Quality Conversations: Universal Polymer & Rubber

What is the state of manufacturing in America? This question has been on our minds for some time now, and after reading articles and reports on the subject, we decided to take a closer look by talking to some of the men and women on the front lines of the industry. The following interview with John Zielinski, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Universal Polymer & Rubber, is the first in our “Quality Conversations” series. The goal of this series is to highlight some of the quality challenges and triumphs that are occurring right here in our backyards.

For context, Universal Polymer & Rubber is a privately-held company that was started in Middlefield, Ohio in 1970. Universal Polymer manufactures rubber molded parts, rubber extruded parts, and plastic extruded parts, and supplies them to a range of industries around the world. We sat down with John last month to talk about the past, present, and future of Universal Polymer. Here’s what we learned.

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To start things off, can you tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got to be where you are today?

Sure. I’ve always been in manufacturing. I’ve been in a number of different industries: on the metal side of things, metal stamping, the foundry business, forging, and part fabrication. I actually ran a company that made wheels and mounted tires for off-road applications as well as trailer applications. Then, in the late 90s, early 2000s, I got into the rubber side of business, ran a compounder, and actually had my own business as an independent rep, and then in 2005, Universal was one of my principals, and their president came to me and asked me to take over their sales. We did that in 2005, and in the last 12 years, we’ve tripled our sales, both organically and through acquisitions.

That’s incredible growth! I saw your recent acquisition of Crest on your website—congrats to you.

Thank you.

It’s clear that Universal Polymer is on the upswing. I’m trying to reconcile this happy success story with some of what I was reading–this Economist article from the other day talks about a shortage of skilled workers. Is Universal Polymer facing any challenges in that department?

Yes we are. We face the same challenges at various levels as some of the companies probably cited in The Economist. Some of our skilled and experienced workers are rubber extrusion operators, press operators, and even in general labor, there’s a shortage of workers because there are so many jobs open. Our press room, for example, is hard work, and it can get very warm in the summer. People who are looking for a cushy position or an easy job simply don’t last in that environment. There’s definitely a shortage of labor. We’re a group of six manufacturing companies, part of the Cypress Companies, and every company within Cypress is hurting for good people to fill in positions.

Is Universal Polymer embracing automation, or have things pretty much stayed the same in recent years?

We’re getting more automation, but we are far from an automated factory. For instance, we’re going more and more into injection, more automated presses, if you will, faster presses. But the rubber industry itself—it’s a big concentration around northeast Ohio—tends to be full of owner/operators who will often patch up equipment to get by. That’s how it’s always been, and these are the companies we tend to acquire. So what I’m saying is that we’re in a very mature industry, and there’s not as much automation. But in the last three years, we’ve added more of what I would call modern equipment and we have plans over the next five years to add further.

Right now, we’re looking for a visual inspection machine, which will rapidly speed up our visual inspection process (this is something that humans currently do). It’s a tedious and costly process, but some parts we make have to be looked at for excess flash or certain defects, and it’s a visual inspection. We’re looking to bring on a visual machine, which will be a nice investment.

It seems to me like today’s manufacturers understand the need to embrace innovation. Can you provide an example of an innovative solution that your company has devised in order to solve a common industry problem?

Absolutely. This past summer we launched a new mobile unit initiative as a way to better serve our customers. Basically, we designed a specially-equipped trailer that we could take on the road to provide on-the-spot hydrostatic testing and modification to customers who have purchased our pipe and manhole products. That’s an example of innovation in action, and it also shows our commitment to customer satisfaction.


manufacturing in america
Universal Polymer rolled out a mobile hydrostatic testing unit to better serve an industry need.

That’s excellent. How would you say American manufacturing today stacks up against all the global competitors?

I would say American manufacturers are number one. When I say that, we’re talking the entire package you get for dealing with an American manufacturer. Obviously, when it comes to labor-intensive parts that are lesser engineered, we can’t really compete with the cheaper labor forces that other countries offer. So if it’s a lesser engineered commodity-type part, the American company probably won’t get the business. But for everything we offer, from sales and marketing through engineering support, through program management, to a willingness to get involved with your customers’ business as a supplier, I would say American manufacturers are the best.

Moving on to quality, I have to say I love your LinkedIn profile. I love what you have to say about being “willing to do whatever it takes, as long as it’s legal, ethical, and moral, to increase revenue and improve shareholder value.”

