A family's shared culture can shape how decisions are made in the business they own, according to Craig and Tim Rathbun, president and CEO respectively of Encore Plastics Corp. of Sandusky, Ohio. The brothers, and sister Jodi Conley, a corporate services specialist, run the business established by their father John Rathbun and a partner in 1987.
“It's a major advantage for us, to have the same values,” Craig Rathbun said in a phone interview. The three siblings might bring entirely different perspectives to a problem but sharing basic values allows them to reach a decision that doesn't stray too far in any one direction.
Tim Rathbun said many business decisions are made when family members relax after hours in a setting away from the constant interruptions that are de rigeur in a business. His brother concurs.
“We can go to a favorite restaurant and discuss the big picture,” Craig said. “Instead of talking sports, we talk business.”
But the Rathbuns do try to keep business separate from family life.
“Family is of utmost importance,” Craig stressed. “Our secret to maintaining a work/life balance is built on the solid foundation that respects a personal private time once we leave the office.
“We enjoy family time together because it helps keep us balanced,” said Craig. “And separating business from family activities actually gets easier over time because as our kids have grown, we find ourselves immersed in their lives.”
Family ties trump business dynamics when a sticky problem means family members don't agree on a solution.
“If we disagree, we don't want to be disagreeable to each other,” said Tim Rathbun.
“We have to value each other first. We have never had to sacrifice our relationships [with family members]. There are ground rules for decision making if we disagree.”
Encore Plastics' origins date to 1977, when John and Diane Rathbun, parents of Craig, Tim and Jodi, mortgaged everything they had to start Venture Packaging in Monroevillle, Ohio. The new company was a market leader in production of small food containers. By 1987, Venture Plastics introduced high-quality printing for its containers and lids and at that time the company began generating printed regrind as a byproduct of its molding. The partners decided to start a new company to take the regrind and turn it into new, reusable products. Thus were born the EcoSmart line of plastic containers and liners for non-food applications and a new company, Encore Plastics, to produce them.
Early ownership of Encore was shared between John Wilson, who was a long-term employee of John Rathbun's, and Craig, Tim and Jodi Rathbun. Wilson subsequently retired and the siblings split his stake evenly among themselves in 1997 to become sole owners.
Encore Plastics injection molds and thermoforms containers, paint trays, mixing containers and industrial pails for an array of markets. The company has grown to 300 employees and now includes satellite operations in Cambridge, Ohio, Forsyth, Ga., and Remer, Minn.
The Rathbuns settled on Sandusky for Encore's headquarters because the city on Lake Erie is approximately equal distance between Toledo and Cleveland, two Ohio cities where much of the family lived. The Rathbuns now feel they are part of the Sandusky community.
Each year Encore Plastics works with local elementary schools to sponsor an “Earth Day” poster contest, with the winners having their entries printed on buckets made from recycled plastic. The company supports Camp No Worries, which gives children with cancer the chance to forget their troubles in a week-long summer camp experience.
Encore Plastics' origins grew from sustainable re-use of printed plastic scrap, and the firm continues in that approach of conserving resources. Its workers recycle all the regrind generated from molding containers and lids into the EcoSmart products. Much of the company's molding of industrial pails relies on post-consumer resin. The company also developed Back To Earth paint trays and liners made from biodegradable material composed of PET and a proprietary additive.
The Rathbun family extended corporate sustainability to the energy side of the business with a new company, SUREnergy, that owns more than 7 megawatts of wind- and solar-generated electricity. Favorable winds power wind turbines at the Sandusky and Forsyth sites, and when the sun shines more than 400 solar panels kick in at the Forsyth facility, turning sunlight into enough electrical energy to power up to 15 houses.
The next generation of Rathbuns is getting a taste of the family business through summer employment and part-time work. They are, however, encouraged to get business experience outside Encore Plastics, as Craig, Tim and Jodi did before they took over Encore.
“These kids need a career away from us before joining us,” Craig noted.
“Our expressed expectation to the future generation of owners is that they must work a minimum of two years in a field of their choosing before they can join the family business.”
That way they can bring fresh ideas into the company when — and if — they join Encore on a permanent basis. The three siblings have a total of 10 children, seven of whom are in college or just entering the workforce. Craig, Tim and Jodi are in their 50s and the next generation of Rathbuns in their 20s.
“We still have time to think about and prepare for the next generation,” said Craig. “Our goal is to create a solid business foundation for them to continue building upon.”
While family ownership helped solve many of Encore's problems, there remained the big challenge of how to finance continued growth. Sticking with their financial partners did the Rathbuns well.
“We have stayed loyal to our individual bankers and thanks to these relationshiops we have secure financing from Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley,” explained Craig.
“They understand our market and like our business strategy.”
Another challenge — incorporating new ideas to remain competitive — also needs input from outside the family.
“New blood needs to come into the company at high levels,” Tim said.
Within the company, added Craig, non-family employees are encouraged to take on more responsibility when they have mastered their initial tasks.
“This has been a strong component to our success,” said Craig. “We want everyone to feel like Encore Plastics is their company too.”
The Rathbuns don't have fixed plans for the future.
Looking to the future, customer needs will always loom large in the Rathbuns' planning.
“We spend as much time with our customers as they are willing to provide us,” said Craig. “When they want to make a change to their current packaging or they want something totally new, we have the flexiblitiy to help them in this process. Our outlook is to always be flexible and available to our customers.”
Employees at the front line are given more customer responsibility than a manager might have at another company because customers like quick and precise responses to their queries.
A focus on customer service is just one of the shared values the Rathbuns bring to Encore from their divergent backgrounds.
“If you ask anyone who knows our family, the most surprising comment about our company is how wildly different the three of us are and yet because of our different perspectives we have made very few mistakes,” Craig said.