Plastics Firms Boost Business by Cooperation

WESTERN Massachusetts, known for its idyllic Berkshire Mountains, is also home to 40 plastics firms, including General Electric Company's plastics unit.

These Pittsfield-area companies are learning to cooperate on marketing, worker training, and other areas of mutual interest.

"We still compete with each other," notes James Beauregard, who heads the marketing efforts of the Berkshire Plastics Network. He is also president and founder of Plastics Technology Laboratories Inc., a testing firm whose clients include Du Pont and Apple Computer.

Cooperation is giving the 40 firms a higher profile that boosts business for them all.

For example, the Berkshire Plastics Network rented a booth at a New York City trade show for medical products. "We'll come back with about 100 leads" on potential jobs, Mr. Beauregard says. This month the group will hold a seminar to show its capabilities to prospective clients.

"We know everything about plastics when you put us all together," Beauregard says.

The 40 firms have specialties ranging from product design to various types of molding processes. But the companies could not get that "one-stop shopping" message to potential customers without banding together.

The network was founded a decade ago, but "it's really in the last six months that this marketing effort has taken off," Beauregard says.

"It's slow going because it's a cultural change," says John Hoops, a state economic-development official. Managers steeped in competition must learn to cooperate.

Mr. Hoops says Germany's small companies have been pioneers of "flexible business networks." Now companies such as these are developing American versions of the concept, but "the US is still feeling its way along," he says.

Still, more than 1,000 companies in 22 states now belong to flexible business networks, estimates the German Marshall Fund, a charitable organization in Washington. The plastics network, which has been funded entirely by its dues-paying members, recently got a state grant to help with its outreach programs.

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