Gordon Brush® was a proud sponsor of Made In America 2019.
In 1990, Ken Rakusin was reluctant to accept the president position at Gordon Brush®. Now, 29 years later, he has turned the company into an all-American industry leader. In this conversation, Ken discusses his triumphs as president and the company’s growth as he nears 30 years at Gordon Brush in February.
Jason Blount: I’d like to start broad and then get down to the bristles. Can you take me back to your transition from Xerox to Gordon Brush and what that was like?
Ken Rakusin: I left Xerox almost 30 years ago. Around that time, the president of Gordon Brush had a heart attack and his son stepped in to lead the company because it was a mom-and-pop company at the time. He went from doing manual labor in the factory to being the president, and it was clear after about 6 years that the company was suffering under his control because he didn’t enjoy the position. At that time, they decided to look for a new president outside of the family. They posted an ad in the Stanford newsletter and my sister, who’s a Stanford alumna, sent it to me. I responded, and a few weeks later, they invited me in for an interview and to see the facility. I was surprised to see how dark and decrepit the factory was. Later, they showed me their financials, and they weren’t promising–they wouldn’t survive more than 6 months unless changes were made. So, after going back and forth and being persistently asked to take the job, I finally took it in hopes to turn the business around.
Jason: Well, it seems like you’ve definitely done that and more. How much has the company grown since then?
Ken: When I became president, we had 22 workers and a 15,000 square foot facility. Now, we’re at almost 200 team members manufacturing in a total of 250,000 square feet. We own other brands now too–we just made our 11th and 12th acquisitions this year.
Jason: Did that growth take time or did it happen pretty quickly after you took over?
Ken: Actually, for the first 6 years, our profits doubled each year and we continue to look for growth organically and by acquisition.
Jason: That’s amazing how quickly you were able to turn it around. Did you have any ownership over the company when you became president?
Ken: When I first started, I had no ownership. In 1998, the owner’s son and I each bought half the company. Later, in 2010, I bought the other half from my partner who wanted to retire. Now I have full ownership.
Jason: Now you’re head honcho [both laugh]. Can you explain the processing for me?
Ken: Now that we have two large factories, we continue investing in new state of the art machinery so that we can lower our production costs and remain competitive in