TRENTON, N.J.—When Rich Balka and two partners bought Home Rubber Co. 20 years ago, Balka had a precise vision of what his role would be.
Coming from a background in real estate development and finance, he had it in his head that he could own several businesses and play an oversight role in all of them.
But he quickly found out that the Trenton-based maker of a variety of custom products—from hose and tubing to belting, sheet goods, lathe-cut gaskets and other specialty goods—would require his full attention to really grow the business.
“When I envisioned being here for 20 years, it was in a much less direct role than I've certainly settled into,” said Balka, the company president who has been sole owner of Home Rubber for about the last decade. “I obviously have grown to love the industry along with the business. It's fair to say that it occurred to me fairly early on that when you get involved with a business that's been around as long as this one has, it just seems appropriate that you're here to keep it going and help it flourish.”
Home Rubber, in fact, will celebrate its 135th anniversary this year, and it still operates in the same factory where it was founded.
Balka said the company still follows some of the guiding principles set forth by its founder, Charles C. Stokes. Those include a commitment to quality, individual attention to customers and their needs, and seeking constant innovation.
“These innovations don't typically come about because a technical savant is hanging out in a lab,” he said. “They come about because of a relationship between the customer and the company. Sales is the first line of that relationship.”
The staff in Home Rubber's inside sales group averages 17 years of experience, Balka said, giving them the skill sets to work carefully with customers to figure out the best possible solution for each problem. “We don't necessarily seek patents the way patents were sought in times gone by, but often times the solutions we come up with are unique to the specific customer application.”
The most obvious obstacle the hose and custom goods firm has had to overcome during Balka's tenure is the Great Recession. He said it was a great run until the middle of 2008, then everything hit the skids. “We like everyone else had to rebuild, reassess what size we were, and how elastic or inelastic our costs were.”
When manufacturing led the way coming out of the recession, Home Rubber was riding another strong wave until February of last year. Business really slowed down through the rest of the year, finishing down a bit from 2014. The company doesn't reveal sales totals.
But the biggest difference for Balka is that after 20 years in the business, he has been through enough economic cycles that he knows how to look at different ways of coming out of the downturn.
“We're a stronger company now, so we're able to bulk up our inventory during slow times rather than cutting back, so we're in a position to do more for our customers more quickly than we were able to do coming out of the 2008 recession,” he said.”