Fantastic plastic training scheme marked in reunion

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A Hamilton plastics manufacturing family’s long-term commitment to training has been remembered at a reunion of former trainees.

Two photos separated by 36 years. In one of them, black and white, 16 young men look back at the camera, one of them wearing dangerously short shorts and a tee-shirt slogan to go with them. These are Trigon cadets and apprentices in 1982, part of an enduring programme that stretches back to an earlier Foreman company, Plastic Products. Centre back, wearing jeans, is Owen Embling.

Embling, who now runs Convex Plastics, is one of those responsible for the later colour photo, this time showing 70 men and women at a reunion of Trigon trainees, the cadets and apprentices employed by the Te Rapa-based plastics company at the rate of four or five a year, many of whom have gone on to forge bright careers both inside and outside the plastics industry.

When Roger Evans put together a list for the reunion, he reached almost 100 names. It’s a testament to the regard those people had for their career start that more than half that number, 59, assembled for a get-together in October, a game of golf followed by an evening of socialising and reminiscing. 

They were joined by other former staff members, including trainers and mentors. All but two of those in the 1982 photo made the reunion.

Evans, himself a former Trigon trainee, was there as was Russell Cassey. Cassey goes further back, to the days of Plastic Products, which he joined as an apprentice in 1963. The company, established by Morty Foreman during World War II, was a trend-setter in many ways, among them being an early adopter of psychometric testing for new recruits. Cassey still has the personality test he sat before he was given the job.

Another crucial way in which father and son Morty and Bill Foreman were ahead of the times, Evans said, was in their commitment to training, and the young Russell Cassey, for example, did two NZCEs while at Plastic Products.

The company merged with Alex Harvey & Sons in 1963, and Morty’s association ended in 1969. His son Bill then set up Trigon in 1970 making plastic film, with Cassey invited on from the start. The investment paid off – what took $130,000 of share capital to establish was sold 25 years later for $100 million.

“It just rocketed away,” Cassey said. “It was a very fertile space for us because we got in there with new equipment, we’d done our homework.”

He built on his experience at Plastic Products to run the training programme at Trigon, and act as a mentor to the trainees coming through. And Bill Foreman was to attribute much of the company’s success, including its overseas expansion, to its young people who understood the firm’s culture and technology.

There was a bit more to it than that, Cassey noted. There was the vision of Bill Foreman himself, a tireless leader and supporter of his staff, and a man with an exacting eye. 

In the early years especially, some of the impetus for training came from necessity, in an industry that was new and constantly developing.

“Training was a key part of the success of both companies because you couldn’t get the expertise that you wanted out in the market,” Cassey said.

No polytechnics were teaching the complexities of the extrusion process or printing or blow moulding that were core to the industry.

“You had to go overseas to get the right equipment, and then swot it up and learn it yourself.”

Trainees developed tremendous adaptability and the confidence to go with an idea – because they were encouraged to do exactly that on the shop floor, right from the start, whether that was on the engineering apprenticeship pathway, or the management cadet route.

“The whole culture at Trigon of doing our own thing, coming up with our own ideas, was only possible because all our staff were introduced to it from the get-go,” Cassey said. “Because we were all very busy, it was convenient to throw them in the deep end every now and then.”

“Tell me about it!” said Evans. “You got blooded very young. It was great!”

Evans has continued the commitment to training at the company he founded, Stafford Engineering, where there are 10 apprentices among the 70 staff. He is seeing a shift back towards a cadetship-style model, with employees gaining qualifications while working part time, and tertiary institutes increasingly embedding work experience in their training. 

As for the reunion, which came a year after Bill Foreman died, the career paths of many of those who attended is an endorsement of the value of the Foreman father and son’s approach to training.

Russell Cassey said it was wonderful to hear the former trainees’ stories. 

“Universally, they were grateful for the start they got and the experience they gained.”

That includes Gordon Woolley, now writing software for Chapman Tripp, Suzanne Fletcher, who became CEO of Office Max, and Greg Cross whose career included a spell as Microsoft’s New Zealand managing director before getting into AI.

“We all credit our careers for the opportunities Trigon gave us,” Roger Evans said.

Cassey: “The inverse is that Trigon credits its success a lot to the contribution that these guys made. They fitted in, they took responsibility, they shared the ethos of the company to go out there and solve problems and be positive.

“They’ve had an adaptability and a confidence to grab an idea they’ve had and do something with it. Bill would be very proud of that.”

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