Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Clean Seal, Inc. of South Bend, Indiana, serves original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and fabricators in the automotive, marine, military, recreational vehicle and transportation industries. In response to customers’ needs, the company continues to expand its line of products and maintains a huge inventory of parts that can be shipped within 24 hours.
Crisis! It’s a word seen as synonymous with disaster, catastrophe, calamity, even doom. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. In fact, its origin in the ancient Greek word, kninein, simply means ‘decide’, while in ancient Chinese philosophy it’s viewed as both a time of danger and a time of opportunity if the right decisions are made.
But what does this have to do with manufacturing? In 2008, manufacturers across the U.S., large, small and mid-sized ones like Clean Seal Inc., a privately-owned company supplying OEMs, were left reeling as a result of the global financial crisis which led to a recession.
What were the options? Companies could decide to continue with business as usual and try to ride it out and if that didn’t work, file for bankruptcy, let their employees go and fail their creditors. Or they could decide to diversify, which is what Clean Seal did and which proved to be the right decision.
How Clean Seal survived the Great Recession
As General Manager Jeremy Klotz explains, Clean Seal began in 1978 in a garage, servicing recreational vehicle (RV) manufacturers. At that time, standard industry practice involved “a sticky black tape put around windows and doors to keep water out and what would happen over time is the tape would get hot and start to melt and black streaks would run down the sides of the RVs. The company founders saw an opportunity to fix the problem and came up with extruded rubber seals and that is how Clean Seal got started.”
The company grew, moving from the garage to a larger facility and then in 1999 to the 72,000 square foot facility it continues to occupy. From there it supplied a full line of stock and custom extruded rubber seals and gaskets, as well as automotive hose and hose protection parts for the RV industry, which comprised 85 percent of the company’s business until 2008. That was the fateful year consumers, worried about the global financial crisis, stopped purchasing what they perceived as luxury items and the bottom fell out of the RV market.
The RV business has since picked up, says Klotz, and now accounts for about 20 percent of Clean Seal’s business. Not willing to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude, however, the company in the meantime diversified, moving first into the automotive, truck and boat industries. Among its customers today are a variety of manufacturers, including Ford Trucks, Toyota, Daimler Chrysler, Lippert Components and Big Boy Mowers.
In addition to its previous line of extruded rubber seals and gaskets and automotive hoses, Clean Seal now supplies metal springs with applications for just about every type of manufacturing from automotive to musical instruments to rail systems, and customized, molded polymer packaging products.
And as if that’s not enough Clean Seal offers secondary manufacturing services. “We’ll cut, fit and glue areas where we use 3M tape,” Klotz says. “We adhere that onto the seal, so it will stick wherever the customer needs it – around that door or window, or around a hatch on a boat. We try to use the best adhesives like 3M so it will hold up over time and we stock EPDM (ethelyne, propylene, diene, monomer), a sealant known for aging well, being resistant to weather, acids and salt, and maintaining flexibility in different temperatures.”
Doing business with Clean Seal
But while diversification was key to Clean Seal’s phenomenal success in the face of adversity, there are other contributing factors which relate to how the company does business and that sets it apart from competitors.
As Klotz indicated, “Our sales team has heard that many of our competitors aren’t able to get parts to their various customers when they’re needed, but Clean Seal has procedures in place to ensure our customers have those key components when they need them. With over 72,000 square feet, much of which is warehouse space, we stock the inventory that companies need for manufacturing.”
Adds Klotz, “There are a lot of competitors out there and we’ve had to distinguish ourselves from those with our customer service and our dedication, getting our customers what they need on time, when they need it. We’re on time on our orders 99.9 percent of the time, but if something should go awry we apprise the customer of the situation and make it right as quickly as we can.”
