- 1 of 4 Photos | View More Photos
A three-generation manufacturing business that flourishes unpretentiously on North Diamond Street in Ravenna, Trexler Rubber Co. has gone from manufacturing inflatable rubber tires for scale-model airplanes in the 1930s to nowadays creating custom rubber-dipped products for more than 200 high tech businesses throughout the world.
"We don't share our customer list," Tom Trexler, the new president of the company, cautioned me when I sat down to visit, but he did say Trexler supplies companies, many of them in aerospace work, throughout the world.
I've always been curious about the Trexler Rubber Co., which was founded in 1936 by the late William H. Trexler, Sr., a self-made man who dropped out of school after sixth grade to help support his family. He eventually became a person whose expertise in the properties and uses of rubber gained him international esteem.
Centered in Akron in the early 20th Century, the rubber industry spread out and some of its offsprings located in Portage County. Two in his hometown of Ravenna, Oak Rubber, at first a toy balloon company, and the White Rubber Co., in its earliest days, a manufacturer of rubber ink sacks for fountain pens, both employed the young Trexler, who worked his way up to plant superintendent at Oak Rubber.
A man of energy and fierce determination, Trexler in his spare time set up a business in his basement, manufacturing inflatable tires for model airplanes. He became well known as an expert in the properties of rubber and a person capable of arriving at solutions. Among his many products, one, for Louis Marx, the national toy manufacturer, involved creating diapers for wind-up, crawling baby dolls. That earned him sufficient capital to move his business from a shop back of his home to its current location.
Special rubber products
He focused on small-scale, specialty production, eventually producing sophisticated rubber goods for military, industrial and medical uses. His products ranged from breathing masks and neck and wrist seals for jet fighter pilot suits to medical bellows.
Goodyear Aerospace, aware of Trexler's expertise, contracted with him to produce special rubber gloves used on the early space flights by NASA astronauts for the Mercury and Gemini missions. The company later produced articles for the Space Shuttle.
In the 1950s, isostatic pressing, a process that uses ultra-high pressure to produce "super materials" created a huge opportunity that Trexler and his son, Bill Trexler Jr., exploited.
The process utilizes durable rubber bags, some quite large, others small. The bags gain their shapes in dip tanks in which rubber is chemically induced to adhere to aluminum molds that Trexler has fabricated to the form desired. Repeat dips thicken the walls of the bags.
The bags are then peeled off the forms and scrutinized for imperfections. The perfect ones are shipped off to customers who fill the bags with specialized powders and subject them to intense pressure, between 5,000 and 80,000 pounds per square inch. The process changes the molecular structure of the powder and turns it into a solid block, resulting in high performance alloys used in aerospace industries as well as the computer and electronics fields.
Trexler's raw material, natural rubber, comes from Malaysian rubber plantations. The miracle of the rubber is the bags survive the pressure and return to their original form for reuse. Because the bags eventually wear out and need to be replaced, the molds that give them their shape are stored in numbered sequence in a warehouse until no longer needed.
A niche business with only a few competitors, Trexler is known worldwide for creating quality rubber bags of various sizes able to survive the isostatic manufacturing process. Possessing the industry's largest dip tanks anywhere, the company is on call with high tech, medical, and aerospace companies throughout the world.
Intelligent and having an amazing work ethic, the senior Mr. Trexler kept working until he died in 1991 at the age of 96. He had outlived his son, William Trexler Jr., who unexpectedly died in 1985. Trexler then recruited his daughter, Neva Schafer, who had retired in 1973 from teaching biological sciences in the Ravenna Schools, to help him. He named her president of the company, but continued to serve as CEO. Son-in-law, Jack J. Schafer, the firm's secretary-treasurer and director, continued in that role until his death in 2000.
Mrs. Schafer, whose numerous community activities included serving on the board of Robinson Memorial Hospital and First National Bank of Ravenna, in 1990 appealed to her son, Jack W. Schafer, a preservation architect and planner on the West Coast, to give up his career and return home to help, which he did.
A transitional figure in the firm's history, Jack in 1992 was named executive vice president and then, in 1995, president of the company. Seven years ago, realizing he could not continue forever, he initiated a succession plan persuading his younger cousin, Tom Trexler, an industrial engineer in Denver, to join him and learn the family business. Both Jack and Tom had worked for their grandfather in the factory when they were in high school and college. This January, after 22 years as president, Jack turned over management of the business to Tom, who is now Trexler's president. Jack has begun a gradual process of scaling back.
I came to know Jack because of the successful campaign he and Attorney Peggy Di Paola undertook to save and resuscitate the flagpole in front of the Portage County Courthouse. Jack was my entree to see Trexler Rubber, a company with an interesting story and small group of loyal employees of long-time seniority, who share a sense of excitement knowing their custom-built rubber bag products play important roles internationally in high tech industries, the healthcare industry, and veterinary science.
Incidentally, Jack said, those inflatable tires for model airplanes that got Trexler Rubber started in 1936 remain popular. The company, he said, continues to manufacture and ship them.