The Origin of Our Company
In the winter of 1999/2000, Princeton University published an article written by Ann Haver-Allen about Toner Plastics founder and Princeton alum Steven Graham. We think this article tells the story of where we came from quite nicely, so we’ve included it here on our page for you.
Keeping the Princeton ties – Alum names company after his academic adviser
by Ann Haver-Allen
On the wall in the waiting area of Toner Plastics is a framed letter from Richard K. Toner, the man for whom this Springfield, Mass. company is named. Professor Toner was chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering and adviser to Steven L. Graham ’78 (fka Steve Grubman), the man who along with his wife, Jean, founded Toner Plastics. The personal chit-chatty tone of the letter makes visible the invisible bonds that endure between student and adviser.
On a table in that lobby is a notebook full of thank-you letters from kids of all ages who have benefited from Mr. Graham’s generosity. The letters, some written in crayon, some in pencil, others on computer, come from all corners of the United States. A painting on the wall carries the message: “I can imagine lives without children, but none filled with laughter and noise.”
Toner Plastics is a small company of 20 people that markets products for children; it is one of the country’s leading producers of gimp: that plastic lace that kids love to weave into key chains and neck lanyards.
Mr. Graham runs Toner Plastics from an office decorated with toy trucks and clay gnomes. It’s an environment that the groups of visiting school children, boy scouts, and girl scouts find comfortable. When children tour his factory, he tells them a story about the gnomes: they run wild through the factory during the summer months, but that they are sometimes caught by the onset of cold weather and then become quickly frozen. Mr. Graham collects the gnomes, has them preserved, and keeps them in his office.
“Children have always been a priority with me,” Mr. Graham said. “I am fortunate. We have three beautiful, healthy children. I am also fortunate to be in a business that sells products that make kids smile and give them enjoyment. That’s a lot of fun for me.”
Mr. Graham said his company produces a number of different products with his extrusion equipment, but none generates “as much fun as getting letters from kids and knowing that kids are using your product and enjoying it.”
He said he has always admired the “business savvy” of Walt Disney.
“Here’s a guy who figured out how to make money, which I like to do, but he did it by making kids happy and people smile,” Mr. Graham said. “It always seemed like a nice combination to do that. And in our own small way, that’s what we do. We get letters from all over the country and we answer every one. And we send a little something free to every kid who sends us a letter. That’s our policy.”
It’s also company practice that every child who visits the factory gets to take something home. He lines the visitors up in front of boxes of gimp and allows each child to make a selection. Mr. Graham said it’s not much, but for kids from disadvantaged homes, the gimp is a luxury.
“The fun thing about gimp is that not everybody knows what it is, but when I say ‘remember when you were a kid and you took two pieces of plastic lace and you weaved them into a key chain or a neck lanyard,’ and nine times out of 10 the light bulb goes off in their head and they smile,” Mr. Graham said. “What can be better than making people smile? That’s why we make products for kids, and that’s why we try to make sure they are happy.”
Mr. Graham’s interest in the welfare of children extends beyond opening his factory for tours. He and his wife Jean are active in a Springfield-based group called Save Our Kids. The organization provides a home environment for inner city children ranging in ages from 6 to 16.
“They get things they are not getting at home because of a variety of problems,” Mr. Graham said. “They get tutoring, they get mentoring, and they get a meal every day after school. They see a home as it should be.”
The Grahams own the house that Save Our Kids has turned into a home for about 40 local children. And they have recently made available to that organization a second house, which will become a home for pregnant teens.
“They take the teens out of completely unstable environments and provide a home,” he said. “There’s a house mother who lives there and provides guidance. This program is just getting off the ground, and we are very excited. It’s a way for us to affect kids other than our own in a real positive manner. We have an obligation to help out and we really try to fulfill that obligation.”
Mr. Graham said his time at Princeton reinforced the teachings of his parents that people are obligated to help those less fortunate.
“You don’t need a lot of money to make a difference,” he said. “You can do it along the way and get tremendous results.”
He said the one piece of advice he offers to today’s engineering students: “stop and have some fun and enjoy what is around you.”
Mr. Graham said it took him a while before he learned to slow down and enjoy himself. He said he was very focused and driven and spent many years “working like a dog.”
He began working at Monsanto immediately after graduating from Princeton. At Monsanto, his first assignment was working on one of the world’s largest extruders. The extruder made the plastic inner layer that is used between the two pieces of glass that make up automobile windshields.
“I worked there over two years, which was far longer than I needed to figure out that the big company thing wasn’t for me,” he recalled. He left Monsanto for the real-estate business. He had purchased his first house in downtown Springfield a year after graduating from Princeton.
“I bought it for $9,300, and my mortgage was $70.84 a month,” he said. “It was in a real tough section of town, but it was better than renting an apartment. So I lived on the first floor and rented the top two floors out to Springfield college students.”
That’s the house that the Grahams have now made available to Save Our Kids. Mr. Graham said he continued to buy houses in the neighborhood, fix them up, and rent them to college students. He found his way back to manufacturing while reading the classified ads one day. He was looking for real estate when he saw an ad for a small extrusion business for sale.
“I said, I know a little bit about extrusion. This guy’s got a business, customers, etc. We bought the business. We were hoodwinked. There was no business, no customers. The books had been falsified. What we got was an old extrusion machine that didn’t run quite right–and we had paid a lot of money for it.
“This guy actually did me a favor,” Mr. Graham said. “I had to figure out how to do things on my own. If I had followed what he had been doing, I probably would not have survived.”
What Mr. Graham did, out of naiveté, he said, was to sell direct to retailers. Industry practice had been for manufacturers to sell to distributors, which then sold to retailers.
“We started selling direct, and we still do 90 percent of our business as direct sales to major retailers,” he said.
Mr. Graham credits Princeton and his parents for much of his success. Near the top of his list is Professor Toner, who “had enough interest in this real poor chemical engineering student to encourage me to stay.” Mr. Graham said he struggled academically, but managed to graduate “barely.”
During his college days, wrestling was a priority for Mr. Graham. His team, the first Ivy League team to win the Eastern championships, sent five wrestlers to the Nationals and placed 11th as a team in the country.
“If it were not for wrestling, I would not have been at Princeton,” he said. “I don’t believe I would have been admitted. There were no scholarships, but I think the wrestling separated me from many, many students who applied.”
At one point, he considered dropping out of Princeton and transferring to a school with a stronger wrestling program. It was Professor Toner who convinced him to stay.
“I was a lot better in wrestling than I was in engineering, and it didn’t matter how hard I studied,” he recalled. “Professor Toner, this accomplished, brilliant man, cared enough to encourage me to stay because he knew the value of a Princeton education. It’s like money in the bank, and he knew it. My degree has allowed me to take chances, because if I fail, I can always take my Princeton engineering degree and I’ll get hired like that…as long as they don’t give me a test.”