View slideshow and learn more about the iconic “flex funnel”
By Bob Confer
In the coming days, Confer Plastics will reach a huge milestone: 50 years of business.
Getting to this point was never a certainty. Even in the very best of times, business owners always have a little bit of pessimism, concern over what tomorrow brings. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a restaurant, boutique, farm, or factory. There are always obstacles, threats, and risks.
Looking back at the past half-century, there were plenty of those.
When my grandfather Ray started the business he literally “bet the farm”, using his home and the family farm as collateral to get the loans he needed. It’s the same place my dad Doug and I had to use as personal guarantees to get the company through the Great Recession.
We faced 7 recessions and some business leaders believe we might be in an eighth one now.
We took on runaway inflation in the 1970s, early-1980s, and now, in the 2020s.
We made it through the weeks-long state-mandated shutdown during the dawning days of the Covid crisis.
The past three years have seen unprecedented supply chain disruptions from the pandemic, the Texas Deep Freeze, the war in Ukraine, and more.
We see constant threats from China, with copycats of our products appearing regularly in the marketplace.
Yet, somehow, amid all these factors and more, we survived…and we’ve had fun. We’ve made it to a half-century – and hunger for at least another 50 years – because of you. If you are one of the “Three Cs” — customer, coworker, community – you helped us get to this moment and you’ll help us reach other milestones. I thank you for that. I am forever indebted to what you mean to us.
As a customer, whether you’ve bought our Confer-branded items (like one of pool ladders or hot tub steps) or a custom product that we made for another company (like a kayak, dock, or bird house), please know how much we appreciate your commitment to the Confer team. We make leisure products, discretionary items that are wants, not necessarily needs. But, you find the money to buy them and by making a committed choice to buy American, when there are so many cheap Chinese alternatives available, you are providing opportunity to the wonderful men and women – and their families – who work at the plant.
As a coworker, past or present, you’ve done your part to help start, grow, and maintain the company, responding to the needs of our customers. We have a special team. With our large machines, we can mold things that very few companies on this planet can – many blow molding companies can make small and mid-size products but not many can go big, which speaks to the big ideas, big muscles, and big hearts of everyone on our team. For many items, customers choose us, even with our higher domestic costs, because of the quality provided in products and services, which reflects the quality of you. There’s incredible pride to have in what you’ve done – for too many decades society frowned upon the value of blue collar factory jobs, and maybe you took some heat for that, but now, it’s finally fashionable again to make things here in America…society has remembered that you are the essential workers, just as we’ve always known.
As a member of the community, you may not realize it but in direct and indirect ways you’ve made this possible, too. You welcomed us to North Tonawanda and Wheatfield and treated us as neighbors and critical parts of your towns. Everyone, as local, state, and federal taxpayers, invested in the roads that move our products, the courts that allow us to fight patent infringements, the schools that educate our coworkers, the fire and police to protect property and people, and the infrastructure that gets utilities to us. Businesses (just like citizens) always grumble about taxes, but our taxes are, for the most part, wisely spent…just look at the blizzard that hit Niagara County during Christmas for an example of that. Our half of the county was buried, but city, county, town, state, and federal personnel (and volunteers and private sector enterprises) cleaned up everything in timely fashion, saved lives, prevented crises, and made it business as usual in less than two days. We do business from a pretty special place — this city, this state, this great big country of ours.
It’s because of you that we’ve weathered the economic storms that are much like that blizzard. Everyone one of you — as those who buy, those who work, those who serve – has contributed in your own way to our fiftieth.
You’re what makes it so rewarding. You’re what keeps us going. You’re what makes us take risks and make investments. There’s something incredibly magical and meaningful about being able to live the American Dream because of you and then return that favor to others so they, too, can chase their own dreams — whether it’s through providing them products to enjoy their backyards or waterways, jobs to care for their families, or the taxes and donations to improve the community.
Thank you for 50 years.
It’s been awesome…just like the next 50 will be.
A blast from the past made its triumphant return yesterday: We made our first flexible funnel since 1990!
In celebration of our 50th anniversary in 2023, we’ve brought the product back to life.
Let’s look at the past, present, and future of the funnel:
The item was invented in 1975 while then 24 year-old Doug Confer was working on the family farm in Gasport (that in itself is a testament to the work ethic of Ray and Doug Confer – they ran a farm AND a factory!).
Back then, fuel and oil funnels were made out of metal that would either corrode or not clean very well. So, Doug thought, why not make them out of plastic at their recently-founded plastics company? Plastic wouldn’t corrode and leave pieces of metal in fuel tanks, and it would be much cheaper than the metal alternatives.
Doug received his patent in September of 1976 and Confer Plastics made hundreds of thousands of the funnels until the patent expired 14 years later. After that, Mexico and China could make them far cheaper than we ever could. We lost all market share. While we haven’t made any funnels since 1990, it’s a product that helped us grow and it’s still pretty neat to see this effective invention in use throughout the world in garages everywhere.
Last year, we started kicking around ideas for our 50th anniversary. In planning for our community open house (which will be in September) we thought it would be cool to make these while the tours were on and provide them to visitors as one of the souvenirs. The old mold, which hadn’t been in a machine for over 30 years, was wisely held in storage all this time and remained in great shape.
So, we moved ahead with the plan…but then we expanded our intent. For our 50th, we’re dabbling in some e-commerce with direct sales of popular products from our history, like the bistro table set. We decided to add the funnel to the mix as well as the blue sled of the 1970s (coming this fall).
We know we won’t sell hundreds of thousands of these funnels – we definitely won’t get into big box stores because we can’t beat the price of foreign competition. But, we’ll sell a few and it’s about more than that…it’s about the history, the fight, the promise of the American Dream. We’ll never be the cheapest but we have the best story (we made the thing!) and the best impact on the economy (it’s made in the USA!). We’ll make some sales to consumers and we believe we can get into some specialty shops like online retailers that focus on power equipment, lawn mowers, ATVs, etc…especially if we change the logo and color match to their brand.
When you look at the pictures of yesterday’s production of these funnels, there’s so much history to be seen. The product, invented in 1975, was run in a 1957-vintage molding machine that’s been with us since Day One, and you can see Kathy Armol was running the machine…she’s been with us for 48 years and ran thousands of these in the 1970s and 1980s. It was just like old times!
Keep an eye on our social media. We will likely have these available through the online store on our website by Valentine’s Day…what a nice gift to buy for someone you love from a company you love.