Stanley Gault made for great stories throughout his 11 years leading Rubbermaid Inc. After he retired in 1991, the housewares maker just was not the same.
He died June 29 at age 90.
Gault had a small-town air about him that fit with Wooster, Ohio, the headquarters town of Rubbermaid. Wooster is a county seat that blends industry, farming and the lovely College of Wooster, Gault's alma mater, where he served on the board of trustees from 1972 to 2000.
He wasn't exactly folksy. You've got to be all-business when you take a company from sales of $309 million to $1.5 billion in a decade. But Gault and his wife, Flo, were approachable in his hometown, at the grocery store, the library.
And Rubbermaid was able to make that hugely ambitious growth profitably, and with amazing consistency: Under Gault, the company put together an uninterrupted string of consecutive quarters and profit exceeding those of the year-earlier quarters.
For investors, Rubbermaid was a safe bet. Steady. Stable. So was — and still is — J.M. Smucker Co., in Orrville, Ohio, not far from Wooster.
Gault returned to his roots in Wooster after 31 years at General Electric Co. He had clashed with Jack Welch, certainly not the first person to do that, or the last! When GE named Welch for the CEO, Gault left, then joined Rubbermaid.
At Rubbermaid — which had been co-founded by Gault's father — he cut costs and shook up management. He was tough. But most importantly, he pushed for new product development. Rubbermaid was a major innovator in plastics housewares, while still retaining its base in rubber products like shower mats. Rubbermaid's booth at the International Housewares Show was a must-see for retail buyers.
Gault's retirement from Rubbermaid lasted only six weeks, when he became chairman and CEO of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
Rubbermaid's saga after Gault has been well documented, but it bears repeating. Chairman and CEO Wolfgang Schmitt, who assumed the top spot in 1993, often displayed a harsh, cold personality, according to media accounts quoting former executives.
Even so, in 1994, Fortune magazine named Rubbermaid one of America's most admired corporations. Then the following year, Schmitt and Rubbermaid management made a major blunder: They challenged Wal-Mart Stores Inc. over pricing and shelf space. Wal-Mart pulled Rubbermaid products and replaced them with housewares molded by competitors, especially Sterilite Corp.
Rubbermaid got some of the Wal-Mart business back, but Sterilite has seen impressive growth ever since.
To be fair, plastic housewares were becoming a commodity, as mass merchants exerted pricing power under Gault as well. When resin prices fall, big-box retailers notoriously demand price cuts from suppliers, but when resin jumps back up, well guess what, price increases on store shelves for laundry baskets and good containers ain't gonna happen. (Any plastic processor knows that story.)
And for any executive, it's a hugely difficult task coming in to lead a company after a well-regarded leader like Stanley Gault.
Newell Co. bought Rubbermaid in 1998. Five years later, Newell Rubbermaid Inc. closed the Wooster plant, wiping out 850 jobs. “Exodus shatters city, firm bond,” read one Plastics News headline. One local newspaper quoted Gault as being “extremely distressed and disappointed.”
But to Gault's credit, he remained active in Wooster. He bought a venerable downtown department store, H. Freedlander Co., and stayed active with the college. He probably did much more, without much fanfare, in his low-key fashion.
A local boy made good.
It's tempting to say that they don't make leaders like Gault anymore. But the plastics industry is full of them — good men and women who lead their companies using good business sense, while providing jobs and helping their local communities become better places to live. For proof, look at any of the finalists, or the winners, of the Plastics News Processor of the Year Award.
These business leaders might not get the fanfare that comes with running a Rubbermaid or Goodyear. But they mean a lot to their companies, employees, and hometowns, as did Stanley Gault.
As a footnote: Welch, who started his GE career in 1960 at GE Plastics, was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2006. Certainly the Plastics Hall of Fame has room for Stanley Gault, too.