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American products fuel Monmouth growth

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Monmouth's John Bonforte Sr. (left) and his son John Bonforte Jr.
Photo by RPN photo by Chris Sweeney Monmouth's John Bonforte Sr. (left) and his son John Bonforte Jr. pose at the Gasketing and Converting Expo in Orlando, Fla.

As many companies go global, Monmouth Rubber & Plastics Corp. keeps it simple.

Think local, act local.

Headquartered in Long Branch, N.J., the firm strongly believes in buying U.S.-made products. That philosophy drove the company to develop Durafoam N231 in 2012. The neoprene closed-cell material serves as a market replacement for Rubatex Corp.'s G231N, which was taken off the market when Rubatex closed its site in Bedford, Va. in 2010.

G231N was one of the main materials used to make wetsuits in the U.S. John Bonforte Sr., Monmouth's founder and general manager, said companies had to go overseas to find equivalent materials when the material was taken off the market.

“Customers that were using G231N for unique applications couldn't find it anywhere on the planet,” Bonforte said at the Gasketing/Converting Expo in Orlando, Fla. “We developed an equal for G231N. We were able to take the chemical process and give it the physicals of the gas blowing process.”

Bonforte started in the rubber industry working for Rubatex in 1961, which he said was the largest closed-cell manufacturer in the world at the time. He said he helped develop a bonded closed cell material for the construction industry in 1963. A year later, he founded Monmouth. The firm has been located in Long Branch for the last 40 years.

In the years since Rubatex closed, Monmouth has developed equivalent products to address the hole in the market for manufacturers. However, Bonforte stressed his firm simply was not piggybacking off of Rubatex.

“The fact that Rubatex went out of business wasn't a free ride for us to grow,” Bonforte said. “We had to have credible products.”

Never say no

Fifty years after its founding, Monmouth is experiencing strong growth. According to Bonforte, the firm doubled its sales from 2009-12.

Bonforte said sustained success is a trial and error process.

“I remember hearing when we first started in the business, the definition of professional is someone who knows what can't be done,” Bonforte said. “So we tried everything. I usually said yes rather than no, and then you stumble through it and figure out a way to solve the problem.”

Some experiments worked, others didn't, but even among the failures, Bonforte remained committed to uncovering every possible solution. He doesn't believe in punishing employees who are unable to bring an experiment to fruition. In fact, he recruits people who aren't afraid to fail.

“If you only reward when you succeed and punish when you fail, you take the safe road,” Bonforte said. “We were too small to know any better. We've tried a lot of different things.”

Knowledge is something Bonforte isn't afraid to share. Monmouth has a technical support program—Ask John—where anyone in the industry, customer or not, can call Bonforte 24/7 and ask for help on a related product. It doesn't even have to be a Monmouth product.

He also seeks knowledge and consistently defers to those who are versed on a particular problem.

“We knew what we knew, and we knew what we didn't know,” Bonforte said. “We went out and formed relationships with people smarter than we are.”

Family affair

Bonforte said the relationships he has made and the family he has established have helped shape the core values of the company.

“I got into the business and related to people. I didn't read a lot of business books,” Bonforte said. “We just took our family values, and we like to think that became the human resources for the company.”

Bonforte and his wife, Barbara, have four children—John Jr., Kelly, Scott and Kristin—and 10 grandchildren. Each of their kids have worked in the business from the time they were 5 years old.

John Bonforte Jr. is the firm's president and chief operating officer. The senior Bonforte ceded ownership to his son two years ago, but stresses that he will remain involved with the company for the rest of his life.

“He has an appreciation of people that's probably better than I have, and that's the key in taking over a business,” Bonforte said. “Statistics say that small privately owned companies don't survive the second generation of ownership 70 percent of the time. We have.”

Scott Bonforte and Kristin run the family's other business—Fa Nagle The Bagel, a grocery store in Long Branch. Their other daughter, Kelly, is a teacher.

“Our children, and my wife, are the unsung heroes of what we do,” Bonforte said. “We've been able to run our business but also devote time to our church and our family. In a healthy society, that's what it's about.”

One of Bonforte's grandchildren, Jessica, started working with Monmouth when she was in third grade. Now 17, Bonforte said the experience taught her things she wouldn't have otherwise learned as a typical elementary schoolgirl.

“One of the things I noticed early on was when she's in that business atmosphere, she acts like an adult,” Bonforte said. “There's no peer pressure to be anything less than that. That's a precious experience she'll take with her in life.”

Those family values extend to Monmouth's employees. Bonforte said the firm's office manager, Jo Ann Buonomo, has been with the company for more than 38 years. Her daughter, Jenna, came to work for the business as its sales person about 18 months ago.

Versatility is key in securing a position at Monmouth.

“We're good at multi-tasking,” Bonforte said. “Everybody has to have a whole rainbow of things they do. We're not into specialists.”

When the firm's quality manager, Pablo Rojo, had to return to Bolivia for a couple of years, Bonforte said Monmouth kept him on the payroll. He had a job waiting for him when he returned.

“He knows the kind of family that he works with. That's the key,” Bonforte said. “Now not all of our stories are that profound, but we couldn't get someone more devoted. That's the essence of our company.”