine and our companies. A lot of them have become good friends. I was humbled. I did not expect this award. I was quite shocked by being honored with it.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dublin, Ohio, outside Columbus, and lived there until I graduated from high school.
Then I went on to college, and once I joined Uniroyal, I basically got transferred across the country.
Why did you major in political science and government in college?
I did then and still do have quite an interest in government and democracy, and not only ours but also others and in history. Those were my two big loves.
Given your interest in politics and government, what eventually attracted you to a career in the plastics industry?
After about a year out of college, I was working in construction, and I had a buddy who was working for Uniroyal Inc.
He was in customer service, and he was being transferred out to [the] field, and there was an opening, and he wanted to know if I was interested. I never really thought about working for a big corporation, but I went for an interview and got the job. It just kind of fell in place. I knew nothing about plastics at that point. There was also a closed-cell foam division in that product line at the time. I knew neither one of those products. It was kind of by chance.
You were basically with the same company through different ownership changes for several years. How did your career progress?
I was with the same product line — the Royalite product line — my whole career. It was owned by Uniroyal Inc. at the time.
Back in the ’40s, it was called U.S. Rubber, but they invented ABS plastic sheet in the ’40s, and we were based in Mishawaka, Ind., outside South Bend at that time, and that’s where I was a customer service rep.
I was with Uniroyal for the first 20 years of my career. They were sold to Spartech in 2000. [PolyOne bought Spartech in 2013 and operated the business under the PolyOne name, but PolyOne sold the former Spartech assets to an investment firm in 2017, which changed the name back to Spartech. Several investment firms have operated the business under the Spartech name since].
While you remained with the same product line throughout your career, it seems like you have held numerous positions in different locations. Could you explain your career progression?
My first move was to Dallas, where I became a territory sales manager. After about a year and a half, I was transferred to Northern California, in the Bay Area, where I was the Northern California sales manager and covered several states. These were all promotions.
Then in ’83, I was promoted to the Mid-Atlantic sales territory manager mainly to do end-use specification work for railcar interior companies.
In ’85, I became the East Coast regional manager. I had not only my area, but I had responsibility for salespeople who were up and down the East Coast from Maine to Florida. I had five guys working for me.
Then, in ’88, I was promoted to the national sales manager for Royalite under Uniroyal and moved back to Mishawaka, Ind.
Later, somewhere between ’93 and ’95, I became director of sales and marketing for the Royalite organization in Mishawaka.
Then in 2000, we were bought by Spartech, which was not necessarily a competitor of ours, but Royalite is more in the specialty, fire-rated regulatory product line, where Spartech was doing more of the commodity type business — ABS, styrene, PETG. When they bought us in 2000, that’s when I became the business development manager for them, but my focus was still on Royalite.
Under PolyOne, I was business development manager.
Then for the last three or four years, beginning around 2019 or 2020, I was the senior product manager for Royalite.
As senior product manager for Royalite, what were your responsibilities?
I oversaw the full product line. I worked with R&D on the development of new products. I handled the business part of it — the sales and the margins. I wouldn’t say it was a one-man show because there was a lot of support from the plants and in the field, but I was overseeing the full Royalite line and its growth both in revenue and margin.
What type of growth has that Royalite line seen?
That’s tough. When we were bought by Spartech Plastics, we lost some business because of that sale. So, we dropped from quite a bit of sales in 2000 that we had when we were bought to where it is today. The growth went down and then after PolyOne sold us, we started to grow that business back.
What was your greatest career accomplishment?
Well, this would have been under the Uniroyal days, and it was the actual growth of the Royalite product line.
In those first 20 years, we became the No. 1 fire-rated thermoplastic sheet extruder in the world. We were the leader in the aerospace, medical and electronic markets. We basically grew that business from somewhere around 10 million [dollars] to 85 million [dollars] in those 20 years. We were revered by our customers as the innovator of new products, meeting the new specifications that were coming out from UL, FAA, ASTM, all kinds of specifications. We were the go-to guys. I think the gang we had in R&D, manufacturing and the field salespeople; we were very successful. It wasn’t just me. Helping that team to be put together and the success of the growth — that was the highlight of my career. There is no doubt about it. That was not just calling on the thermoformers, but that was also calling on the OEMs, the medical OEMs, aerospace OEMs, getting the Royalite materials specified on prints, that was why we were successful.
What markets does Royalite sell to today?
Spartech company as a whole is big in the automotive industry, but we concentrated more on the fire-rated products, such as in the transportation area, where you have aerospace, interior passenger rail and bus.
Building construction is a big market for us. That’s more regulatory driven wall covering materials used in hospitals, and electronic and pharmaceutical clean rooms.