The importance of customer relationships and business partnerships is also highlighted in the company’s press release in recognition of its 40th anniversary. “As we reflect on 40 years as a company,” it states, “we realize that all we have accomplished would not have been possible without those business partnerships. Secondly, our employees are second to none. Many have given us numerous decades of employment and dedication. Our employees are passionate about helping our customers reach their goals by helping them select the perfect part, but what sets us apart is that they want to help each other succeed as well. Many businesses don’t last four years, so making it to 40 is a reflection of great leadership and the desire to do the right thing in any situation. With that philosophy we have survived in many different business/financial environments.”
“We’re strongly positioned in our market segment,” Klotz shares. “Other companies have come into the area, but we’ve maintained our competitiveness. We’re not the cheapest company; that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to give great customer service, to provide great products our customers can rely on. We’ve positioned ourselves over the years as the go-to place. We’ll do small orders and we’ll do large orders. People know what we’re about and that has helped us over the years.”
Clean Seal product lines
One thing people know for certain about Clean Seal is that it’s ready to listen to customers. “A lot of times, what will happen is that a customer will call us and in a conversation with customer service, will say, ‘We need this’ or ‘Do you know where we can get this?’” says Klotz.
“Over time those conversations will add up. We start to see a need in that area and we research it and try to figure out how we could fill those needs for current customers who are buying the seals and the automotive hose, and we expand on what we can help them to do. We might manufacture it, or we might bring in a product from an outside company that would be a great fit because we don’t always manufacture. We don’t have a designated research and development department; it’s more of a collaboration, listening to what people need.”
So, what is it that manufacturers say they need?
One thing (well actually about 500 things) they told Clean Seal they wanted were molded products, which led to the Clean Seal Molded Specialties division which stocks almost 500 standard parts such as rubber grommets, grommet bumpers, O-Rings, and bushings with a number of options to choose from including materials (such as neoprene or EPDM), hardness, styles and even colors. Through this division, customers can also obtain custom rubber solutions for different types of applications.
Extruded Plastic Parts is another division within Clean Seal which offers a complete line of thermoplastic parts, providing an advantage when there’s a need for very high durometer seals or gaskets or unique colors for such applications as drip rails or furnace seals. Thermoplastic parts are custom-made and are flame retardant, weatherable, resist UV rays and are anti-fungal.
Recently, Clean Seal went back to its RV roots to create Flip-N-Seal, a patented sealing system for RV slide-outs that fits all molds and is cost-effective, easy to inventory and simple to install. Elegantly simple, it only requires one part to fit all wall thicknesses, gap distances and field replacements industry-wide.
There are also three new divisions at Clean Shield: Clean Shield, Clean Spring and Clean Tote.
Clean Seal, in layman’s terms, is really all about using seals, such as weather stripping and/or gaskets as protection – to keep what needs to stay outside out (for example, rain) and to keep whatever needs to stay inside in (for example, fuel). Clean Shield takes this protection to another level with gaskets designed to control or reduce electromagnetic interface (EMI) and radio frequency interference (RFI) from disrupting electrical devices. Used in critical electronic applications, it will protect their function by blocking electromagnetic interference from such commonly found items as microwave ovens or automatic door sensors.
Manufacturers also asked Clean Shield for customized industrial packaging components which led to the development of Clean Tote. One of Clean Seal’s newest divisions, this product is made from expanded polypropylene (EPP), an eco-friendly, flexible and versatile plastic foam for lightweight cushioning applications. It can be designed and molded to protect components like crankshafts, batteries, wheel rims and bearings, used for automotive interiors and as cushioning for bumpers, and can be designed to support thousands of pounds for heavy duty applications.
A recent acquisition, Clean Spring (the spring and stamping division) offers a complete line of metal springs, compression or torsion, wave or extension, for just about any application, from firearms to furniture and from musical instruments to automobiles.
As the management at Clean Shield celebrates 40 years and looks ahead to the next 40, they’re keeping their collective fingers crossed there won’t be another recession anytime soon. But if there should be one, Clean Seal is in a strong position to come out on top by following its proven formula for success – responding to its customers’ needs and diversifying.