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Rahco’s Steve Anton named RPN 2016 Executive of the Year

Rahco’s Steve Anton named RPN 2016 Executive of the Year

Outgoing and friendly. Intelligent and knowledgeable about his business. Humble. Enthusiastic. Dedicated. Shares glory with others.

Those are some of the attributes that have made Steve Anton extremely successful in the molded rubber products industry. And they are part of the reason he was selected as Rubber & Plastics News’ 2016 Executive of the Year over several worthy finalists.

Anton, president and co-owner of Rahco Rubber Co.—a precision rubber component manufacturer, custom compounder and engineered sealing solutions provider—has toiled for over 40 years to take the company from a tiny dot on the rubber industry map in 1976 to 2016’s version: a well-respected profitable business with a solid customer base and an excellent reputation.

It’s quite rare any candidate draws more than one nomination for Executive of the Year.

Anton received three. While the 64-year-old executive is an outgoing executive, he’s remains very humble. When told he was this year’s RPN Executive of the Year, Anton said he was shocked.

In fact, he was surprised he was even nominated. When he got over the shock, he said, “There are a lot of people here who should share in this award. It’s not just me,” maintaining his brothers Jim and Steve along with the company’s more than 90 employees deserve to share the award with him. “This is not the Steve show.”

Human element critical

Anton and Des Plaines, Ill.-headquartered Rahco have thrived—especially in 2016—in an industry that is both complicated and demanding principally because both he and the firm are customer focused and it’s easy to do business with the company.

“It often comes down to the human element when dealing with customers,” he said in a recent interview. “I want to work with these people. I trust them. I like them. That’s very important.”

His business philosophy is simple: Treat customers fairly and in such a way that they want to work with Rahco on products. “If all things are equal,” he said, “I’d prefer to deal with Rahco Rubber because I know they won’t let me down. To me, that element of trust is everything. Without it you’re just another commodity supplier.”

Anton has a great deal of passion for Rahco, its products, customers and the industry. And he likes having people with that passion around him at the company. He also thinks it’s very important to employ smart people. Put the two together and the result is a great employee, he said.

“We always want to go with the best people we can find,” he noted. Many of those employees have remained with the firm for decades. More than 30 percent of Rahco’s work force has been with the family owned business for at least 20 years, according to Dennis Askew, the company’s business development manager.

“Developing and nurturing a company culture of respect is critical as well,” Anton said. “Working in an atmosphere that is positive and cooperative is the only path to success. Nobody wants to give their best effort or creativity if they aren’t listened to or respected.”

Rahco doesn’t simply develop products, it develops projects, the executive noted. And that is a critical part of the company’s business. Basically, he clarified, the firm develops components that involve its customers’ products. “A steady stream of demanding projects is the lifeblood of our company.”

It also focuses heavily on new technologies to try to stay current. “There’s a lot of fun in doing that,” he said, “and our customers appreciate seeing our dedication to it. We’ve embraced low waste and flashless tooling designs along with automation where practical. And we are investing in the latest injection and vacuum molding presses as well.”

Rahco bills itself as a one-stop operation, which means it will develop a complete system for producing a molded rubber part. That includes tooling and rubber formulation along with mixing the material, either in house or through one of the custom mixers the firm commonly works with, Anton said, adding that he’s very proud Rahco is a Made in America company.

He said that the company has a chemist on staff to handle compound development and it works closely with the best mold shops to produce precise and capable tools. “We even do assembly projects that may include the fabrication of an automation cell.”

Answering the call

Anton has spent his whole career in the rubber industry at Rahco, a family business that was founded by his father Bill and two partners in the early 1970s. It was incorporated in 1972 after they bought a small rubber portion of a business being sold by phonograph needle maker Fideltone, where Bill Anton was employed.

One of the partners ran the firm until 1976 before deciding to step down because of health issues and Bill Anton asked his oldest son Steve to head up the Rahco operation.

At the time, Steve Anton, a 1973 graduate of Benediction College in Atchison, Kan., was working in sales at a computer microfilm business. “I didn’t want to do it,” he recalled, “and at first I said no. But I thought about it for awhile and was single at the time with an apartment and a car payment and figured, what the hell.” He was 24 years old at the time.

Bill Anton was president of the business, but continued to work at Fideltone, where he remained until he retired from the firm years later. Because of that, he never took a paycheck at Rahco. Bill Anton passed away in January.

“He never pushed me,” Steve Anton said. “He loved the business until his death, but he never pushed. He never got involved in the decision making—only if we brought him in and then he would give us his thoughts. But he was very emotionally involved and led by example. He was a major influence on me. Even today, I think at times, what would he have done?”

In 1976, Rahco had four employees operating out of a 5,000-sq.-ft. facility that housed seven presses.

Jim Anton joined the company as a vice president in 1979 and Steve’s other brother Jack, also a vice president, followed in his older brothers’ footsteps a few years later. “Titles mean nothing to us,” Steve Anton said. “I’m the president and one of three owners with my brothers. We share the duties.”

The Antons took over ownership of the business in 1977-78. “When we started off, we knew nothing … and we just learned as we went along,” Steve Anton said.

But they did learn quickly. And the company grew steadily in the next four decades. Today its Des Plaines plant spans 60,000 square feet.

“We continue to challenge ourselves with the complexity of projects we take on because we have to distance ourselves from the low cost (commodity) producers,” Anton said.

He’s involved with many of the company’s customers on some levels. “My strength is selling and getting our message across in an enthusiastic way,” he said. “I like getting them involved. That’s not a trick or a ploy. That’s how I feel. People will say after a tour of our factory, ‘I see you’re passionate about this.’

“We’re all consumers as well. We want to buy from people who want to work with us. We don’t want to be a commodity seller. We want to be a relationship seller.”

Major challenge

Ranking at the top of the list of the biggest obstacles Rahco has faced is competition from offshore companies. “It began in the late 1990s, early 2000s and we had to get a lot better at what we did and a lot better at our business in order to compete,” according to Anton.

He can cite specific customers who helped the firm to up its game with their high profile complicated products with high quality requirements. They played a significant role in elevating the company to the next level, he said.

Rahco has relied on organic growth rather than expanding through acquisitions during the last four decades. It takes longer, Anton admitted, but it often lasts.

For instance, the company just added two new 500-ton injection presses and it is planning to add a 700 ton press for a new project. The firm also intends to bring new engineers on board to help handle a growing work load.

It intends to remain a family owned operation. Steve’s brother Jim is four years younger than his older brother and Jack is 10 years younger. In addition, Jim has a son and a daughter involved in the business.

“It’ll stay in the family,” Steve Anton said. “I want to make sure it’s strong and healthy and in a real good place.”

In 10 years, he said, “I see Rahco as a much larger company. We are dedicated to continual growth and have committed our resources to this end. We think our sales and marketing efforts are laying the foundation for a bigger and better Rahco.”

He said he has always loved going to work every day. “In the early days it was really an adventure as we were just trying to learn the business and survive.

“Additionally, I really enjoy figuring out the best method of producing a rubber part and then watching the process develop. I also love our Rahco family and the many great relationships we’ve developed with our customers and suppliers.

Anton said he has no plans to retire or slow down any time soon. He rigorously works out five days a week and also enjoys golf, playing guitar and he intends to take up skiing again after he dropped the sport 20 years ago.