Editor's Note: Rubber & Plastics News will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with a special issue Aug. 9. Leading up to that, we will be publishing columns online by current and former staff members reflecting on their time with the publication.
I can sum up in two words the state of the rubber industry during my 34 years of reporting on it: "In transition." Maybe it always has been that way, and always will be.
The rubber business was in a state of flux when I joined Rubber & Plastics News as managing editor in 1979. An era of plant closings and massive layoffs had begun, particularly in the tire industry. Thanks to "radialization," all the American tire makers—yes, there were a bunch of them back then—struggled to catch up to Michelin and its radials. Sometimes with disastrous results, like the Firestone 500 debacle.
"Creative destruction," personified by radialization, was a continuing theme during my tenure at RPN, mostly as its editor. Here are some other stories and events that made the rubber industry a fascinating field for a journalist to cover.
The raiders: Corporate raiders, lured by rubber company diversification, especially in the tire sector, feasted on the industry. Typically, they'd launch hostile takeovers with the goal of seizing the company, then selling off assets to pay for the raid. Or, as Sir James Goldsmith did to Goodyear, sell their holdings at a premium to the company to just go away.
The big selloff: Firestone, General Tire, Uniroyal-Goodrich, Armstrong and Mohawk were among American-based tire makers sold to foreign companies in a relatively short period.
Automation: Everything got automated. Hot, dirty, multistory tire plants that employed thousands gave way to tidy, one-story structures that employ a couple hundred. Non-tire rubber goods makers went through a similar metamorphosis, especially automotive-related manufacturers. It seemed only the smaller, specialty shops held onto the "old ways." Many didn't survive.
Rise of the TPEs: Thermoplastic elastomers were constantly in the news. Suppliers promoted the belief TPEs would take over the world someday, at the expense of rubber.
Foreign invasion: As globalization took hold, American-based rubber product makers looked to market and often manufacture abroad, while foreign ownership of U.S. rubber goods firms and suppliers grew.
The hedge funds: Like the corporate raiders of the 1980s, hedge funds began to find good pickings in the rubber business. Unlike the pirates of the past, often their goal was to fix a damaged business and ultimately sell it.
Price fixing: I was stunned when the huge price-fixing scandal by rubber industry suppliers broke. It was widespread, global and involved companies and people I knew. Truly, a disgrace.
The big downsizing: Automation, material substitution, migration of commodity rubber goods—and later more technical products—overseas, and the U.S. rubber industry today has a lot fewer people and companies than when I started covering the field. That affected trade association membership, too, resulting in much restructuring.
Personal highs: And by personal, I mean RPN, not me. The editorial staff—25 or so, in total, I estimate—produced some good stories in my day.
One event and two RPN issues stand out. Ernie Zielasko, founder of the publication and my mentor, and parent company Crain Communications went to court not long before I joined RPN to protect a source during the Firestone 500 mess. Quite a moment, a little business publication fighting for First Amendment rights.
Ernie's best work was RPN's 10th anniversary issue, "A Tribute to the Rubber Chemist." An amazing, in-depth look at the history and character of the industry, and the people who made it happen.
Our 20th anniversary issue was the best we published during my years as editor. We ran 20 stories about 20 diverse companies, from big tire makers to small shops. Together, they showed how the industry had changed during a really difficult period in the past two decades.
Interesting people: The rubber industry has produced quite an array of personalities. A few of those I remember: Peter Bommarito, flamboyant, longtime head of the United Rubber Workers; Harry Millis, a gravelly voiced stock analyst who always had something to say and no qualms about saying it; Bob Mercer, unusually straight-talking Goodyear chief; Roger Smith, second-generation patriarch of family-owned Pawling Rubber Co. He and his kin were among the nicest people I ever met; Jim McGraw, another good one, ran the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers; Ralph Graff, DuPont's guy in Detroit, devoted advocate of the Rubber Division, a great person; Dan Hertz, Seals Eastern owner who always called a spade a spade; and a certain somebody, my best source, never disclosed, who was very tapped into the rubber business and provided me with many leads.
He knows who he is.
Ed Noga retired as editor of Rubber & Plastics News in late 2013. He continued to contribute as a columnist a writer for two more years after that.