ST. JOSEPH, Minn.—For more than 125 years, Vail Rubber Works Inc. has kept business rolling, through the Great Depression, the Great Recession and now a pandemic.
And through the ebbs and flows of economic uncertainty and volatility, the rubber roll cover manufacturing firm has kept its leadership steady—and in the family. It will do so once again, as the company looks to Vail Harding to serve as its next president.
Harding, 45, took the reins at the manufacturing firm on April 16, succeeding Bill Hanley, who served as Vail Rubber's fourth president since 1989. Hanley will remain as part of Vail Rubber's Board of Directors.
"If you're around for 125-plus years, you've seen almost everything," Harding said. "I am confident we will survive this current crisis. We've seen things turn around, and then turn around again."
Vail Rubber was founded in 1892 by William A. Vail, Harding's great-great grandfather. The company makes rubber and polyurethane roll coverings and steel cores, and serves the flat-rolled steel and aluminum industries and, on a decreasing basis, the paper industry, in the central southern and eastern U.S.
In the beginning, it was an idea to produce rubber railroad ties to soften rail travel that drew William A. Vail into the game. The idea did not survive, but innovation became part of the family bloodline.
William A. Vail had six children but only two survived, both daughters. This made it difficult to continue the Vail surname, Harding said. Harding's great grandfather, William Hanley, married one of the patriarch's daughters and became the company's second president.
William Hanley handed the reins to Joseph A. Hanley, Harding's great uncle, and he ultimately named Bill Hanley, Harding's cousin, to lead the company.
Enter Harding, now in his 22nd year with Vail Rubber. The industry veteran began with Vail at 23 years old as an applications engineer, growing up not far from the plant in St. Joseph. He still lives there today.
"Born and raised there," Harding said. "It's a small resort town on Lake Michigan. You can actually see the lake from our roof."
The town surges with visitors during the summer, more than doubling its population, while tourism wanes in the winter months, much like the paper industry did following the 2008-09 Great Recession.
Harding's initial focus at Vail was on that industry, in newsprint and fine print, making rollers that are used for conveyance for water removal, drying, "real niche-type finishing applications."
"The markets are cyclical. There was a real push in the mid-90s to increase our presence in the paper industry," Harding said. "When that declined, the metals industry came back. Having been around so long, long-term relationships have really helped. There is a fraternity to these industries, and those relationships have really allowed us to survive changes in that space."