Founding General Foam Plastics

Published 2022-01-23

Engineers and previous Cornell University roommates, Burk Zanft and Ascher Chase, would lease a 1,500 sq ft Portsmouth, VA warehouse in 1957 from Zanft family friend Leon Cardon, owner of Star Band. The newly formed General Foam Plastics Corporation, making its money in styrofoam pipe insulation and styrofoam pool toys, would quickly outgrow its first home—and in 1963 moved to a new warehouse in the neighboring city of Norfolk[0].

This new warehouse was approximately 100,000 sq ft—and cheap. Its former tenet, a lawn mower manufacturer supported by the city, went bust—leaving the city with an expensive, and empty facility. In a phone interview, Ascher Chase recalls the “deal was so ridiculous we couldn’t believe it”. General Foam Plastics would continue to expand the warehouse from its original 100,000 sq ft to 320,000 sq ft in 1970 to 500,000 sq ft in 1980. But for a growing General Foam Plastics, who would have factories and warehouses throughout the United States within the decade, this was only the start.

President Burk Zanft, responsible for sales, would later move to a New York-based sales office and VP Ascher Chase, responsible for operations, would remain in Virginia.[2]

By the mid-1960s General Foam Plastics would begin blow-molding their first product: a pumpkin candy pail. Their blow-molded product line would continue to grow through the introduction of new items, such as Halloween spook sticks and their first Christmas decor. A 1970 purchase of Beco Products’ assets from its previous owner, MSL Plastics, would further expand the Christmas product line.

Although their blow-molded product line was growing, Ascher Chase repeats “it was never a big part of our business”. The late 1970s would see the rise of the PVC-based artificial Christmas tree. Ascher Chase and General Foam Plastics would file a flurry of patents: such as “Artificial Christmas Tree”, “Knock-down artificial Christmas tree”, and “Self-aligning artificial tree assembly”. Their engineering backgrounds assisted in developing automated artificial Christmas tree manufacturing techniques. Ease of automation and an expansive distribution network allowed General Foam Plastics to “sell trees at retail for less than it cost the competition to manufacture”. Ascher Chase points out that General Foam Plastics eliminated most competition within their first year of automation.

General Foam Plastics would continue to grow and expand for several decades. Their product line included pools, pumps, artificial Christmas trees and garland, picnic supplies, insulation, winter sleds, kid toys, coolers and the occasional seasonal decorative blow-molded item. They programmed their own inventory systems, architected their own buildings, designed their own vacuum-forming machines, and built a nationwide distribution network complete with their own fleet of shipping trucks. Facilities could be found in at least Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Texas, China and Mexico.[0][2] “We must have had in excess of 50 blow-molding machines,” said Ascher Chase.

Oh, and they bought a corporate jet.

Co-founder and former President Burk Zanft would pass away in 1996. His shares in the company were left as part of an inheritance trust for his children.

On May 4th 2000, a near bankrupt Empire would sell all of its “decorative Holiday and Seasonal products including all machinery and equipment” to General Foam Plastics for approximately $3.7 million in cash. Two additional sales would be made with General Foam Plastics, including the sale of all “related finished goods inventory” for ~$800,000 in cash and the sale of Empire’s 1.2 million sq ft facility in Tarboro, NC for ~$3 million in cash.[1] General Foam Plastics would continue to occupy the facility until their 2017 closure.

The new millenium would include the retirement of co-founder Ascher Chase in 2002—now in his 90s. General Foam Plastics would later close in 2017[0] after what was described as “years of mismanagement” of the late Burk Zanft’s shares by the bank managed trust.

On the topic of any dusty, long forgotten catalogs or photos, Ascher Chase said “I collected nothing, I left with just my hat”.

Information courtesy of Ascher Chase via phone interview. We have made reasonable attempts to validate all information.


References
  1. "Hampton Roads' General Foam Plastics to close after it couldn't find a buyer", The Virginian-Pilot (2018-01-09)
  2. Empire SEC quarterly report (2000-08-14)
  3. "Plastic Trees Profitable For Firm", Newport News (1979-12-23)
  4. Virginia State Corporation Comission entity #00780387
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