The employees at RK Rubber in Milwaukee are craftsmen, using their experience and knowledge of rubber products to experiment until they find a solution for customers.
“We’ve called ourselves the problem solvers for a number of years,” said Dell Gutknecht, general manager. “We’ll make things without necessarily having to invest a lot of money…to find out what works.”
In the changing manufacturing landscape, RK Rubber is one of few rubber fabricators left in the Milwaukee area, crafting conveyor belts, gaskets and O-rings, sheet rubber, rubber sleeves and custom rubber parts.
Since there are fewer small rubber fabrication shops, RK has gained more national work from original equipment manufacturers.
“40 percent of our business is for other rubber distributors or other rubber fabricators across the country,” Gutknecht said. “I think we offer some expertise second to none when it comes to conveyors and conveyor trouble shooting.”
RK also has large local customers, like those who build mining equipment that contains rubber parts, paper companies and those setting up frac sand machinery and operations in the state.
“(Frac activity) has been a curse and a blessing because those guys work 24/7,” Gutknecht said. “We’re small enough to be able to do that for people but we’re big enough to know how to do things right.”
The company, officially Reichel-Korfmann Co. Inc., was purchased by Don Gutknecht, Dell’s father, in 1987 from the Korfmann family. Don is majority shareholder, and Dell also has an ownership stake.
When it was founded in 1898, RK made products used in breweries; but as brewing declined, the company transitioned to rubber products, since it already supplied rubber bungs, corks, hose, rubber buckets and flat power-transmission belts.
Dell prides himself on having the longevity and business experience to know where to invest money in his business. Quality materials come first.
“I try to buy almost all of my materials from domestic sources,” he said. “To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if the material costs $2 vs. $1.80 if I’ve still got $50 in labor.”
He also invests in sending his employees to training schools and assuring they have the expertise to determine the problem with a conveyor on a customer’s site.
All of the material comes in as 48-inch or 72-inch wide rolls of rubber, either cured or uncured. Then RK splices, cuts, punches holes, bores and counter bores the rubber until the product is complete.
Uncured rubber is necessary for splicing operations, where two pieces of rubber are joined together, layer by layer. Then, RK seals and cures the product.
“There’s a lot of chemistry that goes into it,” Dell said. “You do a lot of experiments for the best adhesion and strength.”
Rubber sleeves are RK’s most popular product, since they have many uses across a wide range of industries, from sausage stuffing equipment to loading a truck with concrete to milling grain.
RK Rubber is housed in a landlocked 16,000-square-foot building on Milwaukee’s northeast side. While the Gutknechts would like to move operations to a larger facility, they haven’t found the right opportunity.
“I couldn’t relocate and leave this property empty,” Dell said. “We need a larger facility—we’ve been doing more and more field splicing.”
The company brings in about $2 million in annual revenue and Dell expects about $2.5 to 2.7 million in revenue for 2012.
He attributes the growth to some pent up demand following the recession.
“At some point, you have to decide when you’re investing in your business,” Dell said of customers.