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Seat maker hones craft at 9-level Mexico facility

By Robert Grace, Plastics News editor Naucalpan, Mexico-Mobilario SA de CV, Latin America’s largest maker of stadium and theater seating, takes vertical integration to new heights.Nestled in a hillside in the crowded Mexico City suburb of Naucalpan, the plastic injection moulder and polyurethane reaction injection moulder has grown up, literally, during its 29 years on the site, so that its headquarters and sole factory now occupy nine stories. Workers need to use the stairs between floors of the 172 000-square-foot operation, because elevators are for moulds and parts only. Founded as a small shop in 1975 by entrepreneur Juan Gonzalez, Mobilario now employs 800-1100, depending on the workload. Sales last year grew 35.9 percent from 2002, to 298.4 million pesos ($26.2 million), of which 48 percent represents exports. That’s up sharply from the one-quarter of sales it exported as recently as 2000.The company survived a devastating fire seven years ago, which burned for 10 hours and destroyed three floors of the plant, as well as some urethane RIM machines. There were no injuries. Employees worked for two solid days to clean up, and on the third day the firm restarted production using emergency supplies and presses, international sales manager Miguel Argueta said in a 28 April interview at Mobilario’s plant.Gonzalez died in March 1999 and his wife, Sandra Morano de Gonzalez, assumed control. Formerly an accountant who audited the company’s books, Morano is, by all accounts, a bright, hard- driving executive. Though she has two armed bodyguards and a driver, she prefers to get behind the wheel of her late-model BMW herself, and dart in and out of Mexico City’s chaotic traffic. With a typical workday of late morning until 9 p.m., she also has steered Mobilario to new heights. The company does its own masterbatch compounding, and mostly consumes polypropylene copolymers that include a special anti-blushing agent. It runs seven injection presses, including a pair of 1,500-tonners, and a gas-assist unit. It foams its own urethane cushions, cuts and sews the fabric for them, and runs a woodworking department. It buys steel rod that it bends into the necessary shapes for seat frames, stamps out its own small metal parts, and operates an automated powder paint system for metallic aesthetic parts. The only key components not made in-house, according to Argueta, are the rocker back hinges used in hinged seats that recline slightly. That feature is a popular design patented by Gonzalez.Mobilario produces an estimated 1500 chairs a day, according to Eduardo Habif, the firm’s international sales executive.It provided all 100 000 seats in Mexico City’s massive Estadio Azteca soccer stadium, and supplies seats to about half of Mexico’s stadiums. It is working with Regal Cinemas, the largest US movie theater chain, as well as school-furniture maker Royal Seating Ltd. in Cameron, Texas. Mobilario even makes church seating, and exports school furniture throughout Latin America, and other products to Russia, England and elsewhere. It also is targeting hotels for future growth.Until recently, Snider Mold Co. of Mequon, Wis., provided nearly all of Mobilario’s seating molds, but Snider has since withdrawn from that business to focus on other markets. Jim Meinert, Snider’s former international sales manager, said Juan Gonzalez always was a tough negotiator. “For 20 years, I don’t think they had another quote on a mold,” he recalled with a smile, “but Juan beat me up pretty good.” But, Meinert, now president of consulting firm Meinert Market Services LLC in Saukville, Wisconsin, still has a soft spot for his longtime customer, and immense respect for Sandra Morano.”Sandy respects quality,” he noted. When shopping for a new injection press and informed that a certain press maker now produces its machines in Mexico, Meinert said she replied, “I don’t care where it’s made. I want quality.”On a recent plant visit, Meinert introduced Chris Smith, a sales engineer at Tallmadge, Ohio-based toolmaker Gauer Mold & Machine Co., to Mobilario management, in an effort to help Gauer forge some new, international business ties. The plant itself is a curious place, even apart from the fact that it conducts business on nine different levels. From a plain, modest, ground-floor reception area with tight security, one walks up an open stone staircase with no side or handrails – no Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors here – to the administrative and engineering area. That reception area resembles a Greek theater, with large, faux columns and tiered, cinema-style seating that showcases the company’s products, and a bronze bust of Juan Gonzalez. Busy staffers quietly work on the latest Dell computers in modern, organized glassed-in cubicles.Walk further up the stairs, floor by floor, and one sees large injection presses, in some cases being fed resin by a worker who climbs a ladder and dumps a bag of pellets into a hopper. Other workers – mostly women – manually feed and remove small sheet-metal parts that they churn out on metal-stamping presses. Other areas feature working welders, with sparks flying, or individuals cutting and sewing fabric around foamed seat cushions. On another level, workers manually steer the arm of a polyurethane dispensing unit over an open seat-cushion mould, lay in a sheet of glass-reinforced fibre and fill and close the mold, before an automated conveyor moves the mold through a heating oven. At the other end, another worker opens the mold and pulls out the foamed bun, which is then run through a pair of pinch rollers that squeeze out air bubbles, before being allowed to cool.A fleet of Mobilario delivery trucks, some bearing a large mural of an empty Azteca stadium with its seats in full glory, back up to a loading area on the top side of the hill to receive finished products several stories above the factory’s reception level.Argueta says Mobilario’s business in the US is “growing strongly,” and the company is considering further capital investment. No doubt to take it, as the saying goes, to the next level.”

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