EVERGREEN – At first blush, Northern Plastics looks like most industrial facilities in the Flathead: a large boxy building with a red roof and garage door, and a sign indicating its business.
But then the small horse corral comes into view, and so does Ginger, Northern Plastics founder Glen Hufstetler’s 5-year-old mare, a gorgeous, red gentle giant. The corral runs along the east side of the building, which has windows into the main workspace, where multiple plastic injection-molding machines make everything from water meter covers for various cities around the country to barrels that keep food away from hungry bears.
Among the hubbub of machinery, Hufstetler, wearing a white cowboy hat, opens a window to let Ginger poke her head in, Mr. Ed-style.
“She’s my best friend,” he says, stroking the mare’s soft nose. “But she’ll knock everything off this bench.” On cue, Ginger begins lipping at a power drill.
The scene is a mix of industrial and rural, that little bit of ranching that hasn’t left Hufstetler quite yet.
Since 1992, Hufstetler has brought his straightforward approach to business to this facility, building it from nothing into an employer of up to 14 people with manufacturing contracts from all over the country.
Northern Plastics designs, manufactures, and distributes a wide range of specialty industry plastic products. Inventors will call up Hufstetler with ideas, and he helps bring them to life with the injection-molding machines.
These machines heat up tiny beads of plastic to about 400 degrees, turning it into the consistency of toothpaste. Depending on the size of the machine — the larger, the more pressure — the melted plastic is forced by literal tons of pressure into a mold specifically designed for the project.
For example, the water-system covers made for the city of Beverly Hills have the famous logo included. San Diego, Chicago, Cincinnati, and the Virgin Islands are among other customers, as noted by the molds stored nearby.
In an upstairs space, an employee works on the smallest projects, such as protective caps for products from Honeywell and other electronics companies, including tamper tags for drones.
“It’s really fun, because we do something different all the time,” Hufstetler said.
Northern Plastics took off in 1993, but Hufstetler started in the manufacturing business years before.
“I worked for myself almost all my life,” he said.
He and his wife Sharon moved to the Flathead in the 1960s, to a ranch stretching 800 acres near Bigfork. They spent 25 years on the ranch, raising all four of their children in the valley. They were married for 59 years before she passed away in April this year.
In the mid-1980s, they sold the ranch — a decision Hufstetler still regrets — and he went back to school. He worked for the school district before becoming a probation officer and then the director of the area’s youth court program.
Then he invented a heater. It was an idea to help battle cold, Montana mornings: a heater the size of a car stereo with a digital readout to set on and off times, automatically heating the car in the morning and triple charging the battery. He patented the design, and sold it to a company that went under before production could begin.
The heater never sold, but it introduced Hufstetler to the manufacturing world, and the possibilities therein.
Hufstetler started going through catalogs of unfilled government contracts, settling on one seeking 500 seed trays. When he got the bid, it turned into 50,000 trays, and he had to purchase his first injection-mold machine.
That company continued for seven or eight years before Hufstetler left and started Northern Plastics.
From there, the company has been responsible for several well-known products, including the Counter Assault Bear Keg, a bear-resistant food container now sold in Cabela’s.
“They’re doing about triple what they started with,” Hufstetler said of production.
Northern Plastics also makes Super Stackers, which hold doors apart while they dry and so they don’t knick each other up, and the water meter and manhole covers. One of their longest-running products is the gate-closer, a callback to his ranching days.
“We’ve had those for years and years,” Hufstetler said.
And of course there’s Ginger, his constant companion out the window. On even the most industrial days, Hufstetler still has a reminder of life on the ranch while he continues to produce plastic creations sent around the country.
“It’s really been fun,” he said.
For more information on Northern Plastics, call 406-257-6300.
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