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Success doesn't seem to rattle Sorbothane

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KENT, Ohio—The next time you're in a cafe, absent may be the machine-producing noise associated with creating a fruit smoothie. Consider Sorbothane Inc.'s role in making that appreciated difference.

The Kent-based company creates products related to isolating vibration, reducing shock and depressing noise. Notably, since 2010 Sorbothane gaskets have eliminated noise in Vitamix commercial and residential blenders known as the Quiet One.

Typically, ratting, shaking or vibrating activities can reduce the life of a component. That's where Sorbothane's gaskets and other products come in, Sorbothane President David Church said.

“It has a high ability to take the shock and disburse the energy through the material,” he said.

Sorbothane, a proprietary urethane, was invented around 1975 as a joint initiative between former owner BTR of London and the British government. The performance of insoles, elbow gear, knee pads and Wilson baseball gloves are enhanced by Sorbothane. Likewise, anti-vibration mounts used in space travel and anti-vibration pads with washing machines contain Sorbothane's shock-absorbing material.

“There's Sorbothane all around you; you just don't see it or notice it,” Church said.

Brothers-in-law Robert Boyd and Raymond Yozwiak acquired the eponymously named company in 2003.

“It's a little like Silly Putty with a memory,” co-owner Boyd said about the material. “I tell people to reach and squeeze your arm; the body has elasticity and has recovery.”

So, too, does Sorbothane.

Boyd's sales and marketing history with industrial products includes 28 years with the BF Goodrich Co. of Akron, followed by, in 1983, being a 20-year employee with Sorbothane's former two owners, BTR and Trelleborg. He told his last employer—Trelleborg—to contact him if and when it wanted to sell Sorbothane, then part of the Swedish company's automotive division.

Boyd wanted to buy the business because it had a proven track record. “We never lost money. We had good years and bad years, but we never had a negative year. The fact I had run the business and knew the market, that was a factor. I had confidence we could maintain it and grow it.”

A few years later, Boyd got that call, the brothers-in-law became the new owners, and the firm has performed in keeping with Boyd's original expectations.

Gross sales revenues for the company's last eight years have been $4 million to $5 million annually; 80 percent reflects industrial client applications while the remaining 20 percent is primarily from sales of insole products, developed and owned by Sorbothane and marketed to retailers, Church said.

Last year, the company produced more than 2 million units, ranging in size from a part that is 0.18 inch wide to 0.25 inch tall to a 2-by-2 foot sheet.

Its 64,000-sq.-ft. headquarters includes a production facility featuring 15 urethane-pouring machines, which cost about $150,000 each. The employees, 26 in all, are dedicated primarily to manufacturing. Engineering, testing and sales employees also operate from the location.

Competition comes from other materials—cardboard, silicon, rubber, foam—that have shock-absorbing properties. Those materials, however, exhibit delays in returning to shape after initial or repeated impacts.

“Sorbothane has a bigger temperature window,” Boyd said. “A lot of materials at elevated temperatures get very lively. They don't rebound. They can't support a load. From an engineering perspective, that's our benefit.”

The company expects growth will continue by attracting entrepreneurs and engineers wanting product shock and vibration solutions. Church said other growth is expected by increasing the company's visibility in the insole business. For example, this year the company plans to unveil its Ultra Graphite Arch, an enhanced insole product line.

The firm said it's impactful—no pun intended—when it gets involved early with a client's prototype, as was the case 31 years ago with Kick-eez of Woodland, Wash. Today, the company holds exclusive rights to recoil pads made with Sorbothane that are mounted to shotgun or rifle butts. The pads prevent shoulder injuries from the kickback of a fired rifle.

The recoil pads are particularly popular with skeet or trap shooters, who fire 400 to 500 rounds a day, Kick-eez General Manager Cheryl Poppe said.

Currently 150 different Kick-eez items are made at the Sorbothane plant. Last year, Poppe said, the family-owned company purchased 60,000 units manufactured by Sorbothane.

“The unique part of the business is we can manufacture one batch of 10 units for one customer and another batch of hundreds of thousands for another customer,” Boyd said. The manufacturing process is nimble and does not involve a lengthy setup time—switching from one order to another takes place in minutes, Church said.