From steering wheels to washing machines, Robert Swain ’51 has been a pioneer in color manufacturing for plastics
By Megan Zaroda ’07
Red used to be the favorite color of Robert Swain ’51 — until he operated his own business. “I wanted to see my company get out of the red and into the blue,” he says. “So now my favorite is blue.”
Yet it was a nervous shade of pink that flushed Swain’s cheeks as he stood at a podium accepting his induction into the Plastics Hall of Fame last June. With 58 years in the industry, Swain had developed the glossy material used in the Ford Motor Company steering wheels and Maytag’s first polypropylene agitator in washing machines. However, the founder of Chroma Corp., a company that creates custom color pigments for plastic products, says his biggest challenge hasn’t been innovative engineering — it’s been running his own business.
Chroma Corp. started out in 1967 with three employees and little capital, which steered Swain into the then-economical business of pigments. He was serving essentially as a “drugstore” for the color world. Companies would bring a color they wanted matched for a product, and it was Chroma’s responsibility to create a pigment mixed with plastic that had the same hue and strength.
Chroma’s first big gig was to customize a color for a new Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. “I remember going home that night and seeing an ad on TV on the new product that J&J was introducing,” Swain says. “There was a feeling of accomplishment and one of security. Here someone is advertising my product on TV and the buyer didn’t even have to know my name. That yellow, it was my color.”
His resilience was tested in 1984 when Swain’s new plant burned to the ground, the laboratory and office records the sole remnants of a bustling color house. A kind competitor that only operated five days a week allocated turf to Swain, and Chroma’s staff worked the third shift and weekends for four months in order to continue production. Chroma resumed shipments four days after the fire.
“The business continued to grow even without a factory because our people were so good,” Swain says. “It was a difficult time we went through, and we went through it successfully. The bond of friendship evolves because of the close camaraderie that develops in the face of adversity.”
Three years later, Chroma was back in its own plant.
“There’s no short cut to success,” the chemical engineering graduate says. “It takes 100 pennies to make a dollar. If you can find a group of people who have a good, strong, positive attitude, they can build a business.”
He has made considerable contributions to his industry through the introduction of seminars on in-plant color control, the establishment of a learning center focused on the fundamentals of color technology, service and leadership on industry committees and councils, and fiery opposition to “junk science” behind controversial proposed legislation. He is managing director of the Plastics Pioneers Association.
Swain lives on Michigan’s St. Clair River with his wife, Judy, checking in on his Illinois plants via email as owner and chairman of the board, cheering on his 22 grandchildren at their sports matches, and admiring the stunning palette of nature.
“The marvel of the spring season and the fall season are still awesome to me,” he says. “Where we are, we get a tremendous amount of red and yellow maple leaves that are just impressive. Nobody does anything to it; nature takes over and does it all by itself.”