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Action Products Inc. expanding its Hagerstown operation

June 14, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

HAGERSTOWN -- A few weeks ago, Wilbur "Dr. Mac" McElroy gave company officials the formula for a rubbery sort of material he developed recently in his backyard near Funkstown.

McElroy, who will turn 94 in August, still is going strong.

Just like his company.

Action Products Inc., which McElroy founded in 1970, has begun a $3.5 million expansion of its Hagerstown operation that -- if it and another phase are built -- will increase its size more than 50 percent within five years.

The company, which manufactures cushioning products for hospitals and other facilities around the world, also expects to add as many as 60 employees over that time. At present, it has 210 workers, more than three times as many as it had in 1995.

"We're still little, but it's growth," company President Troy McKnight said. "There's a lot of big warehouses around here that kind of dwarf what we're doing."

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Action Products, which formerly had its headquarters on Mulberry Street in Hagerstown's East End, moved operations into its current site at the end of Sweeney Drive in the Hagerstown Business Park off Burhans Boulevard in 1997. The company built a 30,000-square-foot plant on the 10-acre site, and added 12,000 square feet there two years ago, when it moved out of the Mulberry Street building entirely.

The company also rents about 20,000 square feet of space off Williamsport-Greencastle Pike for warehousing and shipping, as well as its engineering, and research and development departments.

Recently, Action Products hired Morgan-Keller Inc., a Frederick, Md., contractor, to expand the Sweeney Drive plant again.

About two weeks ago, the contractor began preparing the land a few hundred yards out from the plant for more parking space, a road and the 34,000-square-foot expansion. The work is to be finished by mid-December, said Cliff Metger, Action's director of engineering.

Then, the company will begin consolidating all of its operations there. And, he said, "we may be looking for another 20,000 (square foot) expansion in three to five years."

Action's secret: Akton

Inside the plant, workers are busy Monday through Friday 24 hours a day -- up from 16 a day just a year or two ago.

The company uses Akton, a soft gel-like synthetic substance that McElroy invented, in its products. Akton is the word for "rubber" in Guatemala, where his first wife, Helen, was born.

The wheelchair cushions that were the company's reason for being back in 1970 remain one of the company's most popular products, McKnight said.

In addition, the company makes hundreds of other products -- all with Akton encased in an elastic film -- for nursing homes, hospitals and other medical facilities. In all, its customers have come from 69 countries so far.

The company's products are as small as a pad -- about the size and feel of two gumdrops -- used by another manufacturer in the making of a respiratory device, and as large as a 30-inch-by-60-inch pad that can be laid on a hospital bed.

"We recently did a trade show in Baltimore. Response was phenomenal," McKnight said. Several major mattress manufacturers have called about using Akton in their products and "a couple of them are very, very serious about signing."

All of this is not to suggest that Action Products is without competition.

"We have competitors and that's growing, which is another reason for our aggressiveness in going after the market," Metger said. As baby boomers age, demand for medical products is growing, he said.

Though the company is small, most of its competitors use foam, air or other such materials in making wheelchair cushions, McKnight said.

"There are very few companies that make this soft type of elastomer that we make," McKnight said. "Within our niche, the very, very soft gel-like products, we're generally considered a leader."

Even among medical manufacturing giants, Action Products is important, he said.

"We have customers that are leaders in their field of medical equipment, but when they need gel material, they come to us," McKnight said.

The company posted a "little over $15 million" in sales a year ago, said Mistie Witt, president of Action's medical products group.

Witt is McElroy's granddaughter, the third generation in the company's ownership. Her father, Ben, long was the company's president until he retired in 2002.

McKnight, who began at Action Products as an engineering intern in 1980, said the growth has been steady.

"During the last six years, we've averaged a 12 percent year-over-year growth rate," he said. "We'll hit $18 million this year," he said, referring to sales in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Chairman of the board

McElroy, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and likes the "Dr. Mac" name he's called throughout the plant, comes in at least once a week.

He is, after all, chairman of the board.

But it's more than that.

He still enjoys the adventure of it all.

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