Locals are likely to scathingly call the closing of Rubbermaid Home Products' complex the Newellization of Wooster, Ohio - a natural emotion about a company with deep roots in the small northeastern Ohio town.
Wooster Rubber Co., a toy balloon maker founded in 1920, was the predecessor to Rubbermaid Inc. One of its co-founders was the father of Stanley C. Gault, the top executive of Rubbermaid from 1980-91.
The founders sold their interests in 1926. The firm's rubber dustbin was one key product in the early 1930s and became a huge seller.
World War II hurt business because the government restricted natural rubber to the war effort. But after the war, Wooster Rubber added dish drainers, sink racks and storage racks to its product portfolio.
The company went public in 1955 and two years later, changed its name to Rubbermaid.
And it was rubber, for the most part - huge quantities of shower mats, car floor mats and other rubber goods flowed out of the plant. But Rubbermaid found its greatest success in the booming plastics housewares market.
Samuel Belcher started working at Rubbermaid in 1958, at the then-new factory in Wooster. ``Most of our stuff was rubber down on the main street where the Wooster Rubber Co. started,'' recalled Belcher, now a plastics consultant in Moscow, Ohio.
Crews began moving machines into the brand-new factory.
``We had all kind of machines coming in, day in, day out. New molds coming in. It was a big move,'' he said.
Belcher called the Wooster plant a showcase. Packed with modern injection molding and blow molding machines, and staffed by skilled employees, the plant led Rubbermaid to a dominant position in plastics housewares.
``It was a premier plant at that time for injection molding. It was right up the front line of everybody in putting up a plastics injection molding factory,'' Belcher said.
Gault arrived at Rubbermaid in 1980, after a long tenure at General Electric Co. It marked the return of a Wooster boy to run the hometown company.
He was well-regarded on Main Street - and on Wall Street. He cut costs, pushed new product development and shook up management with a corporate reorganization. He visited stores to ask shoppers their opinions about new Rubbermaid products. When he joined Rubbermaid, the company had sales of $309 million. A decade later, annual sales stood at $1.5 billion. Under Gault, Rubbermaid enjoyed an uninterrupted string of consecutive quarters with sales and profit exceeding those of the comparable year-earlier quarters. The company also was listed for several consecutive years among Fortune magazine's most-admired corporations.
Gault retired as chairman and chief executive officer in 1991, moving to the top spot at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
Plastics News was unable to reach Gault for comment. But the Independent newspaper in Massillon, Ohio, quoted him as calling Rubbermaid ``one of the best in the U.S.A.,'' but that it suffered from mismanagement.
``I'm extremely distressed and disappointed,'' he told the newspaper after hearing about the closing Dec. 9. ``There was a serious level of mismanagement by the management team and a serious omission by the board not to hold management accountable for the shareholders.''
Gault still lives in Wooster. Locals stop and chat when they see Gault at the grocery store.
That direct connection between the present and the past began to crack in 1998, with Wolfgang Schmitt as chairman and CEO. That year, Newell Co. plunked down $6 billion for the company. It was by far its biggest acquisition ever. Newell didn't waste time in cutting several-hundred white-collar jobs as it closed the corporate headquarters. Wooster became the base of the Home Products unit. On the other hand, the new owner boosted factory jobs and upgraded equipment there.
Newell Rubbermaid moved much of the rubber molding work to Mexico in 2000, when Wooster lost more than 180 jobs of people who molded bath and sink mats and drain boards.
But one of the biggest blows - from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - came three years before Newell bought the company. In 1995, Schmitt and other management tried to get stiff price increases from Wal-Mart. The giant retailer responded by pulling Rubbermaid products and replacing them with those made by competitors, such as Sterilite Corp. of Townsend, Mass. Rubbermaid got some of the business back, but housewares analysts say the episode strengthened Sterilite.
``The reason Sterilite got it in the beginning was because Rubbermaid couldn't fulfill orders,'' said one former Rubbermaid sales and marketing executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ``Sterilite started to grow just filling in the gaps. Now, they've become a very dependable supplier.''
Sterilite continues to inflict pain on Newell Rubbermaid. Last month, for example, Sterilite announced it is building a $65 million injection molding plant at its distribution center in Clinton, S.C., that will employ 600. At the same time, the Rubbermaid Home Products Group said it was closing a 292-employee plant in Cleburne, Texas. Later in November, Rubbermaid said it would close one of two facilities in Winfield, Kan.
In the past year, Newell Rubbermaid has shuffled production between several Rubbermaid and Graco baby product plants, closing some and seeking tax abatements to consolidate operations in others.
At the same time, Rubbermaid Home Products in 2002 bought 45 injection molding machines from Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. - one of the largest machinery deals in recent years.
Newell Rubbermaid has declined to explain its manufacturing strategy. But after CEO Joseph Galli's Dec. 9 conference call with financial analysts, it seems clear that Rubbermaid Home Products will downsize its plastics operations.
And for Wooster, Galli is the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
``That'll really hurt Wooster,'' Belcher said. ``The big thing when I was there, you had to work at Rubbermaid and you had to belong to Wooster Country Club.''