A Made in America Success Story

Universal Polymer & Rubber, Ltd.

UPandRBanner

Universal Polymer & Rubber, Ltd. (UP&R), of Middlefield, Ohio, just released a new series of tarpaulin straps for the trucking industry. The brand name for the tarp straps is Ameripride, which is appropriate because UP&R has been enhancing its home-state manufacturing capabilities in the face of tough offshore competition. Universal Polymer & Rubber has also been engaged in an aggressive expansion strategy built around acquisitions that have seen company revenues tripled in little more than a decade.
~
Universal Polymer & Rubber is a custom manufacturer of rubber extruded parts, plastic extruded parts and rubber molded parts. The company also die-cuts parts for various OEMS in a variety of markets. Universal’s product line includes pipe gaskets, manhole gaskets and straps to secure tarpaulins covering cargo on flatbed trucks. Main markets include transportation and cargo control, construction and pipe manufacturing, automotive OEM supply chain (tier two and three) and general industry.

Tarp straps and gaskets “make up about thirty percent of our annual revenue, combined. The remaining seventy percent of our revenue is custom-manufactured extrusions and moldings,” says John Zielinski, Executive Vice-President at UP&R.

UP&R operates manufacturing plants in Middlefield and Tallmadge, Ohio and has a partner company in Wuhan, China. However, as Zielinski makes clear, UP&R has no intention of moving its domestic manufacturing operations to China. In fact, Universal has been investing heavily in its Ohio plants.

“Twelve years ago when I started, probably about forty percent of sales revenue was derived from our China partner facility. Today that number is about 5.5 percent. We invested over $6 million in our Ohio facilities over the last four years, including a 40,000-square-foot expansion [at the Middlefield plant],” states Zielinski.

Choosing Middlefield for the company headquarters was quite deliberate. The small community of Middlefield is located close to Akron, Ohio—rubber capital of the world.

“Our senior management team is almost all from Akron … Why is that significant? A couple reasons: one, Goodyear still has their world headquarters there; Bridgestone still has their North American technical center there. And there are still a tremendous amount of ingredient suppliers that have offices in the Akron area. So, you have a tremendous rubber presence in Northeast Ohio. The town of Middlefield has about 5,000 residents, and there are ten or eleven polymer companies in Middlefield alone,” states Zielinski.

Universal’s clients, however, reside all over the world, in Asia, Europe and North America. The firm just expanded its reach and picked up some business in South America as well. Most customers, however, are based in North America. Zielinski estimates that sales in the continental U.S. account for “about sixty percent of our revenue. Shipping into Mexico would generate about twenty-five percent and the remaining fifteen percent would be exports.”

UP&R has ISO 9001:2008 (without design) certification and is also ISO/TS 16949 certified, at all of its facilities. Universal does its custom work based on technological specifications from clients. “Typically, we take our customers’ designs, blueprints or 3D models and turn them into finished rubber parts,” states Zielinski.

UP&R’s own product line includes offerings such as Goldline and Silverline tarp straps for flatbed trucks. These products are both industry standards. The name for the new tarp strap, Ameripride, was chosen through a company-wide contest with employees. The winning entry was announced at a company picnic last August. The top three entries all were awarded cash prizes.

UP&R also recently rolled out—quite literally—a new service in the form of a mobile unit for hydrostatic testing based out of a specially equipped trailer. The company can send this trailer to customers who purchased pipe and manhole products to do on-the-spot testing and modification.

Universal has pursued an aggressive growth plan based on acquisitions. Since 2008, UP&R has acquired four outside companies. “We’ve actually tripled our sales over the last twelve years. Seventy-five percent of that growth has been through acquisition, twenty-five percent organic,” says Zielinski.

Currently, 127 people work for UP&R at all its North American locations. “We’ve been busier and added people, but that’s a challenge we face—finding capable employees,” states Zielinski.

