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Q&A: American dream come true

Issue: July 2017

Demetre Loulourgas was certain about two things when he was growing up in Athens, Greece — he would work in a tool shop and it would be in the U.S.

“I knew enough about America because I was watching all the American movies,” he said. “I fell in love with the country before I came here.”

He also loved to make things. While a student, he worked in the school machine shop, eight hours a day with no pay for three and a half years, and took design classes. He wanted to learn the craft.

The master plan for his future, fully worked out by the time he was 16 years old, has been very successful. His life-long passion for tooling and love for the U.S. spurred him to found American Tool & Mold, which is now the largest mold making business in the Southeast, as well as being a thriving custom injection molding business.

At 78, Loulourgas has turned over some of the day-to-day operations to his daughter, CEO Emilia Loulourgas Giannakopoulos, but still goes to the office seven days a week and remains fully involved as president. He is unapologetic for his love for his adopted country and the plastics industry. He told his story recently to Plastics Machinery Magazine Editor Ron Shinn.

Just the facts

WHO IS HE:  Demetre Loulourgas, founder and president of American Tool and Mold Inc.
HEADQUARTERS:  Clearwater, Fla.
FOUNDED:  1978
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 225 (115 in injection molding, 110 in mold making)
FAMILY MATTERS: Daughter Emilia Loulourgas Giannakopoulos is CEO
ANNUAL SALES: Not disclosed

Demetre Loulourgas

Is it true you went to school to learn to be a ship engineer?
: Yes, but because I worked in the school shop, I became qualified to be a professional lathe operator by the time I was 16 years old. I developed a love for doing things in the shop, for designing things and manufacturing things. I wanted to stay in a tool shop. I decided I did not want to work on the ships.

What was your plan at that point?
: I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. I was going to finish school, go to America and work hard in our industry so that one day I could have my own business. When I was 21, I had finished school. I went to work on the ships as an apprentice engineer. My plan was to get to America and leave the ship and stay in America. That was the best way for me to get to America and not be a burden on my family for money which they did not have. I would be an illegal immigrant in America, and later find the way to become a legal immigrant.

Is that how you came to America?
: Yes. I got off the ship in New Jersey with the idea that I could work New Jersey with the idea that I could work my way up to be a legal immigrant. I fell in love with the country even more and stayed here as an illegal immigrant for four and a half years; I had a job working in a machine shop making airplane parts.

What was your plan for getting legal status?
: I went back to Greece, went into the service and afterwards applied to the Canadian embassy for a visa. I came to Montreal, and the government found me a job in a company, Lasalle Engineering, as a machinist toolmaker for airplane parts. After a year, I moved to Toronto to work for Accurate Mold. I was there seven years, and that place gave me all the experience I needed in the mold making world.
In 1963, I was working as a toolmaker and saw a sign that said: “Plastic is the future.” So, I decided I better learn to build injection molds.

How did you get to the U.S.?
: I applied to come to the United States and I got a certificate from the U.S. Labor Department that said the U.S. needed people with the skills I had.
So, my wife, two small children and I moved to the U.S. on July 4, 1976. We got our green card at the border. Getting the visa to come to the United States was the happiest day of my life. It was my dream come true.

What happened when you got to the U.S.?
: We went to New York for a year when I found a job as a tool and molding manager. Then I applied to come to work for Massie Tool & Mold in St. Petersburg, Fla. Our plan was always to come to Florida because it is so much like Greece. I became the plant coordinator and spent six and a half years at Massie Tool.

What about your dream to have your own business?
: I still had that dream. My wife and I saved our money, and I could partner with a small tool shop in Clearwater, Fla., that was struggling financially. We had about 10 employees. Five years later, in 1988, I bought out my partner and changed the name of the business to American Tool and Mold. We were up to 35 employees at that point, and about 25 of those were journeymen mold makers.

Why did you decide in 1990 to get into custom injection molding?
: Our customers wanted me to conduct pilot runs. I needed machines to do that and to test molds we built. We bought five Toyo machines — 55 tons, 90 tons, 200 tons and 300 tons. They are workhorse machines. I still have those machines running today and almost never have had to call for service.
In 1999, we needed to expand, so I got a Small Business Administration loan for $6.3 million, bought a 150,000-square-foot building in Clearwater, modified it and bought four new Nissei hydraulic presses up to 500 tons. They were as good as the Toyo presses.

How did your business grow?
: Our customer base grew steadily for the next 10 years. By 2001, we had 110 employees. We were very diversified but did a lot of work in the packaging and medical markets. I was doing business with all the big boys, like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and so forth. But after September 11, 2001, the entire industry slowed down. Our financials were strong enough that we survived, and later started growing again.

Tell us about how you invest in machinery.
: Since 2000, I have invested $22 million to $23 million on machinery. Last year alone we invested $3.5 million on the tooling side. I try to invest in toolmaking equipment that can run lights-out. That is easier to say than to do.

We have 30 injection presses which include Toyo, Nissei, Husky and KraussMaffei. Our largest press is a high-speed Husky 710 ton. We evaluate brands against each other. My preference currently is KraussMaffei. They take less space, are two-platen machines and the company has excellent service. Husky molding presses are excellent presses, as well.

For auxiliary equipment, I leave the decision on what to buy up to the general manager on the molding side. I trust his knowledge and experience.
On the tooling side, I am the one who selects everything. Tooling is still my passion. Tooling will probably be the last word I ever say. I started very young and feel like I grew up in tooling.

How do you feel about investing in today’s new technology?
: I have no hesitation about investing in new technology equipment. I try to educate myself in the best way possible so I know exactly what to do. I will invest because it is part of our business to grow, and I love progress.
Technology and electronics have changed mold making for the better. When I started, you could make the same type molds we make today, but it took much longer. The mold maker had to be a true artist and craftsman and you could do everything, just in different ways and on a different timetable.

If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?
: I would have started the business by myself, without a partner. It would be easier than the way I did it with a financially struggling partner.
I did it with a partner because I did not know how the industry would accept me as an immigrant. It turned out that the industry accepted me as well as anyone else because of the quality of our work and my integrity. It turned out that those two things counted more than my immigration status or accent.

Is it true you have helped fund some entrepreneurs’ products?
: Yes. If a customer has an idea and I believe in the idea, I will work with him to develop it in a way that is good for both of us. Many times, we can afford to fund it ourselves. Very rarely do we have to go to the bank for one of these projects.

How would you like to be remembered?
Loulourgas: Personally, as a person who had a very high level of integrity. Professionally, as a person who tried to make a difference for the betterment of our industry.