(From the Dec. 12, 2011, issue of Rubber & Plastics News))
HASTINGS, Mich.—For 50 years, Douglas A. DeCamp has personally greeted the workers at Flexfab Horizons International Inc., the company he founded and which he still serves as chairman and CEO.
When there were just a few workers on the shop floor, DeCamp would go up to their work stations every day to say hello. Now, with 450 workers at the firm's Hastings, Mich., plant (with another 400 to 450 at the Flexfab facilities in the United Kingdom, Brazil and China), he is forced to cut his greetings to once a year, on the anniversaries of their joining the company.
That sort of personal touch is very typical of Doug DeCamp, according to John L. Price, retired Flexfab executive vice president and chief operating officer, who still works as a strategic planning consultant for the company.
“His greatest strength is that he's just a highly ethical person, from both a design standpoint and a personal standpoint,” Price said. “He's a self-trained engineer and designer who started this business dead broke and out of work. He's a very practical engineer and a very practical, down-to-earth people person.”
For being such an ethical, down-to-earth man—as well as running a highly successful manufacturer of elastomeric products serving the aerospace, automotive, heavy truck, food, marine, military and other markets—DeCamp has been named Rubber & Plastics News' 2011 Rubber Industry Executive of the Year.
A man at home
Hastings—a town of 7,000 not far from Grand Rapids—is the city DeCamp has called home for most of his life.
Having no money for college after graduating from high school, DeCamp went to work for a local company that made fishing rods and reels and various elastomeric products.
As a technical product designer, DeCamp was largely self-taught, although he gives much credit to the late Ken Oestreicher, his mentor when he first started. “Ken was the one who made me more focused on perfection and quality,” he said.
Life and work at the fishing rod plant came to an abrupt end, however, when the firm went bankrupt. Another company bought the fishing rod portion of the business and moved it to North Carolina, DeCamp said. But he and Bill Pierce, a friend from work, had no desire to move south.
“Bill and I were both Midwestern boys, and we decided to stay and start a business here,” he said. In Hastings, they bought a deserted 7,000-sq.-ft. store and transformed it into Flexfab in 1961.
Today, the building boasts 150,000 square feet. “Bill Pierce was marketing, and I was design,” DeCamp said of himself and his late partner.
Flexfab and its founders soon won a reputation for innovative designs, high product quality and fair dealing. Price discovered all three qualities firsthand when, as an executive for Aeroquip Corp., he approached DeCamp with a design problem involving silicone hose.
“At that time, we had no experience with silicone rubber, and so he helped us,” Price said. “When we told him we had to manufacture the product ourselves, with no benefit for him, he didn't bat an eyelash but helped us anyway. That is very unusual behavior from a competitor, I think.”
It was so unusual, in fact, that Price came to work for DeCamp in 1995 and stayed with him until his retirement in 2001.
Today, Flexfab offers an enormous variety of highly engineered elastomeric products.
Its current website has sections describing the company's offerings in aerospace products, automotive products, dairy and food grade hose, extruded tubing and profiles, heavy-duty truck parts, industrial/specialty products, marine products, military/government and ventilation ducting.
There also is a separate diesel emissions section for original equipment engineers and designers.
For its 50th-anniversary open house July 30, Flexfab prepared an eight-page brochure describing the company's history and philosophy.
“While Flexfab uses many polymers to meet customers' needs, its earliest success was with silicone rubber,” the brochure said. “Mastery of this material made Flexfab the first choice for customers with problems needing flexibility in extremes of cold and heat.”
According to the brochure, Flexfab's first product in 1961 was a bladder used to manufacture helicopter blades.
In 1963, the company won its first U.S. government contract, to sew heating and air conditioning hose. Three years later—the year Flexfab received its first order from Boeing Aircraft, for a part Flexfab still makes for the company—Flexfab first reached $1 million in annual total sales.
Meanwhile, there were little triumphs, such as in 1968, when Hastings native Gordon Johncock drove the Indianapolis 500 in a car with Flexfab hose under the hood. (Johncock went on to win the Indy 500 in 1973 and 1982).
Today, Flexfab has total annual sales of $114 million. To serve worldwide customers, it has opened three overseas facilities:
— Flexfab Europe Ltd. in Nottingham, England, which was launched in 1998 as an engineering, sales and service point for European customers;
— Flexfab South America Ltda. in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which opened in 1999 to serve Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and other South American customers; and
— Flexfab China in Dongguan, China, which opened in 2006 to provide access to the Chinese market and provide low-cost products to customers in other parts of the world.
Subsidiary Flexfab L.L.C. previously operated a plant in Juarez, Mexico, but closed it about a year and a half ago, transferring some of the production to Hastings and some to China. “It became much too dangerous to send our people there,” DeCamp said.
The brochure opens with the company's creed, which is in four parts titled “Value for Customers,” “Quality of Life for Employees,” “Service for Community” and “Benefit for Shareholders.”
DeCamp is serious when he stresses service to the community in Flexfab's brochure.
He is one of the founders of the Barry Community Foundation, established in July 1995 as a partnership of endowed funds from individuals and organizations.
The foundation provides grants to support charitable, scientific, literary and educational programs in Hastings and surrounding Barry County.
“These are grants not to fund ongoing projects, but to get things started,” DeCamp said.
Besides the Barry County Foundation, DeCamp also served on the board of its predecessor, the Thornapple Foundation.
He was on the board of the Hastings City Bank for 27 years and of Hastings Manufacturing Co. for 17, according to Price.
“I like to stay focused on the local area,” DeCamp said. “I like to give back to the community, to the area where I was born and raised.”
DeCamp and his wife Margaret celebrated their 54th anniversary this November. They have three sons and two daughters; their sons, James, Kenneth and Matthew, all work for Flexfab. In 2004, Matthew DeCamp was named president and CEO of Flexfab L.L.C.
After 50 years, Douglas DeCamp remains active in Flexfab. Earlier this year he and Margaret traveled to England and China to greet Flexfab employees there, and at the time of this interview were getting ready to fly to Brazil.
When asked what advice he would give young entrepreneurs, DeCamp said, “I would tell them to be committed to the work they're doing, to put forth an effort and to stay focused on what they want to accomplish. If they don't do that—well, I found out what happens then, when the company I first worked for went bankrupt.”