by Sarah Einselen Pharos-Tribune
---- — FRANCESVILLE — Fratco’s the name. But what’s their game?
Francesville company Fratco Inc. was named one of this year’s “Companies to Watch” by a coalition of Indiana state governmental and economic development agencies. It was one of 33 companies picked from a pool of more than 300 companies nominated.
To receive the “Companies to Watch” award, Hoosier businesses had to employ six to 150 full-time workers and generate between $750,000 and $100 million in annual revenue, according to a press release from the office of state Rep. Douglas Gutwein (R-Francesville).
Presented by the Indiana Small Business Development Center, Indiana Economic Development Corporation and the Edward Lowe Foundation, 33 Hoosier businesses received the award. Together they were projected to create 345 new jobs this year and generate $422 million in revenue.
Fratco was likely the oldest company in the group — it celebrates its 90th anniversary this year — but “in a lot of ways they’re very young,” said Pulaski County Economic Development president Nathan Origer.
Origer said he nominated the company for the award because of its recent growth — employing 25 percent more people just in the last two years, he said — and the company’s commitment to local involvement.
“They have shown a lot of involvement in the community,” said Origer, “while they have grown.” Part of that shows up in the Francesville Fall Festival going on this weekend, he said, which Fratco has taken part in for many years. Fratco management is also heavily involved in PCED’s development efforts, Origer added.
Fratco, located at 4385 S. Pulaski County Road 1450 West, manufactures plastic drain pipes and sells drainage tile. Its current owner and president, Chris Overmyer, is the fourth generation of the Overmyers to run the company. His great-grandfather, E. C. Overmyer, purchased the company in 1923, when the company was making clay pipes. Chris Overmyer bought out his father in 2006.
That’s when the name Francesville Drain Tile, officially incorporated in 1956, had its name changed to Fratco — a name Overmyer said was meant to evoke its unofficial full name, Francesville Tile Company.
Overmyer said the company was honored to be recognized. “We’ve been around since 1923 and just recently, in the last few years, exploded in growth.”
Although Overmyer had been plant manager for a decade, Origer noticed significant changes when he took the reins of the whole company.
“Chris is just a much more aggressive businessman,” said Origer. “We have seen the company acquire two out-of-state plants under Chris’s supervision.”
The Francesville plant and its two new sister plants manufacture polyolefin corrugated pipe from diameters as small as 3 inches to as large as 5 feet. The pipes end up in farmers’ fields or under roadsides, serving to drain excess stormwater from the waterlogged ground.
“We have substantiated a 100-year design life,” said Overmyer — meaning the pipes should last a century after they’ve been buried in the ground, since the company’s lab tests also take environmental concerns, like oil running off roadways, into account.
As Overmyer picked up a handful of what looked like small, translucent pebbles, he explained that the material used to make Fratco pipes is shipped in on railcars.
“It’s the same exact material that a milk jug is made of,” he said. Each car holds about 100 tons of the tiny plastic pellets, which end up being melted down, often having color added to the plastic and then squirted into a vacuum-sealed mold that shapes the plastic as it cools.
The great thing about polyolethin — the plastic that Fratco uses — is that “we can just remelt it and reuse it,” Overmyer said.
A machine stationed near the entrance to the rail yard grinds up pipes that don’t meet the company’s quality control standards into plastic shards for remelting. The company also ships in ground plastic bought second-hand from industrial sources, which it also recycles into pipes.
Pipes made with recycled industrial plastic can be used in certain construction projects aiming to meet higher environmental standards such as those required by the U.S. Green Building Council for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
But whether the plastic is new or reused, it gets melted to temperatures as hot as 400 degrees. Once it’s liquid enough, a machine shoots it into a vacuum-sealed chamber, where it clings to the inner surface of a mold whose pieces meet and part in a rotation, allowing the machine to form a length of pipe as long as is needed.
However, Overmyer said the process of making quality drainage pipe is “more an art than a science.”
He explained that each batch of plastic requires subtle adjustments to the melting temperature and other aspects of the process.
“There will always be that inherent variability in the lots of material,” he continued. And that’s where the company’s employees are so critical. “Without the right people behind the technology, none of it really matters,” Overmyer said.
All told, the company employs 104 at its Francesville headquarters, its sales and manufacturing facility in St. Anne, Ill., and its newest manufacturing plant in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Of those, 72 work in Francesville.
More than half of the company’s workforce has been with Fratco more than a decade, according to operations director Bill Champion. He called them a core group of dedicated employees.
One example of their dedication, he said, was in the aftermath of a 2011 storm that tore the roof off of one of the Francesville buildings, causing it to collapse.
“They heard about it and showed up,” said Champion. “They take ownership in what we do, in what we have here.”
Overmyer said that was key to Fratco’s recent success.
“Without the right people,” he explained, “the boss doesn’t go anywhere.”
Sarah Einselen is news editor at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-732-5151. Follow her on Twitter@PharosSME.