This is due to a low unemployment rate—there is not a huge pool of qualified people looking for work—and simply a shortage of skilled labor in general—a problem facing the manufacturing sector as a whole. Besides skills, UP&R wants new employees who show “the willingness to work. The work ethic—it’s hard to see in the first interview. That’s one thing we definitely look for,” says Zielinski.

Universal was founded in 1970 as a manufacturer of tarp straps and pipe gaskets. Since 2002, UP&R has been part of the Cypress Companies based in Akron. “They are a management company, but we have a full senior management team. We make all the daily decisions. They are more of an oversight board,” says Zielinski.

Given the high number of Midwest manufacturers who have closed in recent decades, Zielinski attributes Universal’s longevity to two main factors. Hiring quality staff and making quality products is one factor. The other factor is the company’s diversified product line and client base.

“The variety of products we make, the variety of markets we serve has sustained the company long-term. We’re not just an automotive supplier; we’re not just a pipe gasket company; we’re not just a tarp strap company. It’s all of those things. And when one market’s up, it compensates for the other one being down,” he states.

Investment and constantly looking for ways to improve might be other factors. In the face of increasing competition from low-cost offshore manufacturers, UP&R invested in new tooling and “worked diligently to make our processes more efficient and lean,” says Zielinski.

For about two years, UP&R has been using lean Six Sigma principles for specific projects at its Ohio facilities. The decision to adopt this management methodology stems in part from the company’s experience acquiring other firms.

“Through some of the acquisitions, we learned we need to pick best practices from each acquisition and not assume that we know everything. We made four acquisitions in eight years, and we’re looking at more. The first acquisition, we thought ‘Okay we’re so great. We’re going to do it this way,’ and we didn’t pay attention to certain things. The second acquisition we thought ‘Okay let’s pay attention to what they do,’ and we still made a couple mistakes because guess what? We’re human. The third acquisition we went in with eyes totally wide open, and said ‘Okay, what does this company do very well? What do we do very well?’ It was a much smoother transition. The fourth one we did, it was a much smaller acquisition. It was almost like we just absorbed it. We’re learning from our mistakes,” says Zielinski.

He relates an anecdote about an incident that occurred along the learning curve. Shortly after the second acquisition, a customer made a negative comment about the appearance of the newly purchased plant’s interior. Instead of being offended, UP&R officials implemented a ‘Five S’ program, a Japanese methodology to organize workplaces popular in manufacturing circles. The five S’s in question are sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. Upon return months later, the same customer was duly impressed by the improved appearance and efficiency of the same plant.

From this experience, UP&R senior management decided to take a closer look at other workplace methodologies. “We said ‘Okay, what can we do as a company to make ourselves better?’” recalls Zielinski. Officials settled on lean Six Sigma and started sending staff to a local university for training, paid for by the company.

The use of lean Six Sigma and Five S reflects Universal’s keen interest in quality. The firm has a robust quality department with a director and several quality technicians. The company also has “ongoing safety training on a monthly basis. Each new employee goes through a full safety training program and ongoing education,” says Zielinski.

UP&R’s dedication to quality and productivity has earned the firm industry recognition. Last year, for example, the company won a bronze supplier award from a Tier I supplier to OEM John Deere.

The company is looking at future acquisitions, none of which Zielinski can talk publicly about. He does state that Universal only wants to buy firms within its field.

To promote the company, Universal regularly exhibits at trade shows, such as the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky held in March. The firm also has a website and strong social media presence. “We’re active on Twitter and very active on LinkedIn. We had a Facebook page, but we took it down because we didn’t feel it was business-oriented enough. We found Twitter and LinkedIn are much more compatible with our vision,” says Zielinski.

He says the company’s biggest challenge, beyond finding skilled labor, is “continued global competition, as the world became smaller—figuratively—over the last fifteen years. When we compete in an automotive bid process, we regularly compete with companies from three different continents, Europe, North America and Asia.”

For all that, he is very confident about the future. In five years, Zielinski sees UP&R “at least doubling in size, with a manufacturing footprint spread out across North America” and the company doing “more and more exporting.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 14, 2019, 11:01 AM EST