William Stockwell always wanted to follow his own path. Oddly enough, embracing the same family legacy he initially felt would prevent him from forging his own identity has allowed him to do just that.
At a time when other companies were chasing lower-cost alternatives overseas, Stockwell resisted the urge to follow suit, and in many cases lost customers. But a funny thing happened: He found a better way to do business in his home of Philadelphia.
He just needed his company to get faster.
"We doubled down on a lean business initiative," said Stockwell, the firm's president. "A lot of times people looked at lean as a cost-cutting measure. We approached it as a way to go faster. If we were faster than anyone else on the market at certain things—we'll never be bigger, we'll never cost less—but speed wins in many situations."
The foundation he set for his soon-to-be 100-year-old company, Stockwell Elastomerics Inc., has led to excellent growth for the silicone molder and fabricator since 2010, to the point where the company completed a new expansion earlier in 2018 and exceeded $25 million in sales for 2017.
His hard work and subsequent success has led to Stockwell being named Rubber & Plastics News' 2018 Rubber Industry Executive of the Year.
"He's not an absentee owner by any stretch of the imagination," said Brian Shipley, a customer service manager with Stockwell. "He works here more hours than anybody. He has a vested interest in it, and it shows the management team that if he can do it we should be doing it too. He doesn't place a lot of demands on people, but he expects you to bring your A-game every day. If you don't bring your A-game, he's not going to say anything, but because of the culture he's established, everyone else is going to get on you to make sure you get your A-game."
Finding his way
Stockwell joined the family business when he was 16 years old as a material handler in the summers, becoming the fourth generation to work at the company founded by his great-grandfather in 1919. At the time, the business was located in a multi-story series of hollowed-out row homes.
"I did all the grunt work, but it was good for me to experience that," he said. "It also gave me a chance to observe my father working and see my grandfather a bit more. He and I were always very close, I looked up to him big time."
By the time he finished up college, earning his MBA at the University of Pittsburgh, he had decided that he wanted to forge his own path. His decision disappointed many of the longtime employees with the firm, but his father and grandfather didn't pressure him. Though, Stockwell said, he could tell his grandfather was remorseful.
His journey didn't last long.
Stockwell was working with Rockwell International's corporate finance department in 1977 when, that November, his grandfather died. While attending the viewing and funeral, he said he saw a group of former Stockwell employees. They pulled him aside and, in his view, shared an unflattering opinion of his father's company.
"I felt they were really mocking the state of the business, and even worse mocking my father for not being able to pull the company out of its decline," Stockwell said. "I was both grieving the loss of my grandfather and seething in anger that these guys would do that. That stayed with me for a period of time."