Good, Clean Fun

Some people get kicked out of bars. Jim Feeney ’68 and his team got kicked out of laundromats. Still, their zest for innovation and willingness to improvise led to the development of an industry-changing product.

You never know what will spark innovation. For Jim Feeney ’68, it was a product ordered by mistake that was just sitting in a warehouse at Wisconsin Film & Bag in Shawano, Wis. Feeney and a few other employees decided to take that post-consumer plastic film and see if they could develop a process to clean it, leaving it with properties comparable to virgin resin. If successful, the company would be the only one selling recycled plastic film.

“It took us two years of refining, and I’m a firm believer in that you never stop learning,” Feeney says. “As a leader, my role was to encourage well-thought-out risk-taking, and I did that with abandon. I never criticized anyone for a failure, but rather applauded them for the attempt once they determined what we learned from the process.”

Jim FeeneyFeeney learned early on that innovation and risk-taking were necessary for small and medium-sized companies to compete against large businesses.

“You have to change the rules by using technology and creativity if you hope to compete and set yourself apart from the big players. You need to take some risks,” says Feeney, who retired from Wisconsin Film & Bag earlier this year as part of the transition process following the company’s 2015 sale to packaging giant Novolex.

Feeney, who worked for a few Fortune 500 companies before joining Wisconsin Film & Bag, says large companies can always outspend smaller ones when it comes to research and development, which is why creativity is so important in coming up with new products. Feeney and other employees focused their creative energies on post-consumer plastic film – which is often used to wrap pallets or to protect items during storage and shipping – to help differentiate themselves in the industry.

For Wisconsin Film & Bag employees, creativity in developing the new process meant turning part of the company’s break room into a makeshift lab where they tested various cleaning solvents. Through trial and error, they found what Feeney calls their “secret sauce.”

“We had to next figure out if we could clean a whole bunch of film, not just some in our sink, to make sure it would be doable as a business proposition,” he says.

To make sure the newly developed solvent worked, employees visited laundromats throughout Shawano County to wash 8,000 pounds of plastic film.

“We got kicked out of laundromats,” Feeney jokes, adding that employees did clean up any mess they left behind.

While it was a daunting process, it was ultimately successful. The next step was connecting with a German manufacturer known for its work on recycling machines to build the new equipment needed. Feeney admitted the Europeans were a bit skeptical about what the Shawano company was trying to do.

“They kept asking if we were sure about our request,” he says. “I think they thought we were a little crazy.”

Persistence paid off and Wisconsin Film & Bag began selling its ECO Blend, a post-consumer recycled plastic film with the same attributes as virgin film. Customers embraced the new product, allowing the company to double its revenue to $73 million in a few short years and add 66 employees to handle the increased business.

Always learning
Feeney says the key to being an innovative leader is to show employees you’re willing to try new things and take risks. He says a love of learning is the essence of innovation and it’s something he learned during his time at St. Norbert. A native of suburban Philadelphia, he calls coming to the college “a fluke,” but it was one of the best things to ever happen to him. More than 4,000 boys attended his high school, so coming to De Pere was a big change. “The smaller class sizes allowed a lot more conversations to happen, and attending St. Norbert instilled in me a keen interest in learning the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things that stayed with me,” Feeney says.

One of the few non-Midwesterners on campus, Feeney admitted to at first being a “fish out of water,” but quickly grew to love his time in De Pere.

“The people were much friendlier and more open and it was very refreshing,” he says, adding he quickly became a fan of the Badgers, Packers and beer. “I created great friendships and was invited to people’s homes over the holidays since I couldn’t make it back home. It was very welcoming.”

After graduation, Feeney’s first job was with Shade Information Systems in De Pere. The company produced business forms using carbonless paper for multiple copies – a true innovation for its time. With a strong background in sales and marketing, he later worked for several other businesses in the paper and plastics industries that took him to different parts of the country. Those experiences shaped Feeney.

“Over time, I’ve learned that small and medium-sized companies with the right leadership are ideal incubators for innovation. Most large companies are focused on maintaining the status quo, while small companies must take risks to grow the business and outflank the larger competitors,” he says.

Feeney joined Wisconsin Film & Bag in 2002 and, in 2007, he became CEO when the Shawano company was sold by one private equity group to another private equity group and management. Feeney was looking for a way for the company to differentiate itself and found it with the development of the ECO Blend line.

“Most of that film was being dumped into landfills and no one had figured out a way to clean it and use it for another purpose. So in 2009, we started trying to find a way to clean it,” says Feeney. The company received seven patents for its process.

Wisconsin Film & Bag has the ability to recycle 7,000 tons of post-consumer film scrap, keeping it out of area landfills. By recycling the material, energy consumption drops by 395,000 mBtu compared with making virgin resins from natural gas or oil, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

“A lot of people thought manufacturing in the United States was dead,” says Feeney. “In reality, we were just entering a new phase in the cycle of innovation and the use of technology as a tool for innovation to drive greater productivity, higher quality and lower cost.”

June 27, 2016