Then you’ve got medical, which is basically the hard plastic parts over any medical machine like an MRI or a CT scanner or a medical cart; hospital beds from Stryker and Hill-Rom are big with us.
There are some recreational products that the material goes into, but the bulk of it is transportation, building construction and medical.
What Spartech does is extrude the thermoplastic sheet or roll stock. We sell our sheet to thermoformers, who make the parts, and all the Royalite products are our own proprietary formulations.
You talked about having to meet changing specifications for fire-resistant materials. What have been the most significant changes or improvements to the plastics industry that you’ve seen?
I think that, obviously, meeting the specifications for safer materials in public use, like railcars and aerospace, that is what we did.
When we came out with the material we developed, most of it was thermoformed. Then, there was a process called pressure forming, which is a type of thermoforming, but it is the opposite of thermoforming. Our material will work very, very well in those applications. So, we were there for when the pressure forming market came around.
When I first joined, grain textures on the sheet were very heavy — kind of a leather look. As time came, they wanted something more pleasing. We came up with different grain textures that could go on the sheet.
In our recreational market for Royalite, we had a product called Royalex. That was a proprietary product we hand laminated and vulcanized into sheet that went into the canoe market. [They called it the paddle market, but it was for making canoes].
Also, with the U.S. Navy, we came up with a product called R-84. Because of its weatherability, it was used for the outside of the nose cone of a one-man submarine. The key was, there were no windows in those subs, so the sonar had to go through the plastic, and we developed a product that did that for the Navy.
You recently retired as business development manager and took on a new role at Spartech. Could you explain what you are doing now?
I am no longer a direct employee of Spartech. As of the middle of October 2023, I officially retired as a direct employee, and they’re basically going through some reorganization. They have hired a lot of new young salespeople in the field, market development people for transportation, with a focus on aerospace and medical. I am basically doing training. I’m basically an encyclopedia to these people to help them come up to speed to grow the business.
I was just going to retire, and they came to me and asked me if I would work as a consultant for a while.
What are your hobbies?
When we moved to Colorado in 2016, we were able to buy about 30 acres of land out here, which is considered a very small ranch compared to some of the other ranchers here.
So, we have a small ranch, and we raise some cattle, some llamas; we’ve got a couple of horses and a donkey. We’ve got some livestock, and in one pasture we raise the hay and the other pasture they graze on. There’s some ranch work for me to do here.
I’m also an avid hiker, cross country skier and snowshoer. I haven’t mastered it yet, but fly fishing.
I live in a great little community called Ridgway, Colo., and I’m hoping to volunteer my time for that community in some role.
We like to travel. I did a lot of traveling for the job, but there are places that my wife and I would like to travel to — Scandinavia, Portugal, Singapore, Japan and Belgium. Most of my business career, I mostly traveled to France, Switzerland, Germany and that area of Europe. We’d like to see some of the other parts.
What was your favorite part of working for Spartech and for the Royalite product line?
It has to be the people that I have met through the years. The people I met that were customers and OEM people, and people I met in travel that didn’t have anything to do with the plastics industry.
Meeting and understanding people here in the United States, Canada, Europe and all over the world has been one of my greatest if not the greatest thing that I’ve done in my life. We have friends that we have developed all over the world. There’s probably not a place I could go that I couldn’t pick up the phone and call somebody and say, “How are you doing and let’s get together.”
The world is really torn apart right now, but I believe that, for the most part, people are good. I enjoy understanding their culture and their thoughts about government. It’s been a joy to meet so many people.
What was your greatest career challenge?
Before Uniroyal shut their doors, and then it was sold, it went through bankruptcy. I think that was probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. It was about a year and a half of bankruptcy.
We got so much money a week, and we had to decide what customers were going to get sheet.
How would you like to be remembered?
Dedicated to the Royalite product line. There to help customers — the thermoformers and the pressure formers. I was transparent with them. I believe that’s a success. Anyone in the field out there, you’ve got to listen to what their needs are, and sometimes their needs aren’t something that you provide in your product line. But if you can direct them or direct somebody to help them with their issue or their problem or their request or their needs, it’s beneficial.
I want it known that I became friends with them as well and developed a true business relationship that benefited them as a company and benefited Royalite as a product line.
Is there anything you want to add?
Not every day is going to be a good day, but if you keep coming back every day, you’re going to have many, many good days. I’ve had an unbelievable career. I’ve had a great time. I can’t believe it has been 45 years, but it has.
JUST THE FACTS
Who is he: Eric Lattanner, retired senior product manager for Royalite with Spartech LLC and current company consultant
Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science and government, University of Mount Union, Alliance, Ohio, 1977
Years in the plastics industry: 45
Company headquarters: Maryland Heights, Mo.