LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Tim Graham has seen plenty of changes during his nearly four-decade career at Rep Corp., but nothing as much as the way supplier firms now are looked on to provide technical support and guidance.
"When we first started in the industry, there was a lot of engineering support within each company we dealt with," said Graham, president of the North American subsidiary of Rep International, the Lyon, France-based producer of rubber molding and related machinery.
At the time he joined Rep in 1979 following graduation from the University of Michigan, Graham said rubber injection molding machinery was a relatively new technology and it was fun to sell something new.
"We had a lot more people coming in to do trials," Graham said. "We were known to put molds in our trunks, drive them to (Rep headquarters in) Bartlett, Ill., and put them in a press. We'd guarantee if it didn't double your productivity then you didn't owe us anything."
It was quite easy to convince people to get into injection molding back then, he said. While the injection machinery market remains strong, Graham said there is a growing void of talent in the rubber industry that is not being replaced. "The more experienced people who have the knowledge base are older, and year by year the void gets bigger and bigger and bigger," he said. "I've had a number of conversations with people who have been actively involved in trying to get rubber-based, college-degreed people to get into the industry, but they're spitting out two to three people a year at the most. And that's certainly not filling the void."
So the responsibility has shifted to suppliers to provide their customers with as much technical assistance as possible.
But the industry veteran said what still sells machines is the aftersales side. "As long as we keep fixing machines and we have available spare parts and available technical staff to deal with those problems, we're fine," Graham said. "But as the years go on, there's more and more responsibility being put on us. It's also our responsibility to hire the people who have the technical ability, which is not easy either.
"In the near term, I don't think that's going to change. I don't know how to change it."
Graham was waxing poetic about his career during the recent International Elastomer Conference expo in Louisville. He did so as he was preparing to step down as president of Rep Corp. effective Jan. 1. He will become director of special projects before taking retirement sometime in 2019. James Wirtz II, the current aftersales director for Rep, will succeed Graham as president.
Graham was named a vice president of Rep Corp. in 2005, being named president shortly after. He is one of only three presidents at Rep Corp.—along with Jim Jennett and Ron Dagar—since the subsidiary was formed in 1970.
Graham has seen rubber injection molding technology grow exponentially during his career. During that time, Rep, which has an installed base of more than 3,000 machines in North America, has introduced a number of new lines. He said it started with the G3 and was followed with the G6 injection press, which he said was the first in the industry with microprocessor closed-loop control. The company also pioneered valve-gated, cold-rubber molding, which helped to reduce material consumption.
"When I started it was all electromechanical relays," Graham said. "If a wire was loose, you tightened it up."
Today, however, everything is solid state, which he said requires a different technical level. "How machines are looked at, how they're trouble-shot and how they're looked at to figure out what's wrong is a completely different animal than what it was when it was electromechanical," he said. "And all of our technical staff is quite comfortable dealing with just about any issue we have on the machine."
One project Graham was particularly proud of was when Rep was challenged by a leading pharmaceutical product manufacturer to devise a highly automated work cell. It was an opportunity for the machinery maker to diversify from the automotive industry, which accounts for the lion's share of its business.
"We brought a variety of our engineering and machine building skills to the task at Rep and fulfilled—even exceeded—our customer's expectation," he said. "We all worked very hard to meet the challenge and were very pleased with the outcome, as was our customer."
It's now getting to the point where that project could evolve into a global production cell for the customer, which could be very lucrative for Rep. "There are going to be some future discussions on how to do that, where to do that and what level of consistency they are looking for," Graham said. "Certain (global) standards will have to be discussed because this is the kind of thing where ultimately all the cells will be exactly the same."
Ups and downs
The Rep Corp. president has seen the economy rise and fall a number of times during his career, but the worst was the 2008-09 downturn, when his firm wasn't alone in having to make difficult choices.
"I had to let a number of people go," Graham said. "That was not easy. They weren't bad people. We just had to reduce numbers."
When things improved, the company had to build back up and that wasn't easy either, because of the uncertainty over whether the recovery would take hold. "I think it's a little bit more difficult to deal with an upturn and trusting the fact that the upturn is there, and you're bringing in people so they are there for awhile, and you're not bringing them in and in six months have to lay them off again."
Graham said it was easy to gauge that customers took some time to trust the recovery as well. First there was an uptick in spare parts sales, but not in press sales. That meant customers were reactivating machines that had been sitting idle.
"Then there is a period of time where that just went crazy and we were selling a lot of parts," he said. "And then finally the new orders started to come through. That's how we tell."
Conversely, Rep can know fairly quickly when a downturn is coming. First, one customer will call and cancel a new press order. Then other similar cancellations will follow. "It's usually a fairly immediate reaction," Graham said.
Right now, the rubber industry remains on a pretty high uptick with new automotive programs. Suppliers, though, will catch up, as the domestic automotive industry still can only produce roughly 15 million to 16 million light vehicles a year.
"Pretty soon everyone will be in a position to handle that type of capacity," Graham said. "And when they can handle that kind of capacity, then there isn't a need to keep buying machines."
His one real regret is that he never started his own rubber company, a custom molded goods firm. "That's because I see the potential of having the knowledge base and actually something with it," he said.
The automotive aftermarket, he said, would have been an interesting market to get into. "I know a few people who did that, started with nothing and now have three or four facilities and are doing quite well," Graham said. "I admire their willingness to make that type of commitment."
But he's always remained loyal to Rep in what he learned, trying to provide honest answers to potential customers. "It doesn't always work that way, but that's the goal," he said. "At the end of the day I'm quite happy I've worked for Rep for as long as I have. I think that's not typical today."
He said his retirement will be a bit of a slow process, starting with stepping down as president at the end of the year. Graham will support Wirtz in any way he asks, will probably handle a certain customer base that relies on him now, and potentially look at different markets Rep wants to enter. But he will gladly hand over the day-to-day responsibilities to his successor.
And his advice to Wirtz: "I would say keep an open mind. Look for opportunities that may not exist now. Don't be content with the way things are. Keep trying to improve and keep finding good talent because you're only as good as the people you have working for you."