From bundling broccoli to U.S. mail, rubber bands made by Alliance Rubber Co. in Hot Springs, Arkansas, have helped Americans organize homes and offices, and operate businesses for more than 90 years.
Company president Bonnie Spencer Swayze, 60, credits her late father, William H. Spencer, with expanding a great idea into the nation’s largest rubber band manufacturer.
In 1923, Spencer noticed newspapers blowing across yards in Akron, Ohio. He bought some rejected bicycle inner tubes and cut them into rubber bands.
“Dad talked to the “Akron Beacon Journal” circulation manager and said, ‘Try this,’” Swayze says. “He also went to the ‘Tulsa (Okla.) World.’” At the time, Spencer worked as a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad while establishing his rubber company in his home in Alliance, Ohio.
“Dad would go to floral markets and produce markets that were using string” to bundle flowers and vegetables, Swayze says. “He pioneered so many uses for rubber bands.”
In 1944, Spencer moved to Arkansas and opened the Hot Springs factory. Today, the company’s 165 employees produce 15 million pounds of rubber bands each year. A third generation, Brandi Spencer, 33, and Michelle Spencer Hitt, 36, helps manage the family-owned business.
Whether tiny loops to weave into bracelets or thick bands to bind lobster claws, most of the company’s rubber bands are made of latex tapped from rubber trees in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
“Latex is considered a rapidly renewable resource because they don’t have to harvest the tree,” says Jason Risner, 31, the company’s marketing manager, noting that about 15 percent of Alliance’s products are made of petroleum-based synthetic rubber.
Using giant automated mixers, Christian Lewis, 29, blends blocks of latex with chemicals that add color and durability to a 500-pound ball of soft rubber dough. The dough is dropped onto a mill that works like a giant rolling pin to flatten the rubber. Strips of the substance then are cut and fed into a machine that extrudes them into long hollow tubes. After curing, the rubber tubes are sliced into bands, weighed, bagged and boxed for shipment. Alliance sells its products to distribution companies around the world.
Carol Young, 64, who labels boxes and has worked at Alliance for 21 years, has high praise for the company. “It’s my second family,” she says.
Young remembers when the price of rubber skyrocketed in 2009 as China’s economy surged and the commodity was in high demand for vehicle tires. “Bonnie said, ‘We’re going to keep the company here in America and not lay anyone off,’” Young recalls. And she didn’t.
By challenging its workers and pioneering new rubber band products, Alliance competes with foreign manufacturers that pay much lower wages than those paid in the United States, Swayze says. The company awards $1,000 to employees who conceive new products and uses for rubber bands, which happens two or three times a year.
Swayze’s brother, Richard Spencer, 66, directs research and helped develop the company’s 2,100 products made from natural and synthetic rubber. Among its products are scented bands, glow-in-the-dark bands, and wristbands printed with full-color art and photos that make them miniature billboards.
Alliance’s Eraselets double as erasers, Cable Wrapz control desk cords, Workout Bands tone limbs and Slip-On Grips help users get a grip on doorknobs, flashlights and jar lids. Latex-free bands are made for latex-allergy sufferers.
“Anytime you receive something in the mail with a rubber band around it, that’s one of ours,” says Swayze, noting that the U.S. Postal Service is the company’s main customer.
For more than 50 years, three generations of owners at Lee Rubber Products in Charlotte, N.C., have bought rubber bands from Alliance.
“The quality of those bands is excellent and it’s helped my success,” says owner Marjorie DuBroff, 60. “But the biggest thing is the Spencers are wonderful people who are conscientious about their workers and good to their distributors.”