‘We have to engineer solutions’

Visitors to Porex’s Fairburn headquarters, whether job seeker or multimillion-dollar customer, are asked to sign an agreement:

No running off with the company’s trade secrets.

That might seem strange for a company that makes some things as basic as the writing tips for highlighter pens.

But Bill Midgette, the company’s chief executive since 2002, said that insistence on secrecy is one reason the specialty plastics manufacturer has survived 50 years, despite ownership changes, rising competition from overseas, and evolving technology and customer needs.

The company’s materials are used in a wide variety of products, such as batteries, blood filters, pregnancy tests, spa filters and air fresheners. Sales top $100 million annually. About half of its 780 employees are in Fairburn, located south of Atlanta, and half are overseas.

Q: How'd this company get its start?

A: In 1961, a guy named Bob Dickey had an idea to sinter porous plastic. What that means is, you take a plastic powder [and make it stick together without melting].

The structures are three-dimensional, and they are utilized in everything from medical devices to laboratory tests to consumer products. ... The first product was a marker pen [like Sharpie and Hi-Liter pens].

... At the other end, we invented the use of structured porous plastic as surgical implants for reconstructive surgery.

Q: What's the strangest thing it has been used for?

A: We've done cheekbones for certain celebrities.

Q: Switching gears, how does a hockey-playing Canadian end up running a company based in Georgia?

A: I do love [ice hockey]. I coached my kids through hockey. My son played for Georgia Tech. And I still play myself, out at The Cooler up in Alpharetta, AA Thrashers.

I grew up ... just outside of Toronto. ... I had a specific interest in technology. [That led to sales and then management jobs at a couple of medical supply companies, including the Canadian firm C.R. Bard, which eventually sent him to head its unit in Covington.]

Q: Was the Covington operation making medical supplies?

A: No, not any more. It did at one time. Most of the manufacturing now is in Mexico and also in South Carolina. ... The assembly that was taking place in Covington ... is an easy thing to move offshore.

It’s troubling to see that happening, but ... those are activities that are hard to keep in the U.S. because it’s hard to add enough value, unlike here at Porex. Here at Porex, I’m absolutely committed to building our company here in the U.S.

Q: Tell me about that.

A: If you're going to keep a business viable in the U.S., you have to be able to do something differently than someone can replicate somewhere else. ... So we have to engineer solutions [for customers] ... From a sheer manufacturing standpoint, it could be made cheaper somewhere else in the world, but we wouldn't be as ... as innovative, as responsive.

Q: When you got here in 2002, who owned the company and what was it like?

A: It was owned by WebMD and that was not strategically the right alignment. ... They wanted to split Porex out [either by selling it to a private owner or making it a separate publicly traded company].

When I joined, it was at a crossroads, there was no CEO in place, and they needed someone to come in and determine a path forward for this company.

Q: What happened?

A: The timing was not right to do either of those things. [So, instead of selling or taking Porex public, the parent company waited. In 2009, a Los Angeles private equity firm called Aurora Capital Group bought Porex, but then sold its Newnan-based surgical products unit.]

Q: How do you feel about selling off what I assume was an interesting, promising business?

A: It's bittersweet because Porex Surgical had just an absolutely terrific group of people, terrific technology and a fascinating market. But it was the right thing to do for Porex Surgical and those folks, and it was also the right thing to do to refocus all our energy around the opportunities here.