We caught up with this year’s Manufacturing Excellence Award honoree to see how the Greater Philadelphia business community has contributed to their success. Check out what William B. Stockwell, CEO & Owner, Stockwell Elastomerics, Inc. has to say as we highlight one of the excellent small businesses driving the Greater Philadelphia region. Join us as we honor this year’s winners at the 37th Annual Excellence Awards on Thursday, November 21.
Where did the idea for your business come from? Describe the moment that you decided to go into business for yourself.
Our founder, Frederick E. Stockwell, was a salesman for the Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Company with Philadelphia as his prime territory — he resigned to start his own business in August 1919. Stockwell Elastomerics, Inc., was founded as Stockwell Rubber Company, a distributor of industrial belting, air and water hoses, and various rubber products. These products were a mainstay of the business for decades.
However, in 1980, we changed our product focus from distribution products to custom manufacturing which required an investment in new equipment and relocation to our current location in northeast Philadelphia. This new focus enabled the company to extend its geographic reach to a national presence. Our rebirth as a manufacturer enabled us to grow and thrive. Manufacturing products in-house drove innovation and enabled us to develop our core competence in silicone rubber technology.
What is your business philosophy and how is it unique?
We maintain a discipline about the companies we serve and operate within our core competence. We say “no thanks” in response to many inquiries from prospective customers when the application is not an ideal fit for what we do best. However, for certain major customers, who we call “Hero Customers,” where the business relationship with their engineering team is strong, we will invest heavily in product development to extend our capabilities to meet their needs.
What is the biggest challenge in owning/running a business in the region? How do you deal with the challenges?
Only a small portion of our customer base is located in this region. Most of the manufacturers of technology equipment left the Philadelphia region in recent decades. Therefore, we need to reach far beyond our region to gain new business opportunities. We developed several niche markets which leverage our silicone rubber manufacturing capabilities and allow us to sell across the entire United States and globally.
How has the Greater Philadelphia business community impacted your success?
We are proud of our city. We overcome the regulatory obstacles as a course of doing business. Identifying as a business in Philadelphia instead of a smaller local town helps us with prospective new customers. We have benefitted from our close proximity to Drexel University for engineering talent. We have been a client of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center (DVIRC) for 30 years. The DVIRC has been a source of encouragement and spurred continual improvement in many aspects of our business. There are some local manufacturing companies we network with to share best practices and resources as well.
Others will be looking to you for advice about starting and/or operating a business here. What are your top 3 tips?
- Have a profile of your ideal customer — this really helps to focus on who will value (and pay for) what your business does best.
- Have a short list of personal principles: “What We Stand For.” When the chips are down and during the inevitable rough spots, this can be your North Star to navigate through turbulent times.
- Hire people you can trust. Not “yes people,” but those who believe in the mission and will take the initiative when the path forward is unclear.
What does it mean to you personally and/or to your business to be named an Excellence Award winner?
We came through a challenging period of growth in 2017 and 2018 which included unprecedented material supply shortages and the completion of a new building project in 2018. We became an ESOP in August 2017 — this award is for the 93 employee owners who have faced the adversity and helped mightily to pull through all of these challenges.
Where do you see your business in 10 years?
We foresee continued innovation and new products in the technology markets which will fuel demand for sealing and cushioning products to protect these new portable devices from harsh environmental conditions and physical impact.
By 2029, there will be an entirely new management team in place as many of our current team approaches and enters retirement. Succession from a 4th generation family business to a new phase called 5.0 is essential. With the last remaining family member in the business representing Stockwell 4.0, institutionalizing “what we do best” and “why we do what we do,” and building on this is the task before us. The mission, guiding principles, and core competence of the business will need to be understood throughout the organization to continue our success and relevance in our chosen markets. And so begins the task.
As a 100-year-old company, how has Stockwell Elastomerics’ model evolved over the years to counter threats such as globalization, the Great Recession, lack of entry-level talent, etc.?
There have been many forks in the road throughout our history. Taking the business from a distribution model to in-house custom manufacturing in 1980 was one of the better decisions implemented.
From 2001 through 2003, many of our customers in the technology sector insisted that we set up a production facility in Asia to serve their new assembly and production facilities. Many of the mid-sized gasket fabricating companies in the United States followed that path and set up production in China. We resisted, which cost us many customers in the short run. Instead, we developed rapid response prototyping and initial production capabilities to serve the mechanical engineering teams of technology companies whose design teams remained in the United States. We learned the rubber gasket or cushioning pad is one of the last components specified in the design of equipment in the technology sector. Out of this, we redefined our “Ideal Customer” and developed a way to grow the business with rapid response, providing lower production volumes of value dense products that solved challenging design problems.
In 2007, we saw the storm clouds of the recession forming. Despite our busy schedules, 10 of us took Lean Business training classes provided by DVIRC. The goal was not to cut costs per se; instead, we utilized our Lean training to go faster. We won the day many times during the 2008/2009 recession by responding faster than the other solution providers in our market. Rapid response becomes more challenging as the company grows — we can never fail to recognize this key deliverable.
As the manufacturing recovery of 2017 gained momentum, it became increasingly difficult to find good entry-level employees. We approached our employees for friends and family referrals they thought would made a good fit in our culture and line of work. The referrals helped, but by mid-2018 the continued growth exhausted the supply of referrals. A small network of Philadelphia manufacturers who had been meeting every two months was experiencing the same challenge of finding good people. We invited Rich Bevan of Baker Industries to speak about the talent pool of “returning citizens” — those who have experienced prison and who want to change their lives and reenter the workforce to live independently in society. Baker Industries has developed a workforce training program that prepares the new hires in a way that increases the odds of success. Stockwell Elastomerics hired two graduates of the Baker Industries training program who are contributing to the team culture and work of the business. Six other Baker Industries graduates have been hired by other Philadelphia manufacturers. We see this as a great way for private enterprise to contribute to solving a long-term social problem.
Get your tickets to help celebrate Stockwell Elastomerics as this year’s Manufacturing Excellence Award honoree.
Thursday, November 21
5:30 – 9:00 p.m.