What's an appropriate epitaph for Rubbermaid Inc.? Was the company killed by cutthroat competition from independent molders? Was it squeezed between large resin suppliers and larger retail customers?
Or was it the victim of a sluggish stock market? Should we put the blame on impatient investors who weren't interested in the long-term health of the Wooster, Ohio-based plastics processor?
Perhaps the company's failure was self-inflicted — the result of bad management decisions, poor service or an indifferent board of directors.
Everyone seems to want a simple answer. But all these factors, and more, played a role in Rubbermaid's decision last month to sell the company to Newell Co.
Regardless of the reason, all processors — and indeed the global business community — should consider the story of Rubbermaid's rapid descent from the pinnacle of the business world.
The companies announced the stunning deal Oct. 21 — just one day before the global plastics industry was preparing to focus on the K'98 show in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Rubbermaid managed to steal attention away not only from K, but also from First Brands Corp.'s Oct. 19 announcement that it was being sold to Clorox Co.
Consider that for a moment: Rubbermaid and First Brands, two of the biggest names in plastics processing, will have new owners next year.
First Brands and Rubbermaid are very different companies with very different stories. But put aside the details of these deals and consider the bigger picture. What does this say about the companies, and the plastics processing industry?
Rubbermaid is North America's third-largest injection molder and its top rotational molder, according to resin consumption estimates from Houston consultants Phillip Townsend Associates Inc. Yet that size was not enough to keep it independent. This is proof that there's still plenty of room for consolidation among processors.
Clorox and Newell are big companies. Newell ranked No. 441 on the most recent Fortune 500 list, while Clorox, with $2.7 billion in annual sales, barely missed the cut. The fact that both are willing to make a big investment in the future of plastics is significant.
Finally, perhaps Rubbermaid's own explanation for the deal is accurate — that the time was right for a merger because of competitive markets and global economic uncertainty. But the company that was once a perennial leader in Fortune magazine's list of most-admired corporations now will be reduced to playing second fiddle in Newell Rubbermaid Co.'s 1999 annual report.
That's a sad conclusion to the tale of a brilliant company.