Dianna Brodine | Managing Editor, Inside Rubber
When you walk into the president’s office at Bruckman Rubber – whether you’re a potential customer, a new employee or an editor looking to write a story – a presentation on a large screen will walk you through the company’s history, it’s capabilities and its strengths. You’ll receive a primer on the safety standards that will be observed anytime you’re on site, and you’ll learn about the company’s core values of honesty and integrity.
President Travis Turek wants there to be no confusion about the small custom rubber compounding and molding business, located in the central Nebraska town of Hastings: Bruckman Rubber is a company that knows its worth. Complexity is its friend – with 302 total customers and more than 2500 product types molded annually. Operational flexibility is the phrase its employees live by, allowing Bruckman Rubber to enjoy a 99.6% on-time delivery rate as its employees shift to other departments as needed. And, data drives every decision, removing variability from both the rubber molding process and the operation of the company.
Founded by Charles Bruckman and in business since 1961, the company has a long history of success in the oil and gas, plumbing, agriculture and aftermarket automotive industries. Bruckman Rubber also produces more than four million products a year for a major outdoor commercial products retailer, and it recently developed a prototype for an athletic equipment retailer with worldwide name recognition – all accomplished with 70 employees in 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space in a town of 25,000 people whose main claim to fame is as the official birthplace of the sugary drink Kool-Aid.
“We are working to become a more science-based business for all aspects of the formulations.”
Turek was hired in 2015 as the general manager and became president in 2017. Although he had no previous experience in the rubber industry, Turek is a man who believes in science, data and structure. He holds three US patents from his time with roofing and decking manufacturer TAMKO Building Products, has a degree in chemistry and is an ASQ Certified Master Black Belt (MBB). One of his first priorities at Bruckman Rubber involved the transformation of the company’s proprietary rubber formulas. Bruckman mixes custom rubber compounds for each of its customers in one of the four building on site and, until recently, many of the formulas for those compounds were found on small notecards.
“In my office, there’s a card filing system with all the rubber formulas we’ve created, going back to 1961,” Turek explained. “It’s amazing to have that piece of our history, but it wasn’t the most effective way for our compounding department to operate.”
Under Turek’s guidance, the handwritten formulations were entered into a central database, creating one repository of information that ensures every formulator is using the same recipe. “Prior to the database, our formulators would have a piece of paper that was passed around as it was needed. Even with really talented people, that introduces a lot of chances for errors,” he said.
In addition to the consistency benefits, the database also allows comparison that wasn’t possible before. The company uses the data to run analysis reports on structural characteristics and costing factors, which enables assessment of which formulas are the most expensive or have the most rejects.
“All of this is happening at the beginning of the process, and it’s allowed us to streamline and optimize formulations, both for our benefit and for the customer,” explained Turek. “We’re addressing quality issues before they happen by making sure we understand the chemistry. We are working to become a more science-based business for all aspects of the formulations.”
As another step in the data assessment process, the lab at Bruckman Rubber has been updated with a new MonTech advanced moving die rheometer. “By replacing our old oscillating disk rheometer, we can do faster batch releases, which is giving us a significant reduction in scrap because we get more accurate data. And, we can test our raw materials before we begin molding – good material in means good material out. We used to have a quality inspector reviewing product right before it went to a customer, but that’s way too late! We pulled those guys back and put them at the beginning of the process.”
He continued: “We’re talking about polymer architecture. With data and testing, we can see exactly where the waste is, and we can clean up the overengineering that may have happened for longtime customers who’ve been around 30 to 40 years.”
“Variation is the root of all evil,” Turek said. “If we can reduce variation for a customer and give them a consistent part every time that’s what every customer wants. But, we’re doing it by making data-based decisions rather than going on gut feel.”
“Employee longevity is great, but who is going to replace them now that those employees are reaching the age where they will be leaving the business?”
Turek has dedicated the past year to cross-training. The focus is on a 3x3 matrix, where at least three employees are the experts on at least three jobs. Categories on the matrix include the operation of open roller mills, injection presses, shot blasters or belt sanders, among many others.
“One day, we have a heavy workload in trim, one day we’re heavy in the molding department and one day we need help in compounding,” said Turek. “By developing employees who are cross-functional, we become so much more flexible as a company.”
Not every employee is cross-trained at the time. Instead, it’s the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure the 3x3 matrix is filled. Openings in other areas are discussed in the morning stretch meeting that happens each day, so employees are aware of what’s available.
