Perhaps more so than any of the businesses coming out from under the RBX Corp. umbrella following its breakup, the team at the Rubatex plant in Bedford had the most to prove.
After all, the name, one of the most respected in the industry, gave the people there a stepping stone to recovery.
But there was the reputation of quality and customer service-so badly damaged in its later years of operation-to repair. And a strike that hurt RBX's business in 1999-2000 took place at the Bedford site. How would labor relations factor into the rebuilding of the Rubatex business and that name?
The new leaders of Rubatex-now known as Rubatex International L.L.C.-kept it simple. They went back to basics.
``We had to start over. We had to prove ourselves,'' said Larry Brookshier, Rubatex executive vice president.
A new partner
When RBX was in its darkest days and the future of the bankrupt company-and its businesses-was in doubt, the people at Rubatex Corp. just wanted a chance to survive. A management team led by Brookshier-a 42-year Rubatex veteran who was plant manager in Bedford under RBX-hoped to find a partner, an entity that could help keep the company alive.
Luckily-and Brookshier would be the first to call it a ``godsend''-a German rubber firm called Sedo Chemicals Neoprene GmbH was searching for an American partner to mesh with its operations in Europe. The two sides met and felt the fit was a good one. Each company could help the other in their core markets and present new opportunities for each other.
Sedo was the sole serious bidder when the case came before the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the summer of 2004, and it couldn't have come at a better time: RBX had shut down the Bedford operation in April, and there was pessimism that it wouldn't reopen.
However, a dispute with the union, United Steelworkers Local 240, over successorship language in its contract with Rubatex put the deal in jeopardy. Sedo wanted to terminate the contract and work out a new deal with the workers, but the union objected.
Finally, Local 240 members in late July approved a new five-year agreement, paving the way for the rejuvenation and retooling of Rubatex.
A fresh approach
Before Sedo and the Rubatex managers dove into the substantial challenge ahead of them, they had to decide what kind of company they wanted it to be. Their plan, while not easy, was simple: do the one thing we do best, and do it right.
Rubatex manufactures rubber buns for a wide variety of end products using the closed-cell technology it built its reputation on, dating back to the 1930s. Brookshier said the focus is to be the leader in its segment of the industry and have a good, solid business with a reputation for high quality.
``We want to be the provider of choice within our customer base, not just have high volumes,'' he said. ``The best isn't always the biggest.''
Rubatex's plan also called for a leaner structure with a strong focus on quality and customer service. The company once was the largest employer in the Bedford area, with as many as 1,400 on the payroll working in sites spanning 1 million square feet. Back when USWA Local 240 went on strike in 1999, Rubatex had about 425 hourly workers; today it has a total of 40 employees, including the managers, in a 175,000-sq.-ft. plant.
Being small, with no corporate structure, helps keep the company flexible, Brookshier said. ``We think we're more accessible to the customer, and we won't lose any time in getting to a problem.''
As for providing consistent, outstanding customer service and quality, the two go hand in hand, Brookshier said. But reselling the company to customers who didn't get the best service or quality in the recent past was-and is-a difficult task, he said.
``It was really like establishing a new company, even with the name and the familiar faces,'' Brookshier said. ``We asked each potential customer what problems they might have had and addressed them. We had to re-establish ourselves.'' The company's old-to-new customer ratio is about 80-to-20, he said.
The new company also affirmed it had no corporate or financial connection with RBX and strived to rebuild any relationships hurt by bad experiences with the former parent company, he said.
Rubatex President Claus Goyer-who along with Sedo Managing Director Roland Loch was the driving force from Sedo behind the Rubatex acquisition-said he doesn't think it's a bad thing for the company to reclaim something it feels it has lost, like a customer relationship. ``You have to work hard to get back in touch with customers, and you have to continue to earn that trust back.''
Goyer also felt it was important to let people know that Rubatex is back to stay and Sedo isn't just a financial backer of the operation that will exit the business when it's made enough money.
``We're in this for the long term, we're going for the challenge,'' he said. ``We're not designed for quick success. We're trying to re-establish old trusted relationships and form some new partnerships and alliances. That takes time.''
Jim Mott, the company's chief financial officer who worked with RBX for several years before joining the staff in Bedford, echoed Goyer's long-range thinking. ``We have to be disciplined and stick with our plan,'' he said. ``It doesn't happen overnight. It takes experience and a lot of work.''
