ST. LOUIS—You don't make it through nearly a century in this industry just because. There's a reason—or a lot of reasons, rather—for making it that far.
After 98 years in the rubber business, St. Louis-based extruder Reed Rubber Products Inc. has perfected a few things. That's why the company has earned a place on Rubber & Plastics News' Best Places to Work list for the second consecutive year, after finishing No. 1 overall in 2019.
And if ever there was a year that called for Reed Rubber to lean into nearly 100 years' worth of experience and wisdom, 2020 is it.
"We had a goal at the start of COVID to not just weather the storm but come out stronger on the other side and prepared for 2021," Oliver Reed, director of marketing and internal communications, said in a video he created to encourage the Reed Rubber team.
"COVID did slow things down and we had to change how we work, but that is why we have been around nearly 100 years, because we do adapt," he said.
When the pandemic hit and business slowed, Reed Rubber's immediate goal was to maintain its work force. It was able to do that, President Clark Reed said, with support from the Payroll Protection Program and by reducing pay.
Everyone took a 15 percent pay cut. Salaried personnel took three unpaid furlough days each month, while hourly workers were paid the equivalent of 34 hours per week, regardless of how many hours they worked. As an essential business, Reed Rubber's operations continued even as business slowed. As a result, some hourly employees may only have worked 16 hours in a given week, but they were paid for 34, Clark Reed said.
Keeping people employed was the first goal. Keeping them healthy was just as important, and it always has been. It's why Reed Rubber offers a comprehensive health care plan, which includes vision and dental, and works to make it as affordable as possible for the employees and the company.
"It's kind of a paternal instinct to be honest," Clark Reed said. "It is important to me that anybody who would be working for our company—for any length of time—that they come away better for it."
At work, Reed Rubber implemented all of the best practice safety measures that protect employees during the coronavirus pandemic. When possible, employees worked from home. For those who had to be in the facilities, the company implemented routine health screenings, conducted fever checks, urged regular hand washing and sanitizing, asked employees to wear masks and instituted daily cleanings of high-touch surfaces.
"We are a small company," Clark Reed said, noting that the company's 30 employees are part of the family. "And if three or four people get sick it is a major deal."
Ranked No. 1 overall on the RPN Best Places to Work list last year, the company touted its strong communication as the backbone of its success.
This year—with all its challenges—made communication even more critical. But the morning huddles, monthly updates and casual face-to-face conversations on the shop floor weren't possible with COVID-19 looming.
"Before the pandemic, I went on to shop floor every day," Clark Reed said. "I lost some of that connection this year."
That meant turning to non-traditional forms of communication that have become staples in a post-COVID-19 environment. Reed Rubber quickly learned to embrace the ability of Microsoft Teams and gave routine updates via video and chat.
But the communication that had the greatest impact was in the most old-fashioned form: a hand-written letter sent through the mail.
"I made a point to write notes," said Clark Reed who has been working out of his home during the pandemic. "I mailed the notes to people at home. I wrote to their spouses to say what a wonderful person their (loved one) is. I've done that since I have been at home and less exposed to what people are doing. On site, I would have let them know what a remarkable job they do."
In his own way, Oliver Reed did the same thing. Only instead of writing a letter to the employees, he made a video highlighting the remarkable job they did in the face of 2020's unimaginable circumstances.
Not only did Reed Rubber achieve its goal and weather the COVID-19 storm, it came out a better organization.
This year, the employees helped to better organize the shop floor, not just by putting the right things in the right places, but by building storage racks and tables. They helped clean up the shop, adding fresh coats of paint where needed.
They also did all they could to stay connected. Those things that build camaraderie—like hot dish lunches—were still part of the workday. They just looked a little different as employees sat outside to share a meal, and at a safe distance from one another as they ate.
Reed Rubber even had a Thanksgiving lunch. And this year, there were certainly blessings to count.
"Despite the circumstances, we've also had a lot of success," Oliver Reed said. "Because of everyone's hard work, if you look around you, we are looking and performing better every day."
Companies that can do that in the worst of times, usually stick around for a century or more.