I'd like to take some brief moments to pay tribute to a man I never met. Milt Roedel passed away before I had ever written a word about solid surface. When I finally learned of his pivotal role in the development of solid surface, he was no longer with us.
I'll never forget the magic day I spent in 1995 with Don Slocum, the inventor of Corian. We sat in his big kitchen, drank coffee and he regaled me with stories and facts about the 'early days.' Basic polymer chemistry came alive to me behind Dr. Slocum's expertise, boundless energy and good humor. The sidebar that appeared in Issue 2 of this magazine was titled, "The Father of Solid Surface," an honorific that seemed appropriate then and now.
But there is no doubt in my mind that without Milt Roedel, there would be no solid surface industry today — none. Corian was developed by the DuPont building products team.The idea was to take some existing technologies and see if any of them could be used to make new products or improve on old products – to make money. After much brilliance and invention, and many discarded ideas, management anointed two leading candidates, Corian and exterior shutters made of nylon. Most leaned toward the shutters. Dr. Slocum, meanwhile, was in the process of moving on to Johns Mansville Corp., where he spent the rest of his career.
Enter Milt Roedel. He and his associate, Art McGeorge fought like tigers for Corian. In the end, "because of Milt Roedel," the shutters were dropped and Corian was given the green light.
If this was all Roedel had done, it would have been a lot. But in fact he persuaded his company to invest large sums in plant construction, machinery development, and most important, marketing – all of this at a time when current sales in no way supported such investment.
Dave Nickles, today Buffalo's sage, was with Slocum when he cast the first Corian sheet in the abandoned Newport tire plant. Nickles acknowledged that nobody in the original building products team could have imagined the eventual state of Corian and the solid surface industry. The stark exception was Milt Roedel. He, everybody agreed, was the true visionary.
"If there's any beginning to Corian," said the late Shelley Curry in 1996, "it began in the mind of Milt Roedel. The man was inflamed with an idea and he had a vision that was too big for me to grasp. I spent about an hour with Milt in a room, 6' X 8', a DuPont room, and he had a desk, two chairs and a battered set of charts that he has been using for over a year. When he got through, in one hour, he had painted a picture of billions and billions of pounds of polymer that were going to be sold to the residential industry in the coming years. If I wanted to join him, I could be part of it. I became inspired."
In the last issue, Joanna Duggan made a compelling case for a new solid surface renaissance. As I read those pages, I heard in the background that old inspiring voice, sounding clearly through the din of new, competing surfacing products: Solid surface is not just another surfacing product. It is special.
I wonder what Milt Roedel would have to say were he alive today. Would he see an opportunity for double-digit growth again? Would he counter the new competing products the way he countered nylon shutters? Would he stick by his vision — which all his contemporaries agreed was much, much bigger that what has already been achieved? Would he fight as he did before for a new marketing investment of the same proportion to present sales – a huge investment of certain risk, but the possibility of untold reward?