ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) — When it comes to manufacturing plastic lapel pins to promote everything from Idaho potatoes to the Girl Scouts, no one can say the Knobby Krafters are short on experience.
The small business, which has turned out plastic buttons, badges and novelties since the 1940s in a small factory along the Bungay River, recently manufactured its one billionth pin.
That’s enough one-inch pins to stretch more than 15,000 miles end to end. That’s three-fifths around the world.
The company, which employs 15 people, recently celebrated its triumph at the Las Vegas convention of the Promotional Products Association of America.
The family-owned company is run by brothers Dexter and Nick Nerney, whose grandfather originally started the business.
Changing times and foreign competition has cut into the company’s injection molded specialty business, but the company has managed to survive through custom work and quick turnarounds on items that range from ‘‘junior police officer’’ badges to political pins.
‘‘At one time, we had three shifts going six days a week,’’ said Dexter Nerney, 65. ‘‘Now, we have one.’’
The brothers say they believe Knobby Krafters is the only American company continuing to manufacture such items on U.S. shores. Much of the work has moved to China, they say.
The company’s injection molding machines crank out pins inside a factory that has grown over the years from a former carriage house into a cement block manufacturing building attached to a 19th century home once owned by industrial pioneer Col. Willard Blackinton.
Blackinton once operated a shuttle shop on the property making shuttles for the booming textile industry.
Nick and Dexter Nerney represent the fifth generation of the family that established the company in 1924 making metal costume and emblematic jewelry.
William Nerney, their father, brought a plastics background with him when he joined the company and began manufacturing inexpensive plastic buttons and pins for advertising purposes.
The pins, molded in a variety of shapes, have been used to promote everything from the Kentucky Derby to breast cancer awareness and have been emblazoned with a variety of corporate and charitable logos.
During the last election campaign, the company molded plastic lapel pins for both the Romney and Obama campaigns.
Most of the company’s products are sold through independent advertising product distributors.
Dexter and his brother Nick, 72, say the Knobby Krafters is a family and industrial tradition of which they’re proud. Now hitting retirement age, both brothers say they’re willing to sell the company.
‘‘We’re getting up there,’’ Nick said.
Both brothers cherish the tradition of their family business and forebears who were active in local affairs.
‘‘When I was growing up, a lot of our friends’ families worked here,’’ Nick said. ‘‘That’s how it was in Attleboro. You'd get two, maybe three generations of a family working in the same business.’’
Over the years, the Nerneys were involved in local charities and civic affairs, including the school committee. The family even donated land next to its property for a public park along the river.
The brothers have also managed to stay in business long enough to see some of their products become valued collectibles.
One of the company’s annual staples is producing commemorative pins for the Kentucky Derby Festival. In some years, they've sold as many as 800,000.
Some of the original pins manufactured years ago have brought as much as $850 apiece on eBay, Dexter said.