AKRON—The Polyurethane Manufacturers Association was formed in 1971 as a business and social organization to promote the use of urethane and deal with key issues facing the industry.
Thanks to U.S. governmental agencies, the undersized association became much more than that. A little known curing agent, MOCA, put it on the map, tested every member's mettle and turned it into a group to be reckoned with.
Few observers figured the PMA could survive the MOCA battles that began in 1973. But it did more than survive, it grew. And 2011 marks its 40th birthday.
It overcame several major obstacles to survive—including governmental actions to wipe out MOCA that resulted in long, drawn-out battles and the decision by some large companies to avoid the fray by leaving the PMA and pulling their support.
Basically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration decreed 4,4'-methylene-bis (2-chloroaniline), or MOCA, the primary curing agent for urethane, was unsafe and placed it on a list of chemicals that allegedly caused cancer. The PMA disagreed: “MOCA never caused cancer in humans,” said Jay Meili, a charter member of the PMA. And without the agent, he said, a number of smaller cast urethane product manufacturers could have gone under.
The PMA had to fight, said Meili, who at the time was the owner and president of Port Washington, Wis.-based Molded Dimensions Inc., and had particular knowledge about the science of urethane—he holds a doctorate in organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
So the little organization took on the giant agency and others in long, drawn-out battles as the PMA expanded its ranks in the national spotlight over the next two decades.
It emerged from the fight with a reputation “for actually being able to take on the government and protect the rights of our members from unreasonable regulation,” said Walt Smith, another PMA charter member.
The MOCA wars helped define what the organization was made of, but the handful of men who gathered at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 1971 did not have that in mind. They met to determine what interest there was in a polyure-thane association that would form to exchange technical and management ideas.
Often referred to as the “Father of the PMA,” Robert Gleason—at the time an executive with American Cyanamid and later in sales with Rubber & Plastics News—was the catalyst in forming the first organizational session. Joining him at the meeting were Lionel Dace, then with MACO Industries; Ed Nazer of Nazer Rubber Co.; Marshall Ross, Acushnet Co.; Robert Kane, DuPont; and Harold Walls, McCreary Industrial Products Co.
They determined there was a need for an association, and in the latter part of 1971 they gathered again to set the PMA's goals. They contacted other companies in the industry to join them at a founding meeting in January 1972, according to an early history prepared by the PMA.
About 55 company representatives showed up at the January session, 22 of which applied for membership and became the association's charter companies. They set up the first PMA committees, approved the initial budget and laid down the purpose, scope and objectives of the organization.
The first general membership conference was held in Chicago in May 1972 where Walls was elected president; Ro-bert Smith of Thombert Inc., vice president; and Ed Crane of Samuel Bingham, treasurer. Ross, Kane, Gleason and Nazar were named members of the board.
Membership grew to 40 companies, several of the early members said in interviews conducted in 2000 and 2001. Many were smaller companies, entrepreneurs who gained a great deal from the PMA, said Robert Smith, founder, president and chairman of Newton, Iowa-based Thombert.
Few of them could envision the mountains they would have to climb. But united they did, Meili said.
In 1973, the publication of the MOCA standard created a crisis that resulted in explosive growth for the PMA, according to Walt Smith, son of Robert and current chairman of Thombert and Malcom, Iowa-based ITWC Inc., a producer of hot- and cold-cast urethane systems that he formed in 1988.
The standard posed a monumental problem for the young association. According to several members who were on hand at the time, there was fear throughout the organization that the industry itself could topple under the standard's provisions.
Walt Smith, who's been attending PMA meetings since 1972, never figured that would happen because there were alternative technologies available, “but it certainly created a need for us to exchange workplace safety information.”
Arvid “Bud” Sather, an attorney with the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich in Madison, Wis., was brought on board. Sather had worked for a state justice department after a stint in the Navy and went on to serve under Robert Kennedy in the U.S. Department of Justice, where he mainly handled civil rights cases.
