Forty Years of Growth Built on Humble Foundations
1983 was full of events that made an impact on the world. Motorola introduced the first mobile phone, Cabbage Patch Dolls were all the craze, and the TV show M*A*S*H ended its long run with a then-record 125 million viewers on the final episode. And in Auburn, Indiana, Jerry Rathburn, an experienced Chief Engineer at Dana Corporation was finishing plans to start his own manufacturing business.
“I always wanted to go into manufacturing,” Rathburn says as he looks back to the origins of the company. “In my role as a chief engineer, I was limited in what I could do in that company. But at night I came home and made things. I made tractors, street rods, pedals … whatever I needed to satisfy my hobby or interest at the time. I was having fun at night and working during the day. So I left my day job and started Rathburn Tool & Manufacturing.”
According to Jerry, it wasn’t so much that he was leaving one job for another. It was leaving a job to do what he loved “so I never had to go to work again”, he adds. Like all small start-ups, Rathburn had hopes of profits and at least matching the money he had earned as a chief engineer, but “money wasn’t the motivator for me”, he says. “Money was strictly something I had to have to take care of my family.”
To get a jump start on his new business, Rathburn bought out a local machine shop located in an old truck wash that had two manual mills, a gravel floor, and machines on wood blocks. It was the kind of humble beginnings that sometimes lead to great things. “The old building had low ceilings, like seven feet or something similar,” Jerry says, “so when you stood up on equipment you had to be careful not to hit your head on the ceiling.”
The building also didn’t have gas furnaces to help during the cold Indiana winters. “I bought coal directly from West Virginia and we used that to heat the place. Sometimes it would get so cold that the coolant in some of our equipment would freeze, so we had to thaw it with coal-fueled heat just to be able to use the machines.”
While some companies fold under the weight of adversity and challenges, Rathburn Tool & Manufacturing was taking the baby steps needed to build a foundation for long-term success.
“I didn’t have a vision for the kinds of products I wanted to make or be known for,” Jerry says. “But I learned very quickly that while our equipment was old and we might have coal heat, we were known as a sophisticated little blacksmith shop. And people trusted us to do good work, no matter what we produced.”
That trust enabled the fledgling Rathburn Tool & Manufacturing to build a steady stream of customers across the area. “We were willing to do small and dirty jobs no one else was doing at the time,” Rathburn mentions. “Because of our equipment, we couldn’t do anything technical yet, but people knew we could do the dirty work. And because they knew we would do the work right, every time, they continued to give us projects that enabled us to start growing.”
Rathburn began purchasing additional equipment, often opting for used machines so he could get better value for his money on a small-company budget. Each machine enabled the crew to produce more, and more sophisticated, parts. Over time, this also meant the company could expand to a new location, add people, and shifts, and become the Rathburn Tool & Manufacturing people know today.
Follow this series to learn more about Rathburn’s origin story, lessons in leadership, evolutions in equipment, and the importance of treating people well.