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Molding success with people, processes

Nick Damico III remembers how he felt back in 1992, when he signed up as a process engineer for a Baltimore plastics company fresh out of college.

“Overwhelmed and lost,” says Damico, 45.

Dedication, hard work and a willingness to learn have propelled Damico from that entry-level position to plant manager for the Berry Plastics Group Inc. Since 2011, he has run the group’s 700,000-square-foot Macedon factory. The plant employs close to 580 workers.

Based in Evansville, Ind., Berry Plastics Group is a publicly traded global manufacturer of plastic consumer packaging and engineered materials that has $5 billion in annual revenues. More than 16,500 work for the corporation at nearly 100 sites, most of which are in the United States.

If you have bought a loaf of bread, prescription drug, industrial adhesive tape or any one of a host of other items, you may have used one of Berry Plastics Group’s products.

The Macedon plant is the largest in the Berry Plastics Group flexible packing division and makes bags for baked goods and other products.

“We can produce up to 9 million bags a day,” Damico says.

Revenues for the Macedon plant total some $120 million a year, he says.

Company background

The company’ began in 1967, when Imperial Plastics opened its doors in Evansville. Jack Berry Sr. acquired the injection molding company in 1983 and renamed it Berry Plastics.

Reorganized as the Berry Plastics Group, the corporation embarked upon a course of mergers and acquisitions. By 2014, it had acquired nearly 40 other businesses, including Covalence Specialty Materials—the former Tyco Plastics & Adhesives.

Damico’s journey to Macedon began just after he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in mechanical engineering. Jobs in his field were scarce in the Pittsburgh area then, so he holed up in his parents’ house and sent resumes across the country.

It took about two months for Damico to secure a position as a process engineer for Adell Plastics Inc. Other plastics manufacturers hire the Baltimore company to develop manufacturing processes that can then be used to make new products.

“They’d come with a formula, and we had to find the process to make it efficiently,” Damico says.

With that process in hand, the customer would turn out the product. Though Damico had to put in as much as 100 hours a week for Adell, he considered the time well-spent.

“Every day was a new product and a new learning,” he says. “In two years, I gained more knowledge in processing than I would have in 10 years in an actual, large-scale manufacturing facility.”

That learning curve continued upward, as Damico took progressively more responsible positions in his field. As a process control engineer at the Ferro Corp.’s Evansville plant, he learned how to use computers to control production lines.

“What that gave me was a detailed thought process in understanding of how equipment ties to other equipment,” he asserts. “I can … really understand how things tie together, so I can work that back in the line of questioning to help solve a problem.”

Damico continued putting those skills to work—and adding to them—as a packaging process engineer for GE Plastics at the company’s Mt. Vernon, Ind., plant. The plant specialized in manufacturing Lexan polycarbonate, which is used to make high-impact lenses.

“We were the largest polycarbonate plant,” he says.

By the numbers
While at GE, Damico acquired certification in Six Sigma Black Belt certification, which emphasizes the use of empirical, statistical methods to identify and remove the causes of defects in manufacturing and business processes. The skills proved useful when Damico took charge of the team that upgraded the facility’s Lexan manufacturing execution system.

“The team was to … upgrade it from a mainframe-based to a Windows-based system that was more in line with being able to put more specialized programming in to optimize processes,” he explains.

GE’s other Lexan manufacturing facilities copied and instituted the upgrades. While the project benefited the firm, it also gave Damico a taste of management—and he wanted more.

After several years with GE, Damico was ready for another change. That came in 2005, when Tyco Plastics offered him the chance to lead a team that was tasked with implementing lean manufacturing and Six Sigma methodologies at 11 facilities around the country. Those included Tyco’s Yonkers and Elizabeth, N.J., plants.

Damico moved his wife and children to Caldwell, N.J., and set to work. By dint of sweat and skill, he eventually came to manage the two facilities. The plants, which manufactured blown plastic film, employed some 145 people.

Steve Cooper, another of Tyco’s plant managers, was assigned to mentor the new executive. He liked what he saw.

“He is a very bright young man, very intuitive, very level-headed,” Cooper says. “He had a skill and ability to engage the folks on the floor and speak on their level and get their respect.”

The two became friends, and Cooper went on to become vice president of operations for Berry’s flexible packaging division—and Damico’s boss.

