Conveyor belts made in Newark move berries, Tootsie Roll Pops, Junior Mints, and People

Francisco Mejia works with rolls of silicone as he creates toppings for O’Connor Belting conveyor belts.
Francisco Mejia works with rolls of silicone as he creates toppings for O’Connor Belting conveyor belts.

By Kathy Canavan

When Paul O’ Connor’s family watches “How It’s Made” on the Discovery Channel, someone usually calls out, “That’s one of ours.”

They’re not product-spotting; they’re conveyor-belt spotting.

Whether it’s the belts that carry Herr’s Potato Chips or the ones that move furniture, the odds are they started out life at O’Connor Belting International on Ruthar Drive in Newark.

There are bright blue dotted belts that look like next-generation Legos, bacteria-free belts, belts with hamburger-bun-sized depressions, even belts that carry skiers up mountainsides.
One belt shovels peas right into their boxes. Another corrals lids for McDonald’s sodas. The Junior Mint belt looks like hundreds of miniature egg crates, all with the candy’s distinctive symbol in the bottom.

The blueberry-sorting belts featuring 48 tiny lanes scanned by cameras, policed by air jets and moving 600 feet-per-minute, too fast for the human eye to see. Computerized cameras scan the berries for color, size and density. If an errant berry is spotted, air jets shove it off the belt.

It’s all run by a former Green Beret who, when his father-in-law first asked him to work at a belt company in 1978, said, “That doesn’t sound very interesting.”

Now, with 37 years and several belting companies under his belt, O’Connor said he’s realized that most things you use in your life probably have been produced on a belt.

“The cars you drive, the house you live in. It’s all done with belts,” he said.

Paul O’Connor and Shaun Lopez load plastic sheeting to make a customized conveyor belt.
Paul O’Connor and Shaun Lopez load plastic sheeting to make a customized conveyor belt.

When the Junior Mint changed hands and the new manager found strange-looking forms in a corner, they threw them away. The molds had to be remade – in a hurry. They turned to O’Connor.

“Everybody knows from experience over the years that, if you see something really crazy looking, and you want to know where to get it, call Paul O’Connor,’’ O’Connor said. “That’s what we like because the more difficult the job is, the more value you add to it, the more profit you make for both us and our distributors.”

His distributors number 3,000 in the U.S. and 15 more in Africa and South America. Each of his American distributors sells to 50 to 100 companies.

O’Connor was a happy general manager for a European belt manufacturer until 2011, when the European bank crisis occurred. The company needed money so they asked O’Connor if he’d like to buy their American outpost. He did, but he needed $1.5 million to close the $3 million deal.

“Initially, Wells Fargo told me, ‘We’d love to do it, but we’re not lending money now.’ Then, they came back and said, ‘The SBA wants to help veterans buy businesses.’” O’Connor said.

He got a Small Business Administration loan based on his 30 years in the belting business and the fact that he had built the business from scratch for his European owners, starting with zero sales in 1993 and winding up with $4.6 million by 2011.

Doing so saved his job and the jobs of all the workers at the plant, which now include his two sons.

Wayne Mitchell fashions a belt with cleats that will keep products from rolling off the line.
Wayne Mitchell fashions a belt with cleats that will keep products from rolling off the line.

It’s an industry on the grow. When the Food and Drug Administration passed new requirements for tobacco production recently, O’Connor got a $2 million order from Phillip Morris. The tobacco company must change out all its old conveyors to meet the new standard, he said, and they’ve only switched 30 percent of them so far. Each Perdue plant needs a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of chicken-part belts each year, he said.

Today, O’Connor Belting has sales of $9 million a year.

Its owner sees a bright future: “The economy is picking up,” O’Connor said. “When more products are made, more conveyor belts are needed in plants.”

Paul O’Connor served as a paratrooper in Vietnam and as a Green Beret later, but all military veterans receive preferences when bidding on government contracts and discount on Small Business Administration loan fees.

All SBA fees are waived for veterans using SBA-backed loans up to $350,000 and fees are reduced for loans from $350,000 to $5 million.

The waiver is also offered to veterans’ spouses and widows, to reservists and to members of the National Guard. Veterans and Service Disabled Veterans also may receive preference in the awarding of government contracts.

For more information, call or e-mail Jim Provo at the SBA: 302-573-6294, extension 227 or james.provo@sba.gov. ♦

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