BUILDING A LEGACY
HOW ROY WEIKERT CREATED GENERAL FILMS, INC.
This story is about curiosity. The kind that sets visionary entrepreneurs apart from other business people. It's also about a family business, innovation, tenacity, and a 25-cent steam tank (more about that later). Mostly, this is the story of General Films, Inc. founder Roy Weikert who, at age 105, walks daily for exercise, which has been key to his good health, plays the stock market for fun and profit, and as Chairman of the Board of the company he began in 1938.
Covington, Ohio-based General Films, Inc. serves a wide range of industries with custom extruded film solutions, bag-in-box systems, and industrial packaging. But the company began with a young Roy Weikert, his new fedora, and a jar of Brilliantine.
In 1935, discontented with the effects of the Great Depression, Roy decided to leave his 10-cents-per-hour job in a Covington, Ohio, grocery store and head west. Driving a 1929 Buick loaded with outdoor gear, Roy and two friends set out to camp across the country. Eventually, the friends opted to hitchhike home, but Roy pushed on to Salt Lake City before heading back and finding himself in Davenport, Iowa, with 40 cents in his pocket. There he landed a job as a stock boy in an F. W. Woolworth store. He quickly impressed the store manager, who helped him advance in the company, eventually becoming an assistant store manager in Winona, Minnesota.
Although grateful for such opportunities during the Depression, Roy always felt the desire to have his own business. His first attempt, with one of his Davenport boarding house neighbors, was to try his hand at making and selling candy. Fortunately, he kept his day job. Then, one day, Winona Roy bought a new felt hat. Like many young men, Roy used a pomade called Brilliantine to give his hair the neat and shiny look made popular by the movie stars of the day. However, Roy found that the greasy residue from the product coated the inside of his hat. While visiting his family in Covington in 1938, Roy set out to develop a solution to this hat problem.
At Woolworth, Roy had become familiar with several products such as rain bonnets, umbrellas, and rain capes made from a new plastic material, Pliofilm, which was a great improvement over its predecessor, Cellophane. He decided to see if he could use this new material to protect the inside of hats. During his 2-week vacation, Roy handcrafted a hat liner of Pliofilm and sewed a stainless-steel wire into the hem. The wire snapped under the sweatband to hold the liner in place. When he set out to market his creation to retail hat buyers in nearby Dayton, he found an even greater interest in Pliofilm covers that could protect hats during shipment and storage. Sensing an opportunity, Roy took a leave of absence from Woolworth and, with his life savings of $600, set out to reinvent the hat cover business.
He hitchhiked to Akron to learn more about Pliofilm from the manufacturer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, and then convinced a hat-maker in Piqua to lend him some hat forms on which he could shape the covers. Finally, he found a steam tank for 25 cents and some other scrap items he used to stretch the material. Soon he perfected the hat covers and made his first sale of $6.00. Roy reinvested to automate the process and soon pumped out that covers day and night on three specially designed machines.
Then came World War II. Pliofilm was made from rubber, and available supplies of that material were needed for the war effort. Roy's business ground to a halt about the time he was called into service with the Army Medical Corps. When he was discharged after the war, several things changed. For one, the men's hat business began to decline. Additionally, a new plastic film, Polyethylene, appeared that had several advantages over Pliofilm, including more resistance against ultraviolet light rays. This characteristic made it ideal for food packaging, especially for dairy products. Roy had some experience with the dairy industry prior to closing for the war when he packaged rubber tubes used with 5-gallon milk dispenser cans.
With his brother, Wayne, now joining him in the business, Roy's curiosity turned to how the polyethylene film might apply to the dairy industry. He soon found that both the dairies and government health agencies disliked the metal cans in which milk was then shipped. Roy wondered how to adapt the new plastic film for transporting milk products. Then he discovered a bag-and-box system used to transport battery acid. This led Roy to design a bag-and-box system for milk, ice cream mixes, and other dairy products.
By the 1960's General Films began manufacturing its own plastic film, which allowed the company to more easily create customized products to address various customer packaging and protection issues. Steady growth through the early 1970s prompted the company to build a second facility to complement the Covington plant. Over the next few years, however, the nation suffered from severe inflation, an oil embargo, and a failing economy. These pressures, coupled with the debt load from the new facility, forced the company to reorganize. The Sidney facility was sold, key personnel – some family members – left to start another business, and Roy and Wayne retrenched in Covington. In the years that followed, the company expanded into additional markets and developed new products fueled by Roy's insatiable curiosity and inventiveness. Along the way, others joined the family business, most notably Roy's nephew and Wayne's son, Tim Weikert, the current CEO of General Films, Inc.
"I can't remember not being around this business," Tim recalls. "It's always been a part of my life, and Roy was always here dreaming up new products and solving technical problems. His many patents and innovations have allowed us to move into various markets and solve myriad problems for our customers. In fact, one of his greatest contributions may be that he created a company culture that encourages all of us to be creative, look for new opportunities and tackle any application challenges that come our way."
"Certainly, our greatest asset is our employees – some with over 40 years of devoted and loyal tenure – who ensure our customers get the best solutions possible, on time and on budget."
"Perhaps Roy's other legacy is that there are more than a half-dozen businesses that spun off from General Films, Inc. These companies were started by former employees and some family members who took what they learned here and applied it to their own enterprises." All this from a 25-cent steam tank, a $2.95 felt hat, and a jar of Brilliantine. Oh, yes! and the curiosity and inventiveness of a young man from rural Ohio.