When Robert Fulton retired from Web Industries, the business he started in 1969, he was faced with a big choice: hang onto 10 percent of the ownership to share in the growth value or sell it to the employees.
He opted for the latter.
Now 85, Fulton said in a phone interview he has no regrets, even with the stock up 54 percent last year. The enterprise he launched with $10,000 of seed money from his father-in-law saw 2016 sales of about $160 million from outsource converting and manufacturing.
Web processes plastics, composites and specialty films, like carbon fiber skins for Airbus and Boeing and consumer products for Kimberly Clark and Procter & Gamble. Fulton has been its CEO emeritus for a while and more recently is the chairman emeritus.
After he gave up his stake in Web back in the '90s, the business was 100 percent employee-owned and no longer owed federal taxes. That money was redirected to pay departing members of the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
"That made a ton of sense so I said let's do it," Fulton said. "It's only money. You can't take it with you, so why not give it to the people building the company? That's what happened, and it's the best thing I ever did."
Because of the ESOP, employee turnover is low at the Marlborough, Mass.-based business and new talent is attracted to the operations in seven U.S. cities and Stade, Germany. Also thanks to that ESOP, some of the 550 employees are nearly millionaires in terms of stock value, according to Fulton.
"It still is more than exciting," he said.
He remembers starting the business at age 37 following a couple stints at some major corporations. With his seed money, he bought some equipment, rented some space in Boston and brought on a handful of employees.
"We were in the basement, and we created problems for some of the other tenants because we used the elevator constantly with materials going in and out," Fulton recalled.
Web moved out and grew. Fulton met people at the Virginia site of the former Imperial Chemical Industries plc and began slitting film for the London-based manufacturer. Kimberly Clark was an early customer, too, for nonwoven products.
"Because we like to solve problems, we simply continued to look for business in other areas and ended up in the aerospace market, and today that's the primary material we process," Fulton said of the skins for Boeing and Airbus. "Instead of aluminum, they use carbon fiber, which is lighter and saves a lot of fuel.
"It was a lot of hard work to develop that whole area," Fulton added, "and at this point, fortunately, we don't have any real competition but that may end at some point. We're trying to stay ahead with development of new products."
He is confident in the company leadership and employees, who say they are carrying on a business he built on the principles of fairness, integrity and respect. CEO Donald Romine has been working at Web since 1973. He said his first impression of Fulton was "astonishing positivity and belief in the potential of people to grow."
"He was in business for more than money," Romine said in an email. "He built a values-centered business centered on relationships. He was quite fearless in his vision and willingness to take risks to optimize the company's potential. He had an unselfish desire to share the credit and the value of the company he built with his employees."
Fulton always said, "The essence of life is relationships," and his thoughts from board meetings on that topic have been collected in a book with the same title given to new hires. The book covers 12 values.
"The first one is the value of relationships," Fulton said. "You don't stab one another to get ahead; you work to get ahead."
He doesn't have to personally concern himself with work anymore, but he will. Fulton retired from Web's board of directors in mid-August.
"So this is the final one. I retired at 60 but stayed on the board until 85, and then I stepped down," Fulton said. "However, they said you still have to come to the planning meetings. And, when there's a board meeting, you really have to come. But I won't be voting member; I'll just be an interested person."