On top of the flexibility that this affords in the production schedule, the matrix is leading a cultural change. “Because of the education the employees are receiving in other areas of the company, now a molder has an understanding of what a trimmer does and what makes the trimmer’s job more difficult,” said Turek, “There’s a great understanding of how the components off each job work together, and we’re starting to see an effort to make changes that affect the employees down the line, rather than having that natural focus on what is happening in only one department.”
The next step is to implement cross-functional training with the supervisors, which, as Turek said, is more difficult since the supervisors are working on the process, rather than in it. “But, when we get there, we’re going to be much more flexible,” He continued.
The matrix also builds a bullpen of employees ready to step into new roles as longtime employees approach retirement age. Bruckman Rubber has a core of employees who have been with the company for 20 to 30 years, and their knowledge is invaluable.
“Employee longevity is great, but who is going to replace them now that those employees are reaching the age where they will be leaving the business? I’m having conversations with longtime employees now, and I’m asking them how they want to end their careers. What legacy do they want to leave? How can they work now to set the company up for success in the future?
“It start with me.” Turek said. “I’m working with two to three people to say, ‘If I’m gone, I want you to be able to do these certain things,’ and I meet with them quarterly to go over my expectations. Then, it’s their responsibility to meet with their potential replacements and have the same conversations.”
“Some people don’t believe in marketing. They think they can make a good product, and then the word of mouth will be enough. Well, sometimes you need the help to make sure people understands what you offer.”
So, how did Bruckman Rubber come to the attention of a big name athletic equipment company?
“I asked that very question,” laughed Turek. “We had just redone our website to focus on marketing ourselves in a more accurate and effective way, and the customer had done a web search looking for rubber manufacturers. Google search visibility was a priority for the website refresh, which definitely paid off!”
Working with a local company, Turek focused on emphasizing Bruckman’s core competencies. “I had an outsider’s view of what made us special, which made it easier for me to see the factors that make Bruckman Rubber stand out from the competition. For instance, rubber to metal bonding is something we do really well. And, we enjoy taking on projects that other molders don’t want to mess with – those small, custom molding opportunities that lead to something big.”
Once Turek had defined the core competencies and unique characteristics of Bruckman Rubber through the website project, the next step was to employ a marketing firm to make calls to potential customers. For the last six months, an outside firm has been working to call companies within a set of target segments to inquire about upcoming jobs on which Bruckman could quote.
“We’re addressing quality issues before they happen by making sure we understand the chemistry. We are working to become a more science-based business for all aspects of formulations.”
“There was a six-to-eighth-week training process we went through to educate them before they began making calls to our prospects,” said Turek. “We went through presentation after presentation. Then, they would call me and go through a conversation as if I was the potential customer.”
Once the marketing firm was up to speed and ready to begin making cold calls, Turek turned his attention to the engineers and the quoting process. “We used to send out quotes and wait for feedback,” he said. “Now, we’re selling throughout the quoting process, and that’s a major transformation that happened in the last two months. Our engineers know our core competencies and our differentiators, and they can walk prospective customers through the quote and point out where Bruckman Rubber brings advantage. Why send an email and hope the prospect understands why we’re better than the competition?”
Bruckman Rubber pursued a federal grant that allows cost sharing for marketing activities, which helps to eliminate a barrier to promotional activities for many manufacturers, but Turek always was a believer in the benefits. “Some people don’t believe in marketing,” he said. “They think they can make a good product, and then word of mouth will be enough. Well, sometimes you need help to make sure people understand what you offer.”
“When we talk about honesty and integrity as our core values, we’re really living those. The culture we’re trying to drive is special.”
Bruckman Rubber celebrated its 55th year in 2018, and perhaps the inclination or many companies would be to keep doing the same things that led to success over the past five decades.
Bruckman, however, isn’t content, and that drive was rewarded when the company was named as one of the two 2018 Nebraska manufactures that have successfully implemented innovative ways of conducting business through the use of new products, processes, technologies and strategies.
“We have a history that we can point to with a lot of pride,” said Turek, “and the decades of growth have put us in a position that can only be enhanced if we continue to change and innovate. When I came here, I told the employees that I didn’t have a background in rubber, but they could teach me – and then I would figure out ways to make their lives easier. I could streamline processes, reduce defects and bring structure from a leadership aspect. A lot of the things we’ve implemented have been a direct effort by me to live up to that promise.”
“We’re leaving a legacy – in our community and through the products we create – and I think that’s something greater than the bottom-line dollar. When we talk about honesty and integrity as our core values, we’re really living those. The culture we’re trying to drive is special.”