ASHLAND - When many community members think of Hedstrom, they imagine the company making children's play balls here in Ashland.
But that's not really how the company operates today, vice president of operations Seth McArdle told Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce members at a manufacturing luncheon and tour Wednesday.
Hedstrom moved a majority of production for Hedstrom Entertainment-- the division that makes play balls-- to China in about 2002, McArdle said.
Most of what's manufactured by Hedstrom in Ashland these days is either fitness equipment for the Hedstrom Fitness division or rotational molded products manufactured under the Hedstrom Plastics division for other companies.
"So when you tour our factory, you'll see some of what we call proprietary products. You'll also see pieces and parts," McArdle said. "Rarely will you walk into the factory and be able to say, 'I know what that is.' It's going to be a part to a floor cleaner or a car wash or something along those lines."
McArdle shared with the chamber members some of the challenges and opportunities his company faces in each of its four divisions.
Hedstrom Entertainment still makes up nearly half of Hedstrom's business, but it's a tough time to be in the play ball business. Kids' play patterns have changed, McArdle said, so the company has to compete with video games and iPads to keep kids' attention. Also, as the economy improves, parents are more likely to purchased higher priced play products for kids.
The division is adapting by investing in new product development to create toys that use technology but still get kids to go outside and play, McArdle said.
The Hedstrom Fitness division is growing as consumers are becoming more health-conscious, McArdle said. But the division is operating in a highly competitive market in which other companies often create knockoff products and undercut the originals.
Meanwhile, the proprietary product market is strong and opportunities are endless for Hedstrom Plastics. The top challenge that division faces is not a shortage of demand but a shortage of labor.
In response, McArdle said the Hedstrom Plastics division is focused on automation and innovation to reduce its dependence on manual labor. The goal, he said, is not to eliminate jobs but to create fewer jobs that each pay better.
Hedstrom's newest division, Hedstrom Environmental, manufactures large polyethylene plastic waste dumpsters. McArdle referred to the division as a startup business for Hedstrom and said the company is just starting to gain traction in the market. The market for dumpsters is large and unlikely to shrink, McArdle said, but it's also a tough market to break into.
After outlining the state of his own business, McArdle shifted to a call for the Ashland area business community to work together to solve its common challenge of growing a quality workforce.
He said employers should create career paths for people who want opportunities for advancement and set higher expectations for their workers.
"If each company starts having higher expectations for our employees, that becomes the standard," he said.
Employers in the manufacturing industry need to shift away from a mode of desperation in the hiring process, McArdle said. Instead, they need to make sure they are hiring the right employees and setting them up to be successful.