Dutchland Plastics molds its future in kayaks, coolers and furniture

Dutchland Plastics’ Daven Claerbout, director of business development and one of the owners, checks over a kayaks the company makes for a client. The Oostburg company specializes in rotational molding and makes many high-profile plastic products.

Everywhere he goes, Daven Claerbout takes notice of plastic products — including the quality and whether his company, Dutchland Plastics, was the manufacturer.

Claerbout is co-owner and director of business development at Dutchland, based in Oostburg, in Sheboygan County.

The rotational plastics molder makes an array of products including coolers and kayaks. Some of the items are as small as a thumbnail, while others, such as a kayak, are more than 10 feet long.

Whether he’s in a restaurant or a department store, Claerbout pays attention to what’s made from plastic. He’s even checked to see whether a restaurant uses Dutchland-made lids on trash bins.

It’s a natural curiosity for someone who has been close to a business for most of his life.

“I was 9, and my brother Carl was 11, when our father got into this,” Claerbout said.

Rotational molding can be used to produce complex plastic parts that have features such as intricate contours, inserts and double walls. In 2014, Dutchland was ranked by Plastics News as the 20th largest rotational molder in North America.

In 2015, the company received the Product of the Year award from the Association of Rotomolders. The award was for an ice vending machine manufactured for Leer Inc., based in Madison.

Dutchland has about 280 employees, down from 320 eight years ago. The privately held company had more than $38 million in sales in 2015, up nearly 30% from 2008.

If the recession taught manufacturers anything, Claerbout said, it was to work smarter through continuous improvement.

“More than 50% of our people have been here 10 years or more, so we have a really good core group of employees. Some of these people have worked here for so long, you know what their next step is going to be, and they know what yours is going to be,” Claerbout said.

Bill and Nancy Claerbout started Dutchland in 1967. For more than 30 years they owned a real estate and auction company, in Oostburg, and it was through that business they acquired the plastics firm — then named Heller Industries — that was in bankruptcy.

Bill Claerbout didn’t know much about plastics, but he was good at hiring the right people, according to Daven Claerbout.

“He was out in the plant taking care of the people, and he absolutely loved his employees. Dad always said ‘make sure the next person you hire is smarter than you.'”

The company went through several expansions, including the addition of a factory in Sherrill, N.Y. In 2014, Daven and Carl partnered with Omni Investors, Isleworth Capital and Squire Ridge Capital as investors.

Among its products, the company also makes NuCanoe fishing kayaks, and Emotion kayaks sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

When a retailer orders NuCanoe boats, the Bellingham, Wash., company forwards the order to Dutchland, which builds the boats and ships them direct to the retailer.

It’s a good arrangement, said NuCanoe President Blake Young.

“Logistically, shipping out of the state of Washington is difficult when two thirds of our business is east of the Mississippi,” he said.

Besides kayaks and coolers, Dutchland makes the Sway Lounge Chair for KI Furniture, based in Green Bay.

And while most of the company’s business is with U.S. manufacturers, it’s also working with some foreign firms to make their products for the North American market and ship them to North American customers.

“One-stop shopping. I think that’s the way of the world now,” Daven Claerbout said.

Dutchland has grown by identifying products made from metal and convincing the product companies that plastic parts are better.

One of the challenges has been finding qualified employees for the work that varies a lot with the range of products.

“We have a robot that does some things … but I don’t see robots doing rotomolding because it’s so operative sensitive. With us, on any given day, someone could be making components for Leer, the KI chair, a kayak or a playground slide,” Claerbout said.