ASHTABULA, Ohio—When Donald Chaplin started working at Grand River Rubber & Plastics Co. in 1992, he simply was looking for a way to support him and his future wife, Tiffany. A long-term career wasn't in the picture.
He was 19, just out of high school and lacking in experience. He initially landed a position in Grand River's cure room.
Fast forward almost 22 years on a twisting career road, and Chaplin now sits in the top spot of the Ashtabula-based manufacturer of flat belts, cut washers and tubular gaskets. He was named president of the company Jan. 1, replacing Richard D. Selip, who helped form the firm in 1976 with two partners and has held the presidency since 1987.
Co-owners Selip and Joseph A. Misinec, vice president of the firm, plan to retire in March.
It doesn't happen very often when someone starts at the bottom of a company and climbs all the way to the top when he reaches his early 40s, but Chaplin is proof it actually can happen.
Finding his way
Chaplin grew up on Cleveland's west side and after completing high school, he moved to Conneaut, Ohio—located near Ashtabula—in 1990.
“At the age of 19, I was just looking to find my way and support myself and my wife-to-be,” he recalled. The couple wanted to get married, but his future father-in-law explained firmly he needed steady, full-time employment before that could happen.
“As fate would have it, my father-in-law knew John Rettger, the plant manager of Ashtabula-based Grand River,” Chaplin said. “He (Rettger) ended up also knowing my parents some 20 years prior to that. He thought I was worth a chance and hired me.”
Chaplin was brought on board to work in the company's cure room in May and was married in December 1992. Today, the couple has three children: Cooper, Shania and Isabella.
He said he went about his job assignments as he did everything, including sports throughout his youth: totally focused on doing his best no matter which department he was assigned to or what position he held.
After two years, that strong work ethic led to a promotion to the firm's finishing department. He eventually ascended to the shipping department, where he demonstrated his true potential. “There were several opportunities for improvement and growth in the position,” he said.
Selip began to notice the intelligent, hard-working employee. Chaplin eventually became the head shipper, Selip said.
“In that position he interacted more with office personnel and sales,” Selip said. “That is a position that allowed for some creativity and professional growth. It was also a place where a person can be noticed by being on top of what is going on and meeting customer needs.”
Chaplin and Selip started to develop a strong work relationship when Chaplin moved from shipping into manufacturing as a supervisor. That's when it became apparent “he was a bright, driven young man who was meant to do much more with his life,” according to Selip.
In 2001, Chaplin faced the biggest decision of his career. “I had a serious job opportunity with another company,” he said. “I had a discussion with Ric Selip, and due to our relationship and how well I had been treated at Grand River, I committed to him to stay as long as he did, at that point having no idea what the future holds.”
Selip recalls a couple of times when Chaplin had a chance to move on “and we talked about what was possible at GRRP.”
“It wasn't so much keeping him from a better opportunity but more about the opportunity at hand,” Selip said. “If I feel an employee is moving onto a position where he will improve his lot in life, I will do everything in my power to help the person succeed. But if I'm not convinced that life will be better elsewhere, I will fight to keep them.”
Later, Chaplin began expanding his knowledge of the business world by enrolling in a program at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. He earned an Executive MBA—with a focus on executive leadership—in May 2013.
His previous position with Grand River was senior vice president, where he was charged with management of the entire organization, reporting directly to Selip and Misinec.
Now, as president, he's faced with the challenge of leading the employee-owned company into a new era. His biggest advantage, he said, is that the firm has a solid foundation created by the efforts and philosophy of the co-owners, who, although they plan to retire from Grand River in March, will remain with the company on the board of directors.
They had sold their shares to an employee stock ownership plan trust, which holds the firm's shares on behalf of Grand River's employees, in January 2011. The transaction was completed without bank debt. Misinec and Selip hold the note, and four of the six payments will have been made by the time they officially retire in March.
Chaplin is extremely proud of Grand River.
“In Ashtabula County, we pride ourselves on being known not only for offering a really competitive and top notch compensation package, but for our work in the community,” he said. “Corporately and individually, we are committed to being involved and supporting the needs of the people and the overall economic growth in the community.”
He has been involved in several community organizations for some time, including the American Heart Association, United Way, the College Committee at Kent State Ashtabula and most recently the Ashtabula County Medical Center board.
Looking ahead, Chaplin said initially the company's focus will be on building Grand River's bottom line via its continuous improvement programs.
“Having just bought out Ric and Joe and completed three acquisitions in three years, our 2015 strategic plan focuses on several internal endeavors that will help us build the bottom line and be prepared for additional acquisitions or other opportunities for growth,” he said.
He noted the firm is actively pursuing accounts in two new market segments that fit with its core operations.
Selip feels completely confident Chaplin “will be a great leader, and the future of the company is secure. It's obviously very important to me. I don't care about my legacy. I care about the legacy of Grand River Rubber & Plastics.”
Chaplin will do well as president because of his ability to view issues from all sides, Selip said. Because his career at Grand River has covered virtually all the firm's departments, including the manufacturing floor, he continued, the experience “has given him an appreciation for what it takes to get the job done.
“The other strength, and it takes most of us a long time to develop this skill, is the ability to listen. It is amazing what people will tell you if you just sit and listen.”