Helping translate military skills to business
As a Naval helicopter pilot, Ray Hufnagel was responsible for transporting his fellow service members during military missions. Today, his company Plastic Express safely moves billions of pounds of plastic resin across the U.S. every year, with support from Wells Fargo banker and fellow veteran Jay Hong.
Looking back, former Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ray Hufnagel can see that the lowest point for his company a decade ago also doubled as the catalyst for its position as an industry leader today.
Like many businesses, Hufnagel’s logistics services company, Plastic Express, struggled during the Great Recession of 2008, marking the company’s first and only year not turning a profit.
Yet even with a proven track record of sustained growth, Hufnagel found himself lacking the type of support and personal relationship he expected as a long-time customer of his bank at the time.
“Everything was great with our old bank until our checking account went to zero,” said Hufnagel, the president and CEO of Plastic Express, a wholesale business based in City of Industry, California, that specializes in transporting plastics and packaging. “They really weren’t interested in looking at our financials and helping us plan. I just didn’t feel like I had a strong support network with them.”
“We’ve grown both our national footprint and our ability to deliver for our customers — as well as quadrupling gross revenue — since we started our relationship with Wells Fargo.” — Ray Hufnagel
It was around that time that Hufnagel first connected with retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Jay Hong — a Wells Fargo banker in Pasadena, California, who had served in the U.S. Army Reserve during his banking career.
Hufnagel saw a different level of service that Hong and his team could offer and, not surprisingly, their shared military background helped smooth the transition.
“Once we learned we both were military, right away Jay and I had a different line of communication, and we could understand each other,” said Hufnagel, who served 15 years on active duty in the Navy. “Quite honestly, military people speak differently than most people. And there is a trust knowing someone has gone through very similar situations that you have.”
Together, Hong and Hufnagel reviewed the unique challenges facing Plastic Express and the opportunities that existed to make the company stronger, bolstered by Wells Fargo’s breadth of financial services. The results helped Hufnagel’s company recover from the recession and positioned it for what has been a decade of unprecedented growth.
“To meet current demand for its services and be prepared to earn new business, Plastic Express needs access to capital often ahead of revenues,” said Hong. “The working capital that Wells Fargo provides allows the company to finance things like new and replacement equipment — like tractors, trailers, and packaging lines — which are keys drivers for the company’s continued growth.”
A veteran’s journey to a new career
The son of an Air Force Colonel, Ray Hufnagel has spent almost his entire life in the company of service members, living on military bases from Virginia to Hawaii throughout his childhood.
Hufnagel attended the United States Naval Academy out of high school in 1987. After graduating in 1992, he went to flight school to become a carrier-based aviator. He flew in Operations Southern Watch and Desert Fox before becoming an instructor in the Fleet Replacement Squadron, where he taught new pilots how to fly and operate SH-60F and HH-60H Seahawk helicopters.
“The biggest thing I learned from the military that translated directly to the business world was leadership training,” Hufnagel said. “Putting a team together, completing a mission, and bringing home everyone safely really taught me the importance and value of strong leadership.”
After Hufnagel left active duty in 2002, he started his career at Plastic Express, which his stepfather, Vietnam veteran Ray “Jr.” Kurtz, founded in 1970, after returning home to California from his service in the Army.
Hufnagel earned his MBA from the University of Southern California, and in 2009, he became the CEO of Plastic Express, leading one of the country’s largest transloaders and break-bulk shippers of plastic resin — the BB-sized core ingredient for all plastic products.
“Almost everything we do originates in a rail car — plastic resin is shipped to us, we take it out of that rail car and break it down to the requested delivery size, and distribute it via truck to our customer’s customers,” said Hufnagel. “You wouldn’t think it necessarily, but aviation and trucking are very similar, and all the back-end principles are the same — from preventive maintenance cycles and scheduling to the quality assurance that helps ensure the safety of everyone.”
The Navy veteran credits his lessons in leadership and the natural connection between his aviation background and the transportation industry with the company’s success — it has seen 20 percent year-over-year growth since he joined Plastic Express more than 17 years ago, he said.
A shared past shapes a new future
Hufnagel has made it a point of pride that Plastic Express employs other military veterans. He also appreciates the shared connection he has with Hong, whose 26 years of military service includes serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Like Hufnagel, Hong embraced military life straight out of high school — and worked in aviation during his service. He joined the Army in 1984, starting in the medical branch before transitioning into aviation as a crew chief on a helicopter. He also served as an infantry soldier with a training brigade, with deployments to Honduras, Jordan, Australia, Japan, and Iraq.
Hong joined Wells Fargo in 2006, and balanced his banking career with his role as a U.S. Army Reservist, serving in the 315th Tactical Psychological Operations before retiring from the military in 2011.
“As a soldier, the military taught me the value of teamwork, risk assessment, and planning — all of which have benefited me as a relationship manager at Wells Fargo,” Hong said. “Although we might not talk about it all the time, being a military member is a brotherhood and sisterhood — there’s a definite connection for those who have served.”
That connection proved a critical factor in Hufnagel’s decision to bring Plastic Express’ financial needs to Wells Fargo back in 2009, and the results since then speak for themselves.
With the financial backing of Wells Fargo, Plastic Express has been able to execute its strategic plan of expanding geographically. The company now covers the U.S. coast-to-coast, with 16 warehouses, 19 trucking terminals, and 42 bulk rail terminals with over 9,000 rail cars spots. It also employs more than 375 people.
“We’ve grown both our national footprint and our ability to deliver for our customers — as well as quadrupling gross revenue — since we started our relationship with Wells Fargo,” Hufnagel said while reflecting on the past decade. “But equally important to me — I love the fact that Wells Fargo hires veterans like Jay. Anytime we can work with someone who is committed to that effort, I’m all for it.”