For years, the people at Baltimore's Standard Cap & Molding Co. fought a losing battle against corporate giants such as the Monsanto Co. as they scrabbled to find some way to make money producing plastic bottles.

But in 1969, the company gave up on dreams of soaring into success in the booming plastic-bottle business. New managers came in while the company was in bankruptcy and decided that this time, the plastics company would remain content to think small.

Very small.

The newly renamed Poly-Seal Corp. focused on one necessary but often ignored item: bottle caps.

After all, every bottle needs a cap. But the caps aren't made with the bottles. They must be carefully pressed onto special molds, in much the

same way that shoes are sewn on foot-shaped lasts.

And many of the big bottle-makers weren't spending the money or time needed to run the special machines that make good screw tops and snap-on caps for the billions of bottles sold in the United States each year, the new managers figured.

The strategy worked.

Late last year, privately held Poly-Seal -- with plants in Rosedale and Holabird Industrial Park -- bought a Baltimore-based competitor to become one of the country's largest producers of plastic plugs and caps.

Now, Poly-Seal's three Baltimore factories and 750 workers will make bottle tops that can be seen in almost every home in the country -- from orange juice containers in the refrigerator to shampoo bottles in the shower.

It is an unlikely outcome for the maker of buttons and distributor caps that was founded in Tennessee in 1934 and moved to Baltimore in 1935.

After emerging from bankruptcy in 1970, Poly-Seal was "an insignificant player that had a bad reputation to go along with it," said Randall House, the company's vice president for sales.

But Poly-Seal had chosen its market well.

Demand for plastic bottle tops boomed along with the rest of the packaging industry, but the niche was protected from many of the industry's dangers, those familiar with the business say.

Though many plastics companies were hit hard in the 1970s and early 1980s by oil shortages that drove up the price of resin, and by recessions that drained demand, Poly-Seal continued to grow because it had chosen a niche that is "somewhat recession-proof," said Robert Heitzman, the editor of a trade magazine called Packaging Digest.

"People might put off buying a car or a fur coat, but they still have to eat," and food producers were turning to plastic bottle tops in droves during the 1970s and 1980s, he said.

The industry pumped out 13 billion plastic bottle tops in 1980, according to government statistics, but that had ballooned by last year to 43 billion tops worth an estimated $1.3 billion, Mr. Heitzman said.

Starting with sales of $1.5 million in 1970, the refocused Poly-Seal thrived. By 1977, sales had surpassed $5 million, and the local company bought out Monsanto's bottle-top business.

"It was just too small a business for them," Mr. House explained.

And, though the bottle-top business continued to grow, other big packaging companies also decided that making the bottle tops wasn't worth the trouble.

By the time Poly-Seal started negotiating this fall to buy Moldcraft Plastics Inc., the Baltimore-based bottle-top operation of Anchor Hocking Corp. on Shannon Drive, Poly-Seal was projecting annual revenues of $40 million on its own, Mr. House said.

He would not reveal the company's earnings but said Poly-Seal has made money every year since 1971.

After combining with Moldcraft next year, Mr. House said, the expanded company probably will have $70 million in revenues, which will make it one of the largest companies in the plastic bottle-cap business.

But the growth of the business could produce the single biggest challenge to Poly-Seal, he said.

Increasing concerns about the amount of plastics filling up garbage dumps is heightening pressure on companies such as Poly-Seal to find some reusable material for its bottle tops, he said.

Tops are made out of a different kind of plastic than bottles and are not easily recyclable, Mr. House said.

If the company can find some way to forestall an environmental back

lash against its products, Poly-Seal could become the world's largest maker of plastic bottle tops in the next decade, Mr. House said.

But that is about as big as the company's managers dreams get.

"We'll never be a multibillion-dollar company," Mr. House said.

And, no matter how much bigger Poly-Seal gets, the company probably will remain invisible to consumers, industry experts say.

Except for a few eye-catching caps designed to attract attention, most tops are designed simply to top off the bottles and prevent leaks, said Mike Johnson, a purchasing manager for Helene Curtis Industries Inc.

Mr. Johnson, who buys Poly-Seal tops for his Chicago-based company's Suave brand shampoo and many other products, said he likes Poly-Seal's caps precisely because customers don't notice them: They don't leak, and they blend in with the bottles perfectly.

"If you don't notice bottle tops, that means they are doing a good job," he said.

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