From rubber horseshoes to roll-covers for paper, metal and other industries, Vail Rubber Works Inc. has been steadily serving supply chains in West Michigan for more than a century.
The 127-year-old family-owned company has now begun construction on a new $8.3-million facility in Southwest Michigan after outgrowing its longtime space in downtown St. Joseph, as MiBiz previously reported.
Vail Rubber Works will move “about a third” of its 110 employees to the new 58,000-square-foot facility on a 30-acre parcel of family-owned land in Berrien County’s Royalton Township. However, the company’s headquarters will remain in St. Joseph, according to President and CEO Bill Hanley.
The company, which is “landlocked” in its current location, is expanding as close to its roots as possible, Hanley told MiBiz.
“St. Joe is where we started back a hundred years or so ago. This is where our headquarters are, this is where the bulk of our management is, and this is where the really experienced people are at,” he said. “We felt it would be easier to expand on that experienced group than to try to start from scratch some distance away from this area. It was a relatively easy decision.”
The company has been owned and operated by the descendants of founder William A. Vail throughout its lengthy history, including Hanley, who is Vail’s great-grandson.
In the late 19th century, Vail began experimenting with uses for rubber. He began by manufacturing rubber railroad ties with hopes of making rail travel quieter and softer. Then, he developed an innovative product that proved in demand — molded rubber horseshoes. Later, the company segued permanently into manufacturing roll covers for paper, metal and other industries.
Vail moved his company from Chicago to Muskegon in 1915 to be closer to the paper mills there. Then in 1920, operations of Vail Rubber Works moved into an empty factory on Ann Street in St. Joseph and later to its current headquarters on Langley Ave.
Including Hanley, two of his brothers and two of his children — the fifth generation of Vail’s direct descendants — seven family members currently work for the company.
“We’re family-owned and have been since the very beginning and I think that adds a certain stability to our company and to our employees that some of our competitors don’t have,” Hanley said.
Today, Vail Rubber Works still operates in the paper industry, but the primary market for the industrial rollers is makers of steel and aluminum for the automotive industry, Hanley said.
Manufacturers use the rollers in a continuous process that flattens and shapes the raw materials into sheet metal or paper. The rubber on the rollers protects the steel core of the machinery. Then, when the rubber coverings eventually wear out from use and need to be replaced, Vail Rubber Works is called in to renew the rubber and service the machine.
“The rolls look like large steel rolling pins with rubber or polyurethane for use in flat-rolled production operations,” Hanley said. “We are a repair maintenance shop. The rolls are owned by our customers in their continuous processing lines and when the covers wear out, we’ll go there and pick up the rolls on trucks, bring them back here, recover it to like-new condition and return it to our customer on our trucks.”
The covers can last anywhere from one month to up to five years, depending on use, Hanley said. The process of applying new coverings includes removing the old material, making necessary repairs to the bearings or core of the machinery and mixing the rubber ingredients.
“We mix most of our own rubber in house, whereas a lot of our competitors will purchase premixed material from independent mixers,” he said. “The fact that we do mix our materials inside — while more difficult and more challenging — is, we believe, a competitive advantage.”
The blend is custom to each roller’s use and the resulting rubber slab is cut into pieces, adhered to the roller and heated until smooth.
As the industries that Vail Rubber Works supports face escalating change and disruption, the company adapts with a steady hand. Revenue has grown “at a reasonable pace,” said Hanley, and outside of some major layoffs in 2009, during the recession, the number of employees at the company has remained fairly consistent for decades — hovering around 100.
“We thread the needle,” he said. “We want to have enough people in to produce and deliver product in a timely fashion, but we make sure that we try to prevent over-hiring.”
Modern times have seen the technology and engineering departments at Vail Rubber Works grow to enable the company to produce more customized roll cover technologies and mechanical services, according to Hanley. The new facility will increase the company’s footprint by 50 percent and will be more productive per square foot, he said.
As the auto supply chain enters a slowdown, the Hanley is closely watching forecasts for units in production and the changing materials — namely lightweight aluminum — in the market.
The North American production market remains strong, according to IHS Markit analyst Mike Wall, although it will shrink from 17 million units last year to 16.6 million this year.
“We lost 400,000 units,” Wall told MiBiz. “A good chunk of that is car programs. Where suppliers, in general, may have had a more challenging market environment under passenger cars because they’ve been battered volume-wise and knocked down in terms of price downs, they have much better positioning on trucks and utility vehicles.”
Hanley said conversations with suppliers in the steel and aluminum industries are essential to keeping a finger on the pulse of the auto supply industry.
At this point, Hanley is optimistic that Vail Rubber Works will weather any coming storms.
“Overall, we’re thinking more of the opportunities that are out there and seeing things that are more positive for the economy, in the long-term,” he said. “I’m not a worrier at heart, and that helps.”