`Our biggest asset'
Perhaps the best piece of evidence that Rubatex is back to stay is in how it has assembled its personnel. It is composed of a combination of Rubatex veterans, experienced manufacturing people and hungry young workers.
Only the best of the experienced work force was asked to come back from the previous Rubatex incarnation, and all the new hires came with a recommendation, Brookshier said.
``We're looking for the right fit, people who want to be team players,'' he said.
Rubatex doesn't use manpower services and insists on training people its own way. Most workers do more than one job, and all go through a customer service training course and understand what a product they make is used for after it leaves the plant.
``We want people we can trust, who know what the customer is looking for in quality,'' Goyer said. ``We think it will pay off in the end.''
The short-term results have been very positive. Of the first $3 million of product shipped in the first year, not one order was returned, Brookshier said. ``We think that's unheard of,'' he said. ``We can count on one hand the problems we've had with customers, and it's because of the pride everyone here has.''
James Overstreet, a longtime Rubatex veteran and the current vice president of manufacturing, sees more of the day-to-day occurrences in the plant than anyone, and he's very impressed with what he's viewed so far.
``We have an outstanding work force,'' he said. ``It's a good mixture of qualified vets and new people who are learning from them. It's been a long time, but it's fun to come to work again.''
Any concerns about the lingering effects of the labor disputes from the past have been erased, Brookshier said. Communication has been a key to that, and management has kept people informed about what's happening at regular meetings, he said.
Every time there's been a need for overtime, volunteers have come forward to handle it, he said.
``We have a good relationship with the union, and have had no major disagreements,'' he said. ``We ask for input and feedback and try to accommodate the workers on shifts and time off as much as possible. It's worked out fine. They're our biggest asset.''
Back on track
After one year of operation as a new company, Rubatex is slightly ahead of schedule in meeting its goals for the period, Brookshier said. Year two should be no different, he said. ``Barring anything unforeseen, things are solid. We're on plan.''
Among its accomplishments in the first year have been the refurbishment of older equipment at the plant; rebuilding the water cooling system; adding a new pressure pump for the gassing chambers; establishing a research and development lab and machine/maintenance shops; and becoming ISO 9001:2000 certified as of June.
The company's production capability includes 25 presses, four mixing lines, 10 gassing chambers, three extrusion lines, two slitters and three tubers. Rubatex often invites customers to see the operation, and they haven't been disappointed with the facility or the experience, Overstreet said.
``We place ourselves under the microscope with everything we provide, and so far we've managed to meet the test,'' Brookshier said.
This past summer, Rubatex finalized an agreement with rubber fabricator American Rubber Products to be its sole supplier of closed-cell foam materials. William Hewes, ARP vice president and general manager, said his company was impressed with Rubatex's processes, people and products.
``It's a significant agreement,'' Hewes said. ``Our tech people will be working closely together. It's really more of a partnership.''
The alliance between the two companies was set up to serve the automotive market, but Hewes foresees collaboration on projects for other markets as well.
Rubatex sees the pact with ARP as a boost to its legitimacy. ``They work at a high standard and so do we,'' Brookshier said. ``It should help provide a strong growth curve for us for years.''
The company's plan for the next five years and beyond is to expand. It wants steady growth in various segments such as automotive, footwear, recreational, transportation, medical and general industrial.
It also has its eye on some niche areas, such as performance materials for the aerospace industry and other specialty markets. The company isn't a low-cost provider, but believes it is more important to be the leader in quality to keep customers coming back, Goyer said.
The braintrust at Rubatex has learned from the past, and won't build its business too fast or too broadly. In five years, employment may rise to the 75-80 range, but no more, Brookshier said. And the company will stick to its core business and products, he said.
Most importantly, Rubatex won't forget about the customers: the ones who have been loyal to Rubatex, others who may have left in recent years and the new ones who haven't been contacted yet. Brookshier said he is proud of how the company mended fences with its past, and though it still is a long way from being satisfied, there's true reason for optimism.
``We're constantly looking to revitalize our customer base, and we want to show we have staying power,'' he said. ``If they don't like a product, they won't pay for it. We'll do what it takes to make it right.''
