I just love small rubber product companies. Doesn't everyone?
In the rubber universe, the small maker of rubber goods is the underdog, and it is human nature to favor the little guy. Maybe not so much if you are the alpha dog, but other than those chosen few, sure, people are all for those who fight against the odds.
This issue includes a section on small rubber product companies, and that got me to contemplating the manufacturers I know that fit that description. They are core players in this industry, and their struggles to survive and prosper in many ways differ from that of the giants of the business.
The vast number of companies in the rubber goods sector are small rubber shops, often employing few workers. Collectively, they employ half the work force in the rubber product business.
Life never has been easy for these companies. Today it's different, and more difficult than ever.
In the past many of these firms started as job shops. They operated in the shadows of the big companies, doing short runs, making items their larger competitors ignored.
As these smaller players grew, they developed their own niches, their own expertise and reputations. They'd hang in despite higher costs because they couldn't get discounts from suppliers, since volume rules, yet still had to dance to the tune of large, demanding customers.
Look at the auto-related small rubber manufacturer, for example. If Detroit takes a stick to a Tier 1 supplier, often in the form of demands for discounts, the pain is passed down the supply chain to the small rubber processor, too.
When auto companies cut their supplier base, and shift production abroad, the small rubber subcontractors feel the ax, too. And when vehicle sales tank, like they have the last couple of years, a number of longstanding members of rubber manufacturing fall.
A formula for a small manufacturer to survive today, more than ever, is to have a niche no one else can fill. If a company has a unique product, it has a chance to hold at bay the customer's desire to source that business from a lower-cost foreign location.
The small rubber processor does maintain a geographical advantage. If it serves a customer in North America, being “local” can give it an edge against foreign competition in service and shipping costs.
Successful small rubber manufacturers are flexible and technically proficient, and jump on opportunities that arise but strive to avoid large debt. There are fewer of them today than yesterday, but their entrepreneurial nature ensures there still will be many of them here tomorrow.
Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News.