Maguire Products – The Spark of Invention

Steve Maguire likes solving problems, and in the process, he has built an industry-leading business.

One day in 1977 Steve Maguire’s boss called him into the office and told him a customer had ordered 18 different colours of shower curtain hook. His boss had decided he wanted to try using liquid colour to make the hooks, and he wanted Maguire to find a liquid colour pump.

“I called the liquid colour company and they brought the pumps and they were terrible,” Maguire recalls. “So, I thought ‘This is a mess I can’t use these’. I decided I was going to solve this problem, and I came up with a peristaltic pump that keeps the colour in a tube.”

It was far from the last design problem Maguire would solve, but it was also the start of a lifelong journey.

“I thought maybe I could sell these. So, I started selling them and launched a new company to do it,” Maguire tells us. “That was 44 years ago. It was a new idea- and everything I have designed since is something new. We’re not copying products that are already available and trying to sell the same thing.”

Maguire started with a small market, but the company grew to meet demand, achieving a value of US$400,000, while he was still working out of his house. Then he moved the company to a rented space with a few employees. Not long after that, Maguire solved his second puzzle, designing a new auger feeder to build the business, as the liquid colour was still a very small portion of the colouring market in the plastics industry.

“As we grew, I thought ‘This is very unstable’, so I developed auger feeders for pelletised colour. That is a much bigger market,” Maguire says. “The business grew to $1.7 million over ten years, growing very gradually. Then to solve a problem with the auger feeders I designed a device called a gravimetric blender, and that I knew there would be a market for because it solved a big expensive problem, wasted colour.”

With that problem solved Maguire Products grew from $1.7 million to $25 million in another ten years. Maguire himself was just trying to keep up with demand, expanding the company, hiring people and buying buildings for further expansion. The company continued to grow to $30 million, achieving a worldwide reputation as a blender company while still selling a range of other innovations.

“We sell all over the world. In our main building, we have flags on our factory walls from every country we have sold to,” Maguire points out. “We sell to everyone. Anyone in the plastics industry probably knows our name. We also sell dryers to dry the plastic before they process it. Uniquely, they are vacuum driers, not conventional driers. Everything we sell is something unique or I wouldn’t bother doing it.”

Throughout this amazing story of growth Maguire has been following two guiding stars. The first is the importance of meeting industry needs, the second is his own enjoyment of finding a puzzle to solve.

“I don’t design equipment that the industry doesn’t need. I like to solve a problem,” Maguire explains. “In the case of blenders, wasted colour was a phenomenal financial problem. That’s the only way you can grow a market that fast.”

Maguire tells us that the Ford Motor Company reported the blender paid for itself in six weeks, and that was with one blender. They proceeded to buy in the region of 300 more over the next two years.

“When you save people money, when a product pays for itself in less than a year, you get people’s attention,” Maguire says. “For instance, with our driers, the problem I was trying to solve was simply how to dry plastic in less time. We were doing it in 20 to 30 minutes using vacuum driers, but sales have taken off now because we are also saving energy. The saving in electrical cost alone was sufficient to give the customer a reason to buy the product.”

Hunting for Inspiration

Talking with Maguire it is clear that the thing that really excites him about the business, the thing that gets him up in the morning, is solving puzzles.

“The problems present themselves. The solutions take months,” Maguire says. “Sometimes a simple solution is one I will be thinking about for three or four months, but I love to do that. I love to solve puzzles.”

A story he tells us to illustrate this is how he developed Maguire Products’ “Sweeper” product.

“I had said to a customer, give me something nobody has solved and I’ll work on it and he said ‘Nobody has a good way to empty a gaylord without a lot of difficulties getting the stuff out of the bottom’,” Maguire remembers. “Sometimes when you buy plastic it comes in ‘Gaylords’, or they’re called ‘Octagons’ in Europe. To get the material out of the octagon you stick a lance in there and wiggle it around, and there’s a lot of labour involved and it’s a pain in the neck.”

Maguire spent three months thinking about this problem until the solution dawned on him part-way through a sales meeting.

“I developed that product and it moves around and gathers the plastic from the corners. It’s very simple and when people see it, they say ‘My god it’s so simple!’ but nobody else thought of it,” Maguire points out. “I start with the problem and a whole lot of time thinking about all the possible ways I could solve it until I come up with the simplest, lowest cost, most reliable way of solving it. You can usually come up with a complicated solution pretty quickly. The simple way is difficult.”

On top of the solutions and products that Maguire has developed, Maguire Products has also found itself growing through acquisition, almost by accident.

“We have expanded our reach worldwide not by acquiring companies but by building relationships with people,” Maguire says. “Some of these people own a company and sometimes I get involved because of a financial challenge or engineering issue. Sometimes I get so involved that the solution is for me to own part of the company.”

Its most recent acquisition was OA Newton, a small company trying to sell to a business that was uncertain about its financial security.

“So, I said ‘Just say you are part of Maguire Products’ and as soon as you say it, they are like ‘Okay’. Then when he needed some financial backing, he asked ‘Why don’t you buy part of the company?’,” Maguire says. “We’re selling to the same industry but we’re not competing with each other because we sell to different parts of the industry.”

This is the latest in a string of similar acquisitions.

“I sometimes wonder how I got myself into this,” Maguire admits. “It was never a plan. I am very easy to get along with and very fair and very honest, and people trust me and I trust them. I’m fair and they’re fair, and you can do anything then.”

Ultimately, Maguire wants to focus on the same thing he is always wanted to focus on.

“We’ll be doing well as long as there continue to be puzzles to solve,” he says.

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