Undaunted, the two formed United Southern Industries in 1970 and the first plant became known as the Duke Street operation. After a year of operation Richard Hughes decided to form his own company, Mayland Enterprises, to focus on supplying materials, so the partners decided to sell United Southern to Richmond Plastics Industries, of which Jim Daniel was the owner. Joe was named Operations Manager. He was soon promoted to President and General Manager where he shared in the development of numerous markets including telecommunications and data processing equipment. By 1979, R.P. Industries bought Isoplast, Inc. in Ellenboro where in 1982 Joe was made President and General Manager of the Ellenboro operation. The following year Joe took possession of United Southern after buying out R.P. Industries. The staff included Ralf Edwards, Al Toronto, Tommy Miller, Rita Wilson and Wayne Wilson. The business grew rapidly from early 1983 to 2000. At its peak United Southern Industries generated 33 million dollars in annual sales and employed over 350 people. It had three locations and a mold making shop, and ran molding machines that varied from 25 to 1500 tons. It was certified QS 9000 in 1999 and had begun to diversify into assemblies for automotive applications. Yet in discussing the growth of United Southern after its sale Joe never dwelt on the numbers mentioned above. He preferred to note how many of his employees bought houses, cars and groceries with the wages USI was able to provide to the people of Rutherford County, and how many children got a chance to grow up in a safe North Carolina mountain town because USI was there.
One of Joe’s outstanding traits was his drive for excellence. He was a strong supporter of education. He constructed and equipped a state-of-the-art computer learning lab for his employees in order to receive onsite training in computer operation, plastic technology training through interactive courses, and access to company sponsored courses offered on the internet through several universities and colleges. Joe believed in sharing his knowledge with others and in helping his employees to bring the latest technology to the plastic industry. He was active in both SPE and SPI. In the former he was Section President c. 1984 and Councilor, c. 1985-88 and in 1991 became an Honored Service Member.
While in Council Joe noticed the need for better interaction among Councilors and Staff, the result of which was the Council Committee of the Whole. In the latter he was most active in the Molding Division and was instrumental in the placement of a satellite office in Greenville, SC. Most notably, Dick De Brule challenged Joe and the Carolinas Section of the SPE to match a $100,000 grant in honor of Richard Goolsby in the late 1980s, which Joe did nearly single-handedly, the result of which is The Richard Goolsby Scholarship. Joe went on to help establish a two-year curriculum for plastics locally at Isothermal Community College. Regarding SPI, he was a member for 30 years, serving on the National Board of Directors for some fair fraction of that time. Together with SPI and The Polymers Center of Excellence Joe was instrumental in establishing the National Plastics Certification program for machine operators through SPI and PCE. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Polymer Center of Excellence in Charlotte from its inception until his death. In 2014 Joe was inducted in the Plastics Pioneers Association a group of distinguished individuals from within the plastics industry, nationally.
To those of us fortunate enough to count him as our friend we found in Joe a humble leadership style that was both powerful and alluring. In one notable case Joe was discussing the applicants for the Goolsby Scholarship, wherein he pointed out that while academic achievement is one criteria, it is not determinative and that passion for the industry or a commitment to a trade should count just as much. From then on those of us who serve on the committee have invoked “The Bennett Rule” at least once a session. To our committee it needs no explanation. Speaking personally, over the years as I made calls on hundreds of plastics companies and it was always remarkable how every one of them reflected the personality or values of the leadership. When you visited United Southern you immediately noticed an inviting atmosphere and a genuine interest in you and your business. Often in the past I’d phone Joe and always begin by asking if he had time for a call. He always replied, “Well, I’ll make time.” What a great answer. Without noticing I found myself adopting that and other “Joeisms.”
Sometime around 2002 Joe began to suffer a series of health-related problems. He showed some symptoms of an unusual chorea at his Mother’s funeral around 2002. Over the next five years or so it got worse despite all kinds of treatments. He had to give up his role in United Southern because he simply could not work. Around 2009 he began a series of treatments with an experiment drug that completely knocked out the chorea. It seemed like a miracle, could it be that Joe’s health problems were behind him? Despite his recovery the recession hit United Southern hard and Joe sold it off in 2010. It was a bitter blow to Joe but those of us who knew him were happy to trade the loss of his business for the gain of his health.
Just as the treatment seemed to be working he suffered a nearly-fatal accident. He was holding a team of horses that his brother Buddy was attempting to hitch to a buggy. The horses reared back and fell on Joe, crushing all his ribs and puncturing his lungs. One helicopter ride and five transfusions later he pulled through but was bed ridden for three months. Oddly it seemed that Joe was again making a deal for the better because as a result of the accident he found that he no longer needed his chorea medication, it had completely disappeared.
Joe began an aggressive rehab program and seemed better than he had in years. But unbeknownst to everyone the drugs had done their damage. Following a biopsy he discovered that he had bladder cancer that had metastasized in his lungs. That was in the summer of 2015 and he was given six to nine months, he lived another eighteen.
Google the word leadership and it returns 867,000 results–clearly it is one of the hottest topics of the day. Just recently a writer for Forbes tells us that leadership is about sacrifice, humility and service. If so, Joe exemplified it. But it seems that there is a much subtler definition, one that we employ everyday without noticing it. A leader is simply someone who we want to follow, and for many of us in the Carolinas Joe was that person. He never sought leadership positions, we put him in them. While there he worked tirelessly to deserve them, and once finished, he never sought recognition. That’s a man worth following.
Following his death many of us in the Carolinas Section of SPE wanted to recognize Joe for all the efforts he so selflessly put into our industry. So herewith the Joe Bennett Endowment, a living testimony to our friend and the leader of our efforts.