Now officials of Camber Holdings are working with plastics-savvy management and employees to move into the next century of business.
United Solutions has scaled back from a broad-line plastics housewares company — competing against giants like Sterilite Corp. — to focus on being a strong player in a few key markets.
"We're trying to go deeper in select categories rather than the broader approach that the company took before," said Pat Murray, a director of Camber Holdings who is working closely with the Leominster, Mass.-based housewares maker.
Murray said United Solutions closed a factory in Gilbert, Ariz., and consolidated the work at plants in Leominster and Sardis, Miss., which is now getting expanded production and investment.
Another operation in Calgary, Alberta, which United picked up when it bought the Rubbermaid storage totes business from Newell Brands Inc. in early 2017, also was consolidated, he said.
Today, United Solutions employs about 250 and generates $100 million sales, mainly to the United States and Canada, Murray said. The company runs 60 machines, both injection molding presses and blow molders. He declined to break out the number of machines in the two categories.
Camber Holdings bought United Solutions from Edward W. Zephir Jr., whose grandfather, Eugene Tourigny, founded the company in 1919. That was well before plastics. The company's formal name is still United Comb & Novelty Corp., and it originally made hair combs from cattle horns and tortoise shells.
At the time, Leominster was known as Comb City. Then Foster Grant Co., the first company to do mass-scale injection molding in the United States, came out with a molded cellulose acetate comb in the early 1930s. The age of plastics had arrived, and housewares boomed in Leominster.
But in the 1990s, a major wave of retail consolidations, and brutal pricing from the mass retailers that remained, clobbered the sector. Some Leominster-area housewares molders began to shut down: big names like Tucker Housewares, Tamor Plastics, Holiday Housewares and Aero Plastics.
Sterilite, in nearby Townsend, Mass., grew to become a behemoth that knocked off Rubbermaid as the biggest U.S. plastics housewares maker.
United Solutions plugged along. Zephir acquired the business from the Tourigny estate in 1977, and in the mid-1980s entered the plastics housewares business under the brand name United Plastics. The name later changed to United Solutions.
Plastics housewares may not be the sexiest of industries, but United Solutions makes products that people use every day.
"We see a tremendous opportunity to build upon United Solutions legacy here," Murray said. "It's kind-of like its 100th anniversary and its first anniversary at the same time."
Murray declined to give specifics about the deal, or say if Zephir retains an equity stake. Murray, who said he talks to Zephir often, said the long-time owner wanted to put United Solutions on a solid path moving ahead.
"When we started to talk to Ed, there's a foundation with the company and the legacy the company had in the industry, and you combine it with the acquisition of Rubbermaid's totes business," Murray said. "There's been a really nice evolution. As we look to the future, there's a really nice foundation and legacy, and we worked closely with Ed through the transition."
Camber Holdings is playing a low-key role with the housewares company, which is one reason no announcement was made about the new ownership. A statement of a change in the registered agent for United Comb & Novelty, filed with the Massachusetts secretary of the commonwealth on Nov. 30, lists Murray as the new corporate agent, taking over from Zephir.
Camber Holdings' website describes the firm as a "operations-oriented private investment firm" that focuses on lower-middle-market companies.
"We seek to invest in a small number of companies at a given time, spending a considerable amount of our time and resources on each business," the company website says.
The firm involves the Camber team and a "deep bench of the 20-plus operating partners, private equity investment professionals and former special situations investment bankers, the website says. Camber is not a private equity firm, Murray said.
Camber's website touts the firm's long-term approach: "Our capital comes from our management team and a group of high-net worth individuals and family office asset managers, which allows us to take a much longer-term view on our strategies and hold periods."
Murray said Camber takes an active role in company operations but relies on the expertise of company management and employees. United Solutions is strong in that regard, he said.
"Part of the reason for this investment is we saw a lot of potential with the leadership team of the company," said Murray, who is involved with United Solutions on a daily basis but mainly to set strategic plans and support employees.
One example is Tom Murphy, technical vice president of manufacturing, who has worked at United Solutions for two-and-a-half years. He brought to the housewares molder a 25-year background in injection and blow molding, building products, communications sectors and food and beverage, including work at Berry Global Inc. and Tapco Group.
"Honestly, I don't say or do anything that's any more important than any member of my team, top to bottom. We have strong leadership in all areas of the business," he said. "We've definitely driven ourselves to be a very, very strong, well-oiled machine."
The Massachusetts document lists Pat Murray as chief restructuring officer of United Comb & Novelty. Tim Durkin — Camber Holdings' senior managing director — is listed as CEO, president, treasurer and secretary.
Murray said that although those titles were listed on the government form, they do not reflect the roles of the two Camber officials at United Solutions.
"I would look at Tim and I as the leadership of the company, but it really is Tom [Murphy] and his peers that run the company day-to-day," he said.
Instead of trying to be all things to all customers, United Solutions is concentrating on a few fundamental markets. Murray listed the areas:
• Trash cans, both its own line and as a licensee for Rubbermaid blow molded trash cans. He said United Solutions just introduced a wheeled injection molded trash can. The company is planning several new products.
• Five-gallon pails for Lowe's and other retailers, molded under private label. "We do a tremendous amount of 5-gallon pails," he said.
• Totes, products molded by United Solutions that are still marketed with the Rubbermaid name. Totes has become a cutthroat business, but Murray said the high-quality Rubbermaid totes won't be joining the race to the bottom. "We don't compete at opening price point," he said.
• Other miscellaneous housewares for some retailers, such as refrigerator bottles, laundry baskets, and dish pans.
"We're not going to make everything, but we want to be very good at what we make for our customers, "Murray said, adding: "We have a very good reputation of on-time delivery," of 99 percent.
The most recent news for United Solutions came from Sardis, where the company is investing $9.5 million to increase production at the Mississippi factory, and plans to create 50 jobs over the next four years. The plant currently employs 102. The Mississippi Development Authority issued a news release May 21 to announce the investment, including quotes from Gov. Phil Bryant and Durkin, as CEO of United Solutions.
"We are, and have, invested heavily into machinery and equipment, Murray said. He could not provide equipment details, but he said investments companywide include machinery, quality systems, continuous improvement and employee training and safety.
"We are more geared toward a total solutions provider rather than just a plastics company," he said. "We really want to be the steady hand, the reliable partner for our customers, and the same thing for our vendors. It's very focused with a lot of good things going on right now."
The state's announcement said the Mississippi Development Authority has made a loan to Panola County, Miss., to buy the Sardis factory from the existing owner. The county also is providing property tax abatements and matching funds for building improvements, and the state also is providing assistance, the state said.
"We're making a commitment as a company to really have a world-class facility in Mississippi and the state has been a great partner," he said.
The news release also said United Solutions is buying a warehouse to free up space currently used for storage at its manufacturing facility. But Murray said the company already owns an existing warehouse in Sardis.
"We're looking with a lot of different strategic options right now to position the company for the long-term," he said.
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