Bottom line, rubber groups reflect the industry in which they exist.
That means some of these regional trade associations are failing, others are merging and all are adapting to survive in a business undergoing massive upheaval.
Today there are 23 rubber groups-subdivisions of the ACS Rubber Division, itself a division of the American Chemical Society-that are platforms for technical meetings, social events and educational activities. Soon, there will be fewer.
The Philadelphia and New York rubber groups are well into merger talks. ``With any kind of luck, it will be completed in January,'' said Wayne Anderson of VMC Group. He's the alternate director of the New York group and represented both organizations at an Oct. 12 meeting of rubber group directors during the Rubber Division convention in Cincinnati.
That follows the 2005 merger of the 77-year-old Akron Rubber Group and the 40-year-old Northeast Ohio Rubber Group, creating the Ohio Rubber and Plastics Group. Other combinations are being considered, and representatives of the rubber groups said circumstances decree they will occur. In some cases, they said, the alternative is death by non-participation.
``People who are fighting to keep some of the rubber groups alive are just kidding themselves,'' said Ralph Graff, onetime Rubber Division chairman, retired from Du Pont. ``Northern California and Buffalo-there generally isn't any rubber manufacturing there anymore. There's not much of a base of support in manufacturing in New England, either.''
Rubber groups in Northern California and Buffalo, as well as Southern Ohio and Washington, D.C., folded in recent years. And what about New England, the birthplace of rubber manufacturing in America? Don Parsons, DDP Consulting Services and vice chairman of the Energy Rubber Group, gives his read on the situation.
``The reality is you no longer need five rubber groups in the New England area. Chicago and Wisconsin will probably merge, too. Other groups will do well, others not-it depends where you are and what you're doing now.''
A venue for networking
The Energy Rubber Group stands out as an organization that is in the right place at the right time, one of the more successful, and certainly unique, groups operating today. It's the only rubber group based on an industry segment-the energy sector-rather than a geographical region. And it happens to be in Texas, the center of the energy business in this country, and has many participants from Louisiana and Oklahoma.
``Our membership comes from 39 countries,'' Parsons said. ``We have about 500 paid members, got about 900 on our mailing list.''
The ERG's membership differs from its peers, too. Parsons said about a third are from molding shops, a third from tool makers and a third suppliers. Traditionally suppliers to the rubber industry make up a large percentage of the membership at rubber groups and often serve as officers.
Suppliers are vital to the existence of many rubber groups, according to Jim Campbell of American Chemet Corp. He will be the group's chairman next year.
``I belong to the Southern, Blue Ridge, Akron, Fort Wayne and West Michigan groups. If you didn't have the vendors at most of these groups, you wouldn't have a meeting,'' he said.
Larry Strauss of Rubber Processing Management L.L.C., a consultant, vice chairman of the Detroit Rubber Group and 2001 chairman who will reprise that role next year, said suppliers show up in force when the group has social events. ``When we do a golf outing or a Christmas party, about 70 percent of the people who are paying are materials suppliers,'' he said.
The rubber group's social activities and technical programs have a lot of merit for the individual, Strauss said. ``It's all about networking. I'm self-employed, and being in sales and consulting, networking and meeting people is very important. You've got to meet people, and that's something I like about the rubber groups.''
Campbell worries that companies today don't recognize the importance of networking. ``One of these days my boss and everyone else's boss is going to be some 30-year-old who will say, `what are we getting out of this,' because they don't understand networking.''
Getting down to business
Social events-ranging from the ubiquitous golf outing to fishing at West Michigan Rubber Group and soccer games at the affiliate Brazilian Association of Rubber Technology-are big networking events. But the heart of most of the rubber group's activities is the technical meeting.
For example, the Energy Rubber Group had a three-day educational symposium and technical meeting in September that drew 120 participants. The first part covered the oilfield, while the tech session had eight papers covering technical and business topics.
The Detroit Rubber Group holds two tech meetings a year, but the fall one-which included a speaker from General Motors Corp.-had a bigger audience, about 40-50 people. The Chicago Rubber Group had a good showing at its last tech meeting, while the Philadelphia group brought speakers from custom mixers, a tool shop and a mold release company in a program geared for the small rubber shop.
Anderson of the Philadelphia and New York groups said a small exhibition held in conjunction with a technical meeting proved to be popular.
``At the mini expo, we drew 75 to 100 people,'' Anderson said. ``We did get good participation from many of the small rubber companies in our area that don't normally send anybody to the rubber groups.''
And then they learned a lesson, Anderson said. ``For this year we went back to the old tried and true format, and guess what: We had 24 members show up for the fall technical session.''
At times rubber groups have problems getting good, reliable speakers. The Rubber Division-which provides the rubber groups with non-profit status, liability insurance, a booth at meeting expos and other benefits-has created an online speakers bureau for the groups to share names and information.
It hasn't been a success, according to Ed Miller, executive director of the division.
A representative of each rubber group is supposed to electronically supply the information, but they aren't doing so.
Is a merger the answer for a shrinking rubber group? It's worked pretty well in the Akron/Cleveland area, according to Ernie Puskas of Littlern Corp., who represents the Ohio Rubber and Plastics Group.
``We were in a situation where the people running the Northeast Ohio Rubber Group and the Akron Rubber Group, the officers and directors, were the same people. We were at the point where we had 14-16 people putting together meetings for 30 people,'' he said.
That didn't make sense, so the groups merged. ``We do pretty well now, about 70-90 people a meeting,'' Puskas said.
The NEORG, made up primarily of people on the non-tire side of the rubber industry, actually splintered off from the ARG, which was dominated by the Akron tire makers. The Ohio R&P group meets alternately in Akron and in Cleveland suburbs.
The ARG at one time was a very large group, but the departure of tire manufacturing in Akron took its toll. Puskas said he remembered when Goodyear alone would send 100 people to a tech meeting.
``Now we're happy to get three or four to come,'' he said.
The Chicago Rubber Group is another that has suffered from the consolidation and decline in rubber product manufacturing in the region.
``We had more than 30 companies at one time,'' said Carl Caputo of American Chemet, a director of the CRG. ``Many of those 30 companies are now part of the few in the area that we have left. There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions.''
Caputo said the Chicago group generally draws technical people as participants at its sessions.
``I think it would be a stronger group if we got more upper management people at meetings,'' he said.
He said one of the problems at the Akron Rubber Group-one of 14 that he has been or is a member of-was it never really got the support of upper or middle management from the tire companies.