That is the truth. We seek out opportunities that are mutually beneficial. As a manufacturer, we have a range of options when it comes to sourcing and partnerships, and we like to make choices that reflect our values. We’ve had discussions with Walmart’s “Made in USA” division, for example, to supply them with tarp straps that we make here in the States. That kind of partnership is rewarding because it shows that investing in domestic manufacturing works—not only does it feel good, but it can make good business sense, too. I find that when you act with integrity, everyone benefits.

That’s something that resonates with me personally, and with ARMATURE. As a company, we’re big on integrity. I recently wrote a piece on the Kobe Steel drama that’s been in the news, and you can see the ripple effects—or more like tsunami effects—that occur when companies lie.

It resonates for us, because we rely on our suppliers to certify the material. We don’t have chemists on staff, we rely on our suppliers, and we’ve run into trouble. In the past, our previous suppliers would just certify things that weren’t meeting the specification.

I’d love to know your thoughts—since you’ve been on the front lines of manufacturing for as long as you have—I’d love to know your thoughts on how the quality landscape has changed in the past decade or so.

Don’t get me started! So for background, we do about 35 or 36 percent of our business in the automotive supply chain. We are a Tier 2, Tier 3, or Tier 4. A Tier 1, those are the companies that sell directly to the automakers, the first tier of supply. We’re primarily a Tier 2, we supply the big mega-Tier 1’s that are globally located.


So, anyway, you asked how has quality changed over the years? In the automotive supply chain, a PPM (parts per million) of 20 was world-class 20 years ago. We supply over 9 million parts a year to one of our Tier 1 plants, and we have a PPM of 20. Know how many points we get on the supplier scorecard for a PPM of 20? We get 0 out of 25 points, so we automatically are at a C. We have 100 percent on-time delivery, VA/VE Ideas, everything else is 100 percent. But because we have a PPM of 20, which 15 years ago was world-class, we get no points on their scorecard. I even told their director of purchasing, you guys are going to scorecard your way out of a supply base! So that’s one way things have changed, for us.

It’s interesting to learn how things work from the inside, to find out how they’ve changed and why. What else has changed during your time in manufacturing?

The globalization of business is another huge change. It’s just so competitive. Any automotive quote we give, we probably compete against 6 to 7 manufacturers on three different continents, or two continents for sure: Asia and North America. Sometimes Asia, Europe, and North America, sometimes Asia, South America, and North America. So you touched on the global aspect of our business—it is global. One of our big customers is in Asia. We derive sales from three different continents, so it’s a much different playing field now than it used to be.

I’ll say. I’m also curious to know about any challenges and/or success stories that you’d like to share, just to color my understanding of manufacturing in America today.

Universal Polymer is a real success story. When I joined in 2005, we derived about 45 percent of our sales from buy-and-resell from Asia. We had a joint venture in Sri Lanka. Today, after tripling our sales, our buy-and-resell from Asia makes up less than 5 percent of our sales.


And that’s consciously and unconsciously. Unconsciously because over that 12-year period, many of our customers put facilities in China or where we were and they just bought direct, and they no longer needed our middleman approach. But it’s also been a conscious effort: we had a line of tarp straps made in Sri Lanka, and we brought that into the States. We make all of our tarp straps in the U.S., and we make over 7.5 million straps a year, which translates to about 25,000 or 35,000 a day.

That is a success story! What’s next for Universal Polymer?

We continue to look at acquisitions. We passed on 3 acquisitions this year, and we’re looking at 4 more. We actually have an acquisition pipeline: we analyze the market to see who might be prime candidates. These companies that fit us well, we call them plug-and-play acquisitions. And we continue to work that pipeline, that’s what’s next. We’re coming out with some new pipe products that will help our sales, and we’re looking at the retail sector for our tarp straps. We’ve got a strategic sales plan that’s as thick as a binder but we update it every quarter. We update economic activity, and we update short range, mid-range, and long range sales targets. The plan itself goes from 30,000 feet all the way to ground level, we’ve got the target accounts we’re going to go after, the timing, the next action, and when that’s going to happen.

Sounds like Universal Polymer has a bright future.

We hope so. Everybody always asks, how’s your day? And I say, it’s a little bit of success, a little bit of head scratching, a little bit of head banging. That’s manufacturing.

And that sounds like the perfect way to wrap up our interview. Thank you so much for your time, John!

My pleasure.

To learn more about Universal Polymer and the high-quality products they produce, visit their website, connect with them on LinkedIn, or follow them on Twitter. To learn more about ARMATURE and our quality management software—which is designed to manage the end-to-end quality and compliance processes for manufacturers and accreditation organizations around the world—contact us. We’d love to compare notes on the industry and share how our customers are using our tools to tackle their toughest quality challenges.