Rubber & Plastics News has been around for 50 years. I've been fortunate enough to have experienced 41 of those years, having joined the publication's staff in the summer of 1980, my first full-time job in journalism just a year after graduating from Ohio University.
Fortunate is the operative word here, because I began working at RPN just ahead of a series of expansion moves orchestrated by RPN's founder, editor, publisher and soul, Ernie Zielasko.
At the time, I told myself, "This will be good starting point. Gain some experience. Save a few bucks, and then go look for a 'real job.'"
Forty-one years and more than 2,500 issue deadline days later, I guess you could say a real job found me. Along the way I've had business trips to 30-odd countries—including a couple that don't exist anymore—on four continents.
Sometimes the planets align just right. Or perhaps it's just pure dumb luck.
At the time I joined the publication in downtown Akron, the RPN staff were still adjusting to life under Crain Communications Inc., the Chicago/Detroit-based family publishing company that had acquired RPN in 1976.
Even under the wing of a larger publishing house, RPN maintained a great degree of autonomy under the steady guidance of Zielasko, who had wagered almost everything he had in 1970 at age 51 to launch RPN as an independent newspaper covering the tire and rubber product industries throughout North America.
Few gave the publication—or Zielasko, a World War II veteran who brought nearly a quarter century of industry experience as a public relations rep for B.F. Goodrich Tire and as editor of Modern Tire Dealer—much of a chance, but he and business partner Chris Chrisman managed to keep it afloat long enough to prove a point and start attracting advertisers, eager to connect with the publication's growing audience.
At that time, those in the rubber industry gleaned industry news from the daily and weekly business press and a trio of mostly technical monthly magazines—Rubber World, Rubber Age and Elastomerics.
Zielasko felt the industry deserved more . . . and he was determined to deliver it.
Back to the early 1980s, Zielasko rolled the dice more than once, reaching "across the pond" in 1982 to buy European Rubber Journal, a monthly feature/technical magazine serving the European rubber industry, and then again in 1983, launching Tire Business—a fortnightly for the independent tire retail/automotive repair business—as a subscription-driven newspaper designed to deliver the news on a more timely basis, 26 times a year, than the existing monthly trade magazines could.
Both of those decisions played key roles in my career with what is now known as the Crain Polymer Group.
Zielasko picked me, a near-neophyte in the business at age 27 and with just three years of experience in the industry, to head up the launch of Tire Business as the publication's first managing editor.
Then two short years later, an opportunity cropped up to expand internationally, as the continental European reporter for the three Crain rubber publications—ERJ, Tire Business and RPN—based in Germany.
The resources available within this trio of publications led to the launch of another industry mainstay—the Global Tire Report, the annual statistical look at the world's tire manufacturing industry published in various forms by the three magazines.
That launch, in 1985, served as the foundation three years later for one of the largest and most extensive issues ever put out by the Crain rubber publications—one dedicated to the centennial of the pneumatic tire, based on John Boyd Dunlop's design that first saw the light of day in 1888.
Throughout the past five decades, I've been witness to the evolution of an industry that has become truly global and increasingly consolidated.
Among the major developments:
- Steady concentration of power among fewer and fewer players amid an uninterrupted march of mergers and consolidations at all levels of the industry;
- The increasing reliance on global supply chains;
- The emergence of Chinese producers as serious players on the world's stage … and the subsequent explosion of brand names in the marketplace;
- The increasing adoption by the industry's major players of "green" business practices, including investments in cleaner sources of power, research into sustainable and/or renewable resources; and
- Automation—output per worker rises constantly.
Worth noting as well: some "sure bet" trends that thus far have failed to find traction on a widespread basis—continuous mixing; non-pneumatic tires; substitutes for rubber (polyurethane, TPEs, etc.); viable alternatives to polyester and/or rayon as reinforcement materials.
Along the way, I've been fortunate enough to have rubbed elbows with some of the greats of the industry.
Francois Michelin stands out. During an interview at Michelin offices in Paris, "Le Patron"—as he was known to his compatriots—noticed me struggling to find room on the visitor's side of his desk with my notebook camera, tape recorder, etc., and insisted we trade places. So I sat in the CEO's chair and he took the visitor's seat.
Perhaps most memorable, though, was Pol Bamelis, head of Bayer A.G.'s rubber business in the 1980s. Asked about the then-current wave of industry consolidation and the potential for synergy, he said:
"Synergy? Interesting concept. It's like the Yeti."
"Yeti?" I replied.
"Yes. Everyone believes in it, but no one has ever seen it."