The FLiP Files: Blake Gleaves

The FLiP Files is a blog series spotlighting young professionals who are active in PLASTICS' Future Leaders in Plastics (FLiP), a group for plastics professionals under the age of 40.  For this FLiP File, we spoke to Blake Gleaves, product manager of flexible compounds at Westlake Chemical, the most vertically integrated polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) company in the United States. Blake works in the  Compounds division of the company, which focuses on the manufacture of flexible and rigid compounds that go into wire and cable, medical, pipe fittings and more.

-How did you find yourself working in the plastics industry?

I began my professional career in the aluminum industry and had an opportunity to switch to polymers.  My first job within the plastics industry was for a specialty compounder that dealt primarily with wire and cable. Once I moved to Axiall (merged with Westlake Chemical in 2016), I began to cover many more markets that use vinyl.

-Describe in one sentence what you do on an average day.

My main responsibility is to help steer one of the nation’s largest flexible vinyl businesses to ensure it maintains our market share while increasing the market cap, which is challenging because innovation can become difficult in such a mature industry.

-What do you like most about working in the plastics industry?

The plastics industry is always changing.  The second I think that I have a pulse on the market, a substitute is created or engineered that makes me rethink my strategy.  Plastics is at the heart of all engineering—chemical, mechanical and industrial.  Overall, it is a growing industry with a lot of opportunities.

What’s one thing about your personal life that you feel has been changed by having a career in plastics?

Excitement! My wife tells me that I am the only person she has ever met that is excited to go to work all the time. The industry is always changing, which opens the doors for entrepreneurs and for all plastics workers to think creatively.  The diversity of plastics as a material and as an industry allows me the opportunity to feel like an entrepreneur within an established F fortune 500 company. 

-What are the major challenges you think are facing the plastics industry today? How do you think the industry can overcome them?

Our biggest challenge in the plastics industry is attracting new talent. I often hear complaints that there aren’t enough qualified workers in the industry, but investing in education can speed up the learning curve and make an “unqualified” worker qualified.  Today’s access to the internet can get new engineers troubleshooting problems in half the time. 

-Why do you think someone from your generation should consider a career in plastics?

Because the industry is here to stay and it offers a lot of opportunities to people my age.  The best way to grow in plastics is through innovation and taking risks, which isn’t something you can say about every industry. 

-What’s one plastic product you couldn’t live without?

My dog’s Frisbee.  He loves it and reminds me every day that he does.