Covalence acquired Tyco and then merged with the Berry Plastics Group in 2007. Damico became a regional plant manager for the group and continued to run the Yonkers and Elizabeth plants while guiding the other nine facilities.

During various points in his tenure as a plant and regional manager, Damico’s guidance produced gains among the facilities under his control. Total costs among the sites dropped by $6.5 million in 2006, and complaints about product quality decreased from 18 to just over eight per month from 2008 to 2010. The Yonkers plant dropped its scrap rate—the rate at which products are discarded due to errors—by two-thirds from 2006 to 2007, rendering the operation profitable.

“He really took a team in New York that was … a little bit dysfunctional and brought them in to be a very functional team,” Cooper says.

Coming to Macedon
Berry Plastics Group eventually shut down its Yonkers and Elisabeth plants as part of a consolidation. As those doors closed, another one opened for Damico: He took over as head of the Macedon plant.

The Macedon operation presented challenges for Damico, not least of which was the need to manage a larger and more complicated operation. While the Elizabeth and Yonkers facilities just produced plastic film for use elsewhere, the Macedon plant converts raw stock into finished products. Giant machines fill the cavernous facility with a loud hum, as beads of polyethylene are melted, formed into sheets and placed on large rolls.

“We use 95 percent of them internally,” Damico says.

Printing presses then coat the sheets with images and other machines form them into goods, ready for shipment. Just about all of the plant’s film ends up as bags for baked goods.

Managing a more complex process—and larger workforce—required Damico to develop new reflexes.

“I’ve had to learn to trust the people that work for me, learn to manage through setting the right metrics … making sure that we’re always reviewing what the metrics are, and giving direction,” he explains.

In addition, all of the plant’s printing presses were out-of-date—some were 40 years old. The machines ran at a snail’s pace of no more than 600 feet per minute, and were more error-prone than modern presses. Since material accounts for 65 percent of the process’s expenses, mistakes can be costly.

Any material loss is a concern when it comes to profitability, Damico says.

To combat such problems, the Berry Plastics Group has put as much as $40 million in improvements and upgrades into the facility in recent years. Three modern printing presses now sit on the production floor, running at up to 2,600 feet per minute, and a fourth is on order. The new presses’ built-in safety measures have helped cut the plant’s error rate.

“We hit quality levels last year that we didn’t think we were going to be able to hit,” Damico says. “Overall costs have definitely gone down.”

The value of work
Damico was born in Greensburg, Pa., part of the Pittsburgh metro area, one of three children in a close-knit family that valued hard work and the drive to succeed. His mother, a high school graduate, rose to become a customer service manager for a communications company. His father climbed from carpenter up to computer programmer.

“He worked his way through trade school, and tended bar at nights,” Damico says.

Even while working as a programmer, Damico’s father continued working with his hands—and his sons generally joined him on projects.

“We were side-by-side with him doing any improvements to our house,” Damico says. “We always had jobs around the house.”

Such experiences helped prepare him and his siblings for the future, Damico says.

“There was no doubt that they wanted to instill a work ethic in their children,” he explains.

Damico met Lori, his wife of 19 years, when they were in college.

“Nick was a wrestler in college, and he took me to his wrestling banquet,” Lori explains.

They became friends and began dating two years later. The couple has three daughters, all of whom are involved in sports and other activities. Lori, who has a master’s degree in elementary education, elected to stay home to raise them.

Sporting events and recitals fill up most of Damico’s weekends and weeknights. On his off time, he works on the family home in Victor. He currently is building an outdoor kitchen in the backyard.

“He’s got footers dug for an outdoor fireplace,” Lori says.

At the same time, he enjoys being with their children.

“He can sit down and help our kids with their homework effectively, or he can take them out to the soccer field and teach them some skills,” she says. “Anything he sets his mind to, he can do.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Nick Damico III
Position: Plant manager, Berry Plastics Group Inc.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, University of Pittsburgh, 1992
Family: Wife, Lori; daughters Sophia, 10, Olivia, 13, and Gianna, 16
Residence: Victor, Ontario County
Activities: Spending time with his family, home improvement projects, rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers
Quote: “With the right technology—as we’re putting in place now—the right efficiencies and quality, our growth opportunities are limitless in the markets we play in now.”
 

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