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.
Gimp any color you want
Steve Graham, president and founder
of Toner Plastics, shows some of the company's gimp
stock, which comes in different sizes and colors to
make kids smile.
"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
lightbulb 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
"You don't need a lot of money to make a difference,"
he said. "You can do it along the way and get tremendous
He said the one piece of advice he offers to today's engineering
students: "stop and have some fun and enjoy what is around
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
"We started selling direct, and we still do 90 percent
of our business as direct sales to major retailers,"
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 wrest-ling 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."
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