In the film “The Graduate,” there is a famous scene in which an older man tries to give a one-word piece of career advice to the confused college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman.
“Plastics,” the man says. Young Dustin couldn’t have cared less, but the guy may have been on to something.
Plastics have in fact replaced steel in products ranging from golf putters to horseshoes, from auto fenders to kitchen blenders.
And Peterson Systems International is riding high on the current demand for one form of plastic, polyurethane.
“You’d be surprised what we make with it,” said Tom Lubanski, president and chief executive officer of the Duarte-based company that he co-owns with partner James W. Peterson. “There’s a lot of science involved to make things that people work with and take for granted every day.”
The company, which incorporated in 1977, has made dozens of products that have worked their way into household use. But its biggest sellers are Yellow Jacket cable protectors a sheath-like device that protects the cables, but which also allows camera dollies and other equipment to roll over them.
The product has found a home among entertainment companies, which use the Yellow Jackets to protect camera cords during shootings. Sales to Hollywood have doubled over the past few years boosting Peterson’s revenues last year to $3 million.
“We make a lot of products, but this is by far the biggest seller,” said Lubanski, who added that the company’s revenues 10 years ago before it started marketing Yellow Jackets to the entertainment industry stood at about $500,000.
“In engineering school, you are always dreaming about the one product that will take you to the top that this was it for us. It’s amazing,” Lubanski said.
What’s even more amazing is how Hollywood found out about the device, which sells for about $150 per strip.
Peterson Systems began making the polyurethane strips in 1977. At that time, they were used by miners as an inexpensive way to protect power lines that ran from a generator to machinery used to carve into rock.
In the past, miners spent up to a half-day burying the lines in trenches to protect the power supply. So Peterson marketed the strips to the mining industry as a time-saver.
Though Lubanski didn’t know it at the time, Peterson Systems took a dramatic turn in 1983 when the owner of a golf course in Hawaii purchased one of the strips to sheath maintenance cords. Some construction work was being done at the course, and the owner didn’t want golfers tripping over the cords.
Some time during that year, an NBC executive decided to play 18 holes, and spotted the strips.
“Some executive was over there and thought this was what they needed to protect their cameras during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles,” Lubanski said. “They called us up, and we had a designer build a more portable one which we now call the Yellow Jacket.”
The Olympics became the company’s biggest marketing tool. Within months, orders began pouring in from other television networks and production studios.
At the time, the entertainment industry used duct tape, wooden boards or carpeting to protect camera cables.
“It made our life so much easier,” said Tom Cole, a production manager for CBS Television in Los Angeles. “This was a completely brilliant idea. The worst thing that can happen while shooting is for a camera to go out it wastes time and money. The Yellow Jacket really ends all that.”
Lubanski now claims that almost every production company in Hollywood uses the device, and orders have been filled for aerospace and automobile companies with assembly lines.
“We were the company to start all this, and it’s interesting to see others jump in,” he said. “We do have such a unique product that others are copying it, but we still have 90 percent of the market.”
Peterson Systems makes the products at its factory in Duarte. The company saved money by actually assembling its own machine to produce the Yellow Jackets for about $20,000 instead of buying one for about $100,000, Lubanski said.
Products are made by placing 55-gallon drums of polymers and other chemicals into a machine that mixes them at a special ratio, he said. Then, the liquid polyurethane is poured into molds that are baked and then cooled. The entire process takes about 24 hours, Lubanski said.
Lubanski believes that one of his company’s secrets of success is that it is always trying new things both in marketing and creating new products. Peterson Systems recently began marketing through the Internet, and receives about 100 inquiries each week, he said.
In addition, there are new products coming down the polyurethane pipeline.
Peterson is currently developing a device that will help retrofit homes to prepare for an earthquake. Strips of polyurethane would be used as support for the homes, and installed in crawl spaces. The product is currently undergoing tests at the seismology department at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
It’s all about change, Lubanski said.
“I was the first guy to make polyurethane skateboard wheels, and then the first guy out of the business,” he said. “We change every two to three years with a new product. It keeps us going, keeps us cutting-edge, and keeps things interesting.”
Peterson Systems International
Year founded: 1977
Core business: Manufacturing polyurethane strips that protect television and movie camera cords
Top executive: Tom Lubanski
Revenues in 1986: $500,000
Revenues in 1996: $3 million
Employees in 1986: 10
Employees in 1996: 28
Goal: To forge new markets and develop new products using polyurethane
Driving Force: Exploring the potential of polyurethane products