Alliance Rubber Holds World Together for 100 Years
What started in a garage from hand-cut, factory reject inner tubes in Alliance, Ohio, has become the last U.S. rubber band company remaining in America that’s been “holding your world together for 100 years.”
Bonnie Spencer Swayze is president of the company, now based in Hot Springs, Ark., taking over the business from her father William Spencer, who started the company at the age of 32 in 1923.
The third generation includes Richard’s daughters Michelle Spencer Hitt and Brandi Spencer McAlpine.
And Michelle’s daughter Morgan, a “great golfer” who graduated from Arkansas Tech, starts off the fourth generation as she pursues her master’s degree while interning at Alliance on the weekends.
“It’s important that family members get outside experience in other businesses to know what the real world is like,” Swayze said, adding that it is important to build experience against adversity in the “vicious and brutal” business environment.
Because adventuring into the real world is at the core of Alliance’s founding.
In 1904, 13-year-old William Spencer left his Franklin, Ky., home to head out west with $25 in his pocket and his ambitions on his sleeve.
For the next several years, he traveled by rail in search of his “personal ‘manifest destiny’ ” before his travels brought him to Alliance, Ohio, in 1917, this time with $3 in his pocket.
“He had 100 different jobs. He didn’t have money a lot of times for train fare, so he would ride under the box cars, in the box cars, on top of the box cars,” said Swayze.
For the following six years, Spencer worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad until he acquired several high-pressure, factory reject inner tubes on auction in Akron in 1923.
He brought these inner tubes to his boarding home garage in Alliance, where he cut them by hand into rubber bands, and thus Alliance Rubber Co. was born.
Swayze said her father continued to produce rubber bands in this manner for the next 14 years while moonlighting with the Pennsylvania Railroad to cover the costs of running his business.
In 1937, Spencer finally quit his work with the railroad, and Alliance began extruding its own tubing following the purchase and renovation of an old laundry building during the Great Depression at 629 N. Union Ave.
“With the purchase of a facility and the installation of the necessary equipment, we were able to manufacture our own rubber tubing from crude rubber,” the company says in its own commemorative publication, “A Centennial History of Alliance Rubber.”
In 1957, Swayze said, Spencer would produce his first 1 million pounds of rubber bands.
“Today, we do over 15 million pounds of rubber bands (a year), plus hundreds of different custom silicone products (and) lots of added specialty products,” she said. “(Alliance has) really grown from humble beginnings.”
From the 1940s on, Alliance Rubber would open, close, reopen and consolidate several manufacturing, warehouse and sales locations, including today’s Hot Springs location and the company’s beginnings in Alliance; as well as Slidell, La.; Franklin, Ky., where Spencer bought his family farm on auction; San Francisco; New York City; Walldorf, Germany; South El Monte, Pomona and Salinas, Calif.; and Phoenix, Ariz.
The company closed its Alliance facility in 1991 and its Franklin, Ky., operations in 1997, consolidating both in Hot Springs, which has received several expansions since its initial opening in 1944. Both its Hot Springs facility and Salinas warehouse, which opened in 1988, are in operation today.
Made in America, made to last
Making it to 100 years isn’t something Alliance takes for granted. Especially when less than 1 percent of American businesses make it to such a milestone, Swayze noted.
Alliance owes this in part to its continuity, she said, which has helped form lasting relationships with customers across 60 countries, including more than 1,200 dealers and distributors.
She said Alliance’s customers can count on the company’s reliability and dedication to “getting them the optimum value in quality, price and services,” adding that if a customer needs something special done in silicone or bands, “we’re there to rise to the occasion and do the R&D they need.”
And for the company’s domestic customers, American-made products is more than a tagline.
“American-made means fresher stock, faster service, availability and top quality when (customers) need it, and the ability to design new products quickly for them.”
Since 1979, a peak in U.S. manufacturing at nearly 20 million jobs, Swayze noted that these jobs have shrunk to about 12 million, due in part to offshoring, or globalization.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing experienced “steady but cyclical growth” in the 40 years building up to 1979.