Goyer likes what he sees, too, and he's enjoying the challenge. And having that famous name behind you doesn't hurt. ``RBX is gone, we're here, and there's a lot more positive going on here than negative,'' he said. ``It's hard to create a brand name like a Coca-Cola, but we've got it. And we're still alive.''
* * *
Rubatex closed-cell rubber products, introduced in Germany near the turn of the 20th century, are made in the U.S. for the first time. Dudley Roberts and Fredrick Peal start Rubatex Products Inc. in Baltimore.
Rubatex Products moves its operations to the former Bedford Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Bedford, Va.
Salta Corp. buys the company, now officially known as Virginia Rubatex Corp.
Great American Industries Inc. purchases the company and renames it the Rubatex Division.
Sept. 1, 1962
The Bedford business becomes Rubatex Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Great American.
Rubatex is sold to the Koffman family.
Dec. 14, 1990
New York investment firm AEA Investors Inc. and a management group team up to buy control of Rubatex Corp. and the custom mixing operations of Empire Chem Inc. The holding company created to control the Rubatex and Empire Chem units is called RBX Holdings Inc. RBX comprises Rubatex's Bedford unit and subsidiaries Groendyk Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Buchanan, Va.; Rubatex Polymer Inc. in Middlefield, Ohio; and Universal Rubber Co. in Dawsonville, Ga., as well as former Empire Chem units Midwest Rubber Custom Mixing Corp. in Barberton, Ohio, and Hoover-Hanes Rubber Custom Mixing Corp. in Tallapoosa, Ga.
Rubatex agrees to acquire Halstead Corp., a flexible foam rubber business, from Halstead Industries Inc. The purchase includes plants in Colt, Ark., and Conover, N.C.
Oct. 16, 1995
American Industrial Partners, another New York investment group, purchases RBX Holdings Inc. from AEA Investors.
RBX-now officially known as RBX Corp.-announces it will purchase the Ensolite closed-cell foam division from Uniroyal Technology Corp.
RBX announces it will close the Universal Rubber plant in Dawsonville and merge the operations with Rubatex Polymer in Middlefield. The new combined company will be called Universal Polymer & Rubber Inc.
Sept. 25, 1998
RBX sells Universal Polymer & Rubber to Janna Industries Ltd.
Sept. 12, 1999
United Steelworkers Local 240 strikes at the Rubatex plant in Bedford.
Dec. 7, 2000
RBX and its subsidiaries file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing a lack of cash flow to service debt.
March 27, 2001
Local 240 members ratify new 31/2-year deal in Bedford.
Aug. 27, 2001
RBX exits Chapter 11, armed with a reorganization plan designed to reduce long-term debt. The company closes its Midwest Rubber site in Barberton as part of the bankruptcy agreement, and it places its remaining manufacturing businesses under one corporate umbrella-where previously each was a separate company-called RBX Industries Inc.
Early February 2004
RBX Industries announces it will close its Bedford, Tallapoosa and Colt plants in April and exit the custom mixing business, citing financial losses at the sites, overcapacity in the industry and general economic weakness.
February 24, 2004
RBX Corp. and RBX Industries file for Chapter 11 protection, citing its inability to ``operate in a consistently profitable manner since our emergence from our previous bankruptcy.''
RBX sells its Bondtex recycled rubber product line, based in Bedford, to Rubberite Corp. and Cypress Sponge Rubber Products Inc.
Armacell L.L.C. purchases the equipment, facilities and other assets at three RBX foam sites-Colt, the Ensolite factory in Conover and its Oletex closed-cell polyolefin foam plant in South Holland, Ill. The total selling price is more than $26 million.
July 8, 2004
Robbins L.L.C. acquires RBX's Hoover- Hanes custom mixing operation in Tallapoosa for $1.75 million.
July 23, 2004
USWA Local 240 reaches a labor settlement with Sedo Chemicals Neoprene GmbH, paving the way for the German rubber maker to purchase the Rubatex closed-cell rubber foam business in Bedford. Sedo closes the deal Sept. 27 for $1.1 million
Aug. 16, 2004
Magnifoam Technology International Inc. obtains bankruptcy court approval to buy RBX's Groendyk silicone product business, including its Buchanan, Va., manufacturing facility, for about $4 million.
Oct. 1, 2004
The new Rubatex operation, called Rubatex International L.L.C., reopens its doors.