FAIRLAWN, Ohio—Jefferson W. Keener Jr., long-time majority owner and chief executive of Chardon Rubber Co., died Sept. 8 at the age of 84.
Born in Akron, he earned his bachelor's in economics and English from Amherst College in Massachusetts followed by a master's in business administration in industrial management from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Following three years of active duty with the Navy, Keener said in a 2010 interview shortly after his retirement that he fully intended to seek a career path at a large corporation. After all, his father, Jefferson W. Keener Sr., had been the lead executive at B.F. Goodrich Co. from 1957 through the early 1970s.
Instead, while on his way to New York for an interview with General Electric Co.—shortly before his discharge from the Navy—he happened to meet Hank Fawcett of Mohawk Tire & Rubber Co. on the plane.
"He knew my parents and I knew who he was," Keener said in the interview. "So we got to talking, and after awhile, he suggested when I got out of the Navy, why not come back to Akron and work for Mohawk."
And that's what he did, working at Mohawk from 1959-76. Following a two-year stint with A.T. Kearney in Cleveland, in 1978, Keener, a partner and three other minority investors, purchased the Ball Rubber Division of Ball Corp. The operation had begun as Chardon Rubber Co. in 1930, he said, and Ball bought it in 1954 and changed the name.
Keener and his partners decided to return it to its original name. Besides its main plant in Chardon, Ohio, it also included the Industrial Rubber Goods Co. in St. Joseph, Mich., and a welding hose facility in Batavia, N.Y. The company had a good run until the early 2000s.
Over the years, it entered into a joint venture in Tennessee with Kinugawa Rubber Industrial Co. Ltd.; purchased Beebe Rubber Co. in 1986; and opened an injecting molding factory in Alliance, Ohio, in 1993. At its peak, he said Chardon employed 600-700 workers.
Keener said the philosophy he brought with him when he purchased the company was to create jobs, treat employees well, train employees so they can make a decent living, be part of the community, work well with the unions, and produce high-quality products.
But as auto makers began to pare their roster of suppliers, Chardon tried to diversify away from automotive. Over time, it shuttered all its plants except its Chardon operation and filed for Chapter 11 protection in May 2009. Most of its rubber compression and injection molding lines were sold to Wabtec Corp.
The custom mixing business survives today under the moniker Chardon Custom Polymers L.L.C., with his daughter, Marian DeVoe as president. She joined the family business in 1982, eventually serving as president and chief operating officer. She said she learned the value of a strong work ethic from her father, having ridden to and from work with him during two summers she worked at the business while attending college. "There were some early mornings back then," she said during a 2006 interview.
Besides DeVoe, Keener is survived by son Jefferson W. Keener III; daughters Patricia Lee (Charles) Mazzola and Elizabeth Keener; brothers Alan (Catherine) Keener and Robert (Polly) Keener; four grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.
Memorial contributions may be made to the J. Ward and Marian Keener Prize at Western Reserve Academy, 115 College Street, Hudson, Ohio 44236, or to the Cleveland Clinic Akron General Visiting Nurse Service Hospice, 3358 Ridgewood Road, Akron, Ohio 44333.