LUMBERTON — Anyone who has purchased sponges from Walmart lately can be pretty sure the product was made at the Rempac Foam Corporation’s manufacturing plant in Lumberton.
Walmart is one of the large retailers that Rempac, headquartered in New Jersey, can boast as a major customer, according to Mike Van Etten, the senior vice president of Rempac’s Lumberton operations. The company has been producing household foam sponges and sanding sponges since taking up residence at its current location on Starlite Drive in 1998. Early this year, the company expanded its operations to a second facility on Carolina Avenue in Lumberton.
Van Etten was recognized as Robeson County’s “Industrialist of the Year” at the county’s annual Industrial Appreciation Dinner held Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Lumberton. Van Etten, 55, came to Lumberton 10 years ago to manage Rempac’s expansion.
“This job fits my personality,” Van Etten said. “I’m good at crunching numbers and planning.”
During Tuesday’s industrial appreciation event, Greg Cummings, Robeson County’s economic developer and industrial recruiter, called 2015 a “prosperous year” for Robeson County.
“There were three major projects this year that totaled close to a $250 million investment in the county,” he said.
For Rempac, Robeson County has been a stable environment in which the company could grow.
According to Van Etten, Rempac Foam first came to Robeson County in 1998 to be close to Quickie Manufacturing Company, at that time one of its largest customers. Today, he said, Rempac has grown to be one of the largest manufacturers of both sanding sponges and household sponges in the United States, with the Lumberton plant producing close to 2 million sponges a week.
Between the two plants now operating in Lumberton, there are a total of about 190 employees, 95 percent of whom are local, Van Etten said.
“We’re growing and expect to hire another 30 or 40 employees within the next year,” he said.
During his brief remarks at the county Industrial Appreciation Dinner, Van Etten told the crowd of more than 100 that the manufacturing business is both challenging and never dull. With today’s global economy, he said, competition is great.
“Our job is to make the best quality product possible at the lowest cost, and be sure to ship our product on time,” he said.
Like other manufacturing companies, Rempac Foam in the early 2000s was struggling financially to survive. It was 2002 when Van Etten was tapped by Rempac’s owners to come to Lumberton.
“I was told that the company was in trouble and asked to come to Lumberton and make it work,” said Van Etten. “I came here to improve the profit and loss statement and that has been done. The company is now growing.”
Van Etten was raised on a small farm town located in Sussex County, New Jersey. He was educated in the field of materials management at Bloomfield Community College. Before joining Rempac he was the corporate vice president for Hartz Mountain Pet Products in Secaucus, New Jersey.
According to Van Etten, he learned the foam sponge manufacturing business through hands-on experience.
“I learned the business through the school of hard knocks,” he said. “I learned by doing it.”
When he isn’t working, Van Etten is an assistant coach in local Little League and soccer organizations. Recently he joined the Kiwanis Club of Lumberton-Robeson, and for the past nine years he has been a member of Hyde Park Baptist Church.
As a hobby, Van Etten is an amateur bodybuilder. He holds more than 20 bodybuilding titles and as recently as 2010 and 2011 he won the OCB Yorton Cup Grand Master National Championships in Washington, D.C., and Phoenix.
He is married to Linda Etten and has a 10-year-old son, Michael.