Closed cell rubber foam manufacturer Rubatex International L.L.C. is no different than other U.S. rubber manufacturers in that labor is a key factor in its cost program.
"It's really the most important part of that element,'' said Larry Brookshier, Bedford, Va.-based Rubatex executive vice president. "We think of labor as a key investment for us. We need to find quality people.''
While some companies seek low-cost options abroad, Rubatex believes hiring good workers-and paying a bit more on the wage scale-saves it money in the long run.
"We place high value on getting the right individuals. But it's not always easy to get people in the glamorous world of rubber manufacturing,'' Brookshier joked. "The overall cost makeup is high, with rising material and energy costs. We feel good people save us from those other costs.''
A flexible work force
When Rubatex reorganized itself in 2004 after the bankruptcy of parent firm RBX Corp., it needed a pool of older, experienced people to help build what was essentially a start-up operation, Brookshier said.
The longtime business, dating back to 1934 in the U.S., had closed its doors in April of 2004 after RBX filed for Chapter 11 for the second time in four years. The company's problems had many roots, but a major one was a 1999 strike by more than 400 workers in Bedford represented by United Steelworkers Local 240.
German rubber firm Sedo Chemicals Neoprene GmbH bought the Rubatex business and reopened it in October 2004. Since that time, the company has bolstered its work force to a lean 51 employees, and relations between the workers and management are light years beyond what they were prior to the labor dispute.
Rubatex's resurgence has been led by its veterans but the company is growing on the strength of its youth. "We have a good mix of young employees and experienced people,'' said Joe Lequick, Rubatex's chief financial officer. "Probably most importantly, the work force we have is flexible,'' he said. "They can run anything.''
Brookshier said the firm's workers do a lot of cross-training and the cooperation they give is excellent. The company looks for people who have the ability to learn a diverse skill set and experience the company's processes from top to bottom. Someone running a press could turn into a sales or technical manager, he theorized, depending on their aptitude and desire.
"We want our people to understand the product, the flow of the material through the plant,'' he said. "We don't necessarily need a sales person to run a mixer, but he should understand how it operates.''
Rubatex also trains its employees in customer service, whether they come in direct contact with the customer or not, he said. "We think it's important our people understand the basics of quality and service,'' he said. "They need to see that big black block of rubber and where it ends up, and most importantly how the customer uses it.''
In the long run, Brookshier-a 44-year Rubatex veteran-believes he and the older generation are building the next generation of company workers and leaders. "We want the employees to advance from within-they're our future customer service and sales people, our supervisors and managers,'' he said. "They have a good work ethic, and we value them highly. We think they're coming along well.''
An advantageous venue
Rubatex is well-positioned to do business from its 175,000-sq.-ft. Bedford manufacturing plant, Brookshier said-"on the doorstep of its customer base.''
A growing portion of its revenues-now more than 10 percent-is to overseas locations-and Rubatex is making shipments of its rubber buns to far-reaching places such as Russia and Turkey. But its key market is domestic, and the company believes it can service the U.S. market better than those who import, Brookshier said.
One ongoing problem of producing in the U.S., however, is energy costs. State and federal government programs attempting to help defray those costs look good politically, but they aren't very meaningful in terms of dollars, he said.
"We're grappling with electric deregulation,'' Lequick said. "Our business consumes a lot of it.''
Like many rubber companies successfully making their products in the U.S., Rubatex also relies on high-end niches in several markets-including automotive, footwear, recreational, transportation, medical and general industrial. Keeping away from low-cost commodities sounds prudent, but Brookshier said it comes with its own set of challenges.
"There used to be fewer offerings and fewer requirements for the customer,'' he said. "Now, if there is a particular problem, it's going to be unique to one customer, and we find ourselves daily in problem-solving situations. We're quickly finding that one size does not fit all.''
The demand for more high-quality products is what could drive more business to customers offshore, Brookshier said. "We're exporting a growing number of high-end products, for performance applications designed to do something special,'' he said.
For example, Rubatex has a fire-stop material unique to them-as far as he is aware-that is generating some interest in Europe, Brookshier said. "It's expensive, but for many applications the customer is going to purchase on performance, not cost.''
That's why it's worth the effort for Rubatex to seek out the right people who understand and absorb the company's dedication to quality and service, he said.
"Whether you're manufacturing in the U.S. or somewhere else, you have to look for the best skilled labor possible,'' Brookshier said. "Labor might be available, but do they have the skill level you want or need? We sometimes go through a lot of toads to find a prince, and it takes time, but we've been able to keep the best. We put a priority on it, we pay a little more for it, and it's worked out well.''