Steve Hartman: From plastics to success


Steve Hartman, BESc’78, has an impressive career history that spans multiple roles and industries. His entrepreneurial journey began as the founder and CEO of Industrial Thermo Polymers (ITP) Ltd. from February 1980 to March 2015, which he sold to Armacell, a leading provider of engineered foams. At ITP, he demonstrated his innovative spirit and business acumen, establishing and growing a successful industrial company and inventing the pool noodle. 

Since 1995, he has served as the CEO/president and owner of ITPDS Ontario Limited, where he has excelled in real estate holdings. Hartman’s leadership and strategic vision have been instrumental in the success and growth of the company and in addition to his role at ITPDS Ontario Limited, he has been the CEO/president and owner of SWH Holdings since 2003. This position further solidifies his expertise in the real estate industry and highlights his ability to effectively manage multiple companies simultaneously. 

Hartman’s involvement in the investment sphere is evident through his role as CEO/president and owner of Deerfoot Holdings since March 2015. As an investment holding company, he has leveraged his experience and knowledge to make strategic investment decisions and achieve impressive results. 

Since 1987, Steve has also been a valued business partner at MasterNet Ltd., which specializes in the manufacturing of all types of plastic netting, for the most diverse and demanding industries. He has undoubtedly contributed to the company's growth and success pioneering its Earth-Switch® Technology which uses a proprietary additive in its products, producing plastic netting which will degrade underground in the absence of light, heat or oxygen and holds an indefinite shelf life with no underlying storage conditions.    

The Pool Noodle 

Reflecting on the origins of ITP, Hartman revealed that the company's inception was a joint venture with his father, David Hartman, in 1980. 

“My father was a veteran in the plastics industry and informed me that he had acquired a tandem extrusion line,” said Hartman. “I was initially unfamiliar with the concept, but my curiosity was piqued, leading me to inquire about the possibilities of utilizing the equipment, and this sparked the beginning of a remarkable entrepreneurial journey.” 

Originally intending to manufacture backer rods for construction purposes, the Hartmans soon found themselves in possession of 9-foot, gray foam rods that they enjoyed playing with in the pool. It was at this moment that he had a visionary idea—to enhance the foam rods with vibrant colours and introduce them as retail products. This inspired the creation of the iconic pool noodle, which became a summertime favourite and an instant success.

Engineering Education and a Culture of Innovation 

Hartman emphasizes the significance of an engineering mindset and how it influences the way he approaches business. This mindset, combined with a dedication to continuous improvement and a focus on innovative solutions, has been instrumental in the success of ITP Ltd. 

“I was trained to think like an engineer,” he said. “I constantly thought of how we could package things faster, how to reduce waste, tape a box better and label it faster.” 

“In every aspect of our business, every day, the mindset from an engineering education was ingrained. This allowed me to look at things differently than other people.”

While discussing patents, Hartman mentioned the importance of filing within a year to secure protection for inventions. Although there may have been some flaws and uncertainties in the initial stages, the company managed to introduce several innovative features to their products. For instance, in their pipe insulation, they incorporated a pressure-sensitive adhesive that allowed for easy installation by simply tapping the pieces together. They also introduced a relief liner that facilitated recycling, unlike the competition's release liner, which required peeling for recycling. Additionally, the company designed and patented unique shapes for pool noodles, offering customers a variety of options. 

Hartman’s commitment to engineering and innovation is evident throughout his entrepreneurial journey. He developed a specialized tooling process that involved attaching a die to the extruder's end, resulting in pool noodles with spiral shapes and other distinctive features. The pursuit of continuous improvement and innovation was ingrained in the company's culture. Hartman had a dedicated research and development team, including a PhD holder in polyethylene processing, who constantly worked on enhancing the equipment and products.

With their newfound success in the pool noodle industry, ITP expanded its product portfolio and became a serious player in the extruded polyethylene foam market. Their products found applications in various sectors, including construction, automotive, athletics, HVAC, marine, packaging, plumbing, and retail hardware, among others. The company's ability to diversify its offerings while maintaining a focus on innovation and quality is a testament to Hartman's leadership and entrepreneurial vision. 

For the next generation of engineers who wish to take the entrepreneurial path, Hartman says, “If you're going to strike out on your own, you got to know some basic accounting and how to read a balance sheet and income statement and what they mean.” 

He added: “Surround yourself with people that have the expertise you don't have. I've seen a lot of people who have their own companies and think they can do it all, but it is better to get support.”