TORONTO—When Bob Hagerman elected to close out his long career at AirBoss of America Corp. earlier this year, he anticipated having more time to travel and possibly to improve his golf game.
He never figured he'd have to be secluded at his home located north of Toronto. But that's how it turned out—at least for the time being—thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
That fact became very apparent as he drove to Toronto from Florida, his home for the last few winters, in early March and found restaurants were closed, except for take-out. Then, at the U.S.-Canadian border, he was told that he would have to be self-quarantined for two weeks at his Toronto home because he had been in a foreign country, the U.S.
Actually, Hagerman had gone to South Africa in January for a four-day safari in Kruger National Park and a cruise that included five rounds of golf at various stops along the way, he said. But there were no known cases of the virus there at that time.
Hagerman, who turned 68 on April 15, officially retired March 10 from the Board of Directors of the Newmarket, Ontario-based company after more than 30 years with the firm. He'll continue to be a major shareholder in AirBoss.
He retired "because 30 years is really enough for any activity," he quipped during a recent interview from his home. "It was time to move on and relax."
Long, successful career
Hagerman was one of the founders of AirBoss in 1989 and an original director of the business. He was the company's CEO and president for more than 20 years until he had a serious accident in 2013.
After the accident, "I was in a coma for a week," he said. "Then I had brain surgery. I couldn't talk when I woke up, and it took quite a while to recover. I wasn't allowed to drive for two years."
Because his activities were limited, Hagerman decided to step down as president and CEO but continued to serve on the AirBoss Board of Directors. "But that was fairly easy time-wise," he said. "Being a director isn't in the same ballpark as being CEO in terms of time.
"When I was able to drive again, I was able to start traveling and that helped fill the time gaps. I also took up golf again, although my handicap is obscenely high."
He purchased a winter home in Florida, and spends his summers in Toronto.
Hagerman's wife passed away in 2010.
"I have been fortunate because I met a lady who can put up with me enough that we can travel a bit," he said. "South Africa in January was the start of that, although I suppose those travel plans are on hold until someone finds a vaccine for COVID-19. I have traveled to Australia and New Zealand on business and hope to do it again on pleasure. Spain and Portugal have to be on that list as well."
Starting from scratch
Hagerman didn't immediately start out in the rubber industry after he graduated from Carlton University in Ottawa, Ontario. He was employed by Price Waterhouse for 12 years in the audit, insolvency, mergers and acquisitions unit until he left and hooked up with Gren Schoch, a friend from his college days at Carlton, in mining ventures in the 1980s.
In 1989, Hagerman and Schoch, the long-time chairman and the current CEO of AirBoss, along with a few other investors, took a flier on a little known non-flat tire created by a small group of Australian inventors.
Their idea was that the inventors contributed the intellectual property and Hagerman, Schoch and the other investors would form a company—supplying the cash and management—to manufacture, market and sell the unique tires in North America. With that concept, AirBoss was born.
It turns out that implementing the plan was far easier said than done. The original tire didn't work on the vehicles for which it was designed in North America. So the company was forced to modify it for the light construction industry.
"It worked well on skid steer loaders," Hagerman said. "But it took us three or four years to really perfect that product and get it approved by the equipment manufacturers."
There was a need for the tires then, he recalled. "But every size needed a new rim, so it was expensive to develop the tires. And we had a very small financial base. But it got us launched."
Hagerman became CEO and president of the firm in 1994.
"It wasn't a prestigious job," he said. "We had 15 employees at time."
When he stepped down from the posts, the firm had a work force of about 1,200.
In the mid-1990s, with Schoch and Hagerman in the top leadership positions, AirBoss acquired a rubber molding business in South Haven, Mich.
"That got us launched into other rubber product production, some quite unusual, including rubber pads used for railways. I wanted to diversify as quickly as possible," according to Hagerman.
He actually took over the South Haven operation for quite a while. "I was driving back and forth from Toronto to Michigan every weekend," he said. "It was difficult but we got it up and running properly.
"It was a short-lived venture but we invested very little, and it was a good venture. Selling it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do."
On Dec. 31, 1995, AirBoss moved into a new arena with the purchase of a floundering mixing plant in Kitchener, Ontario, that produced a mere 15 million pounds of rubber compound yearly and was struggling to stay afloat with only 10 employees. But it had a 1 million-sq.-ft. facility with state-of-the-art equipment.
That acquisition propelled the company's growth.
"Within a year, we went from $16 million in sales annually to $80 million," Hagerman said. "We had to double the mixing capacity soon after."
It has grown into one of the largest rubber compounding facilities in the world.
From there, it was onward and upward for AirBoss. The firm continued to make smart acquisitions without borrowing much money. It bought small businesses and built them up into thriving operations, including one in Acton Vale, Quebec, that mixed rubber and produced a variety of products—including a molded over-boot used by the Canadian military and other footwear.
AirBoss expanded the small over-boot business and turned it into a large operation that makes defense and first responder goods, including gloves, protective wear, and a wide range of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protective products. Today, its biggest customer is the U.S. government.
In addition to its acquisitions, it has added plants in the U.S. that have significantly expanded the firm's business.
The last major purchase AirBoss made while Hagerman was CEO and president was automotive parts producer Flexible Products in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2013.
Highs and lows
Hagerman said he is proud of the way AirBoss has grown from virtually nothing into a multi-faceted company with a wide-ranging product portfolio and a big rubber mixing operation over the years. He sees more growth coming in the years ahead for the company.
Looking back, he said that when the company purchased the Kitchener plant in late 1995 and it became the firm's focal point as it grew into a major compounding operation with an excellent research and development department, he knew AirBoss would be successful.
It also was obvious that the company would continue to grow once the Acton Vale operation got rolling with its defense product line, he said. That eventually led to the addition of other facilities in the U.S. to produce those goods as the orders became too much to handle at one site.
There have been a lot of highs and some lows in Hagerman's career at the company. He's proudest of the development of the CBRN and other protective products at the Acton Vale site and the purchase of the Kitchener factory. He said both were instrumental in taking AirBoss to where it is today.
His biggest hurdle was getting the South Haven operation up and running properly. And the toughest decisions he had to make were selling the original tire business when it no longer fit into AirBoss' plans; the South Haven business when it also didn't fit with the company's portfolio; and the retail division of the Acton Vale operation because most of the consumer goods it produced were made cheaper in China.
Hagerman added he would have liked to do more at AirBoss, but looking back, he said, "I'm satisfied with the things I did."
Now, if only he could put his retirement plans in motion, he'd be a very happy man. But, thanks to the pandemic, that may take awhile.