“At its peak in June 1979, manufacturing employment represented 22 percent of total nonfarm employment, but that share had fallen to 9 percent by June 2019,” according to the bureau.
The bureau also noted that job growth in other sectors in the U.S.—like professional and business services, education and health services, and hospitality, among others—also contributed to the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.
“For 100 years, we’ve been supporting American (manufacturing) jobs,” Swayze said. “It’s very important to us to contribute to the American economy. The U.S. manufacturing segment has about 12.7 million workers, which is about 8 percent of the total U.S. employment.”
She said one manufacturing job can support four additional jobs in the surrounding community.
We are a family of 150 families,” she said. All who take pride in being an American company with American-made products.
Of the 150 people, more than 70 percent have been with the company for more than five years, Swayze said, noting several employees have even been with the company for 25, 30 and 35 years.
She added that almost all 35 managers have begun at Alliance at entry level positions.
“We’re very much interested in furthering the education of our people, nurturing them and making sure they are successful for a lifetime career at Alliance,” Swayze said.
“And the good thing about our people is they’re extremely pro-U.S. manufacturing, and proud of their U.S. craftsmanship,” she added.
Fifty years ago, Swayze said, there were 12 rubber band manufacturers in the U.S.
“Today, we are the last one standing,” she said.
And as a woman-owned business, celebrating 100 years during Women’s History Month—just one day before International Women’s Day—is not lost on Alliance.
Looking through the company’s archives, Misty Smith, creative director at Alliance, said the company has always had a fair share of men and women.
“And as of today, 47 percent of our work force is women,” she said. “Everyone is very much treated equally, and women are at the table with the men just the same.”
Banding together against adversity
As Alliance exited the Roaring ’20s and entered the Great Depression, the company met rising demand for its products, which at the time mainly targeted newspapers and agricultural growers.
When Alliance began extruding its own rubber in 1937, it eliminated its reliance on other suppliers’ tubing and helped transform itself into “a thriving business that employed more than 20 individuals” in a time the community needed it most, according to the company’s commemorative publication.
When humble beginnings meet such growing pains like the Great Depression in the 1930s, followed by supply shortages due to World War II in the 1940s, a company must maintain flexibility—or in this case, elasticity.
“Not only is our product elastic, but that is the way we operate,” said Smith, who has been with the company for five years. “We remain flexible, (and) we know that we have to in every single way.”
With elasticity is the ability to bounce back. And bounce back Alliance did in the 1950s, with the invention and patent of the Open Ring rubber band, which “set the world’s standard for efficiency and ease of application,” compared to its flat counterpart.
The design of this new band allowed for faster, single-handed application, according to Alliance, which noted that this open design dominates today’s rubber band market.
The company would continue to invent and patent new bands, such as freezer bands and Zip Bands for the U.S. Postal Service in the 1960s, Big Bands for retail in the 1970s, and the world’s first printed Ad Bands in the 1980s.
It’s because of this history of flexibility and creativity that the company continues to persevere in the face of challenges today, Swayze said.
When faced with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Alliance provided silicone and rubber strips for the backs of face shields.
“We had never, in 97 years, done any strips of that nature, and we were putting out millions and millions every week,” Swayze said, commending the company’s R&D and engineers for working around the clock to ensure a quality product was developed and shipped across the U.S.
100 Years – and Counting
Alliance says it’s hard to see what may be around the corner as it looks to its next 100 years, but its innovation, creativity and—of course—elasticity all are sure to be there.
“Growth is very important to us,” Swayze said. “We want to be able to provide the new, exciting products that our customers will be requiring.
“…We’re very open minded to new opportunities,” she added.
She said Alliance attends an average of 15 trade shows every year around the globe, as it values the back and forth between customers new and old for the “opportunity to try new products.”
But above all else, Swayze knows the company can rely on its strong work force, calling it the “backbone of our organization.”