The PMA attempted to operate within the constraints of the standard and approach the Department of Labor within normal channels. That didn't work.
The association initiated legal action and the small, upstart group took on the government for the first, but not the last, time. Membership in the PMA soared to about 90 companies, and during that era it reached 135, according to Walt Smith.
Meili—president of the PMA in 1974—Gleason and Sather were named as the association's representatives to Washington.
The initial battle raged for more than a year. A substitute standard was drafted by the PMA and the Meili-led unit met with representatives in Washington, challenged the standard in court and did it all over again and again.
Support from within
Some polyurethane goods manufacturers such as Thombert did not use MOCA, but both Walt Smith—who served as president of the PMA in 1981-82—and his father strongly supported the fight to get the curative off the OSHA list. A number of other non-users did the same because it was good for the industry, Walt Smith said.
An appeals court finally revoked and remanded the standard on a procedural technicality.
The court sent the standard back to OSHA, Sather said in a 2001 interview, because “the court was convinced it was a bad standard. But the court called it a procedure error.”
Association members worked with the government for 10 years to develop “a reasonable standard,” Meili said, but a more workable rule was never put on the books.
Other challenges followed during the next two decades, pitting the association against arms of the government, including OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Council of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
The EPA tried to ban MOCA in the early 1980s. That fight lasted three years.
“We flew all over the country and interviewed companies that used it” and showed the EPA that PMA members practiced safe standards, Sather said. “We produced thousands of pages—we had all this data from companies going back 10-15 years—and they realized that they were off base. So they withdrew their order.”
Next came the hygienists council, and that was more of the same, with the PMA coming out on top and the issue being tossed back into OSHA's lap.
In the end, the PMA won all of the battles.
Today OSHA does not have a MOCA standard. The last words about MOCA from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the ACGIH, issued in 1991-92, were merely exposure limit recommendations, with each group citing possible cancer risks.
Since its early days, the PMA has for the most part grown and prospered, except for one period during the 1990s when its membership dipped. But it has rallied from that downturn.
Its primary goals are “to be the trusted source of information for the hot cast polyurethane industry (and) educate the public as to the advantages of cast polyurethane to increase the size of the overall market,” according to Mike Katz, current president of the PMA and president of Molded Dimensions. Meili sold the company to Katz and his wife, Linda, in 2001.
On one hand he's happy with the way the association has grown and on the other he's not. “I am happy on how we've grown our focus à and how much more professionally we are managed.
“But I am not happy with our overall membership. There are too many processors—probably 200 in North America—who are not members and should be. The investment is relatively small ($750 per year), yet you get access to the PMA as a whole.”
The PMA was formed because “we needed a forum to exchange information and technology in a complex industry,” Walt Smith said. The same holds true today, he said.
It provided “and still provides the glue that holds us together,” Smith said. “Many PMA members have worked in the industry for different companies over their careers. It seems that understanding how to make polyurethane is a special skill.
“The same chemical reaction of NCO and OH makes a plethora of products from coatings to elastomers to foams—rigid and flexible—and adhesives. The same reactions can be used to make TPUs, cold cast systems or hot cast systems. Only our imagination limits us in what we can make.”
Donald Barge, president of Griffith Polymers Inc. of Tualatin, Ore., joined the PMA in 1972 because there was “strength in numbers.” He felt a great deal of pride and strength from the gains the PMA has made over the years.
Barge, who served as president of the organization in 1989, noted that most of the original PMA members “started out on the ground floor of urethane manufacturing (and) we slowly grew in stature and wisdom. We had a hands-on, tough, no-nonsense approach to challenges and stood up for our beliefs.”
There is a great need for the PMA today, he said.
“We are a great cross-section of what America is about. We will be around because we have a great product and many hard-working, intelligent businessmen and women in our organization,” Barge said.
It has been very proactive in dealing with government regulators and “we need to get this message out to non-members so that they will join us in our never ending dance with the 'elephant.' ” The PMA, Barge said, keeps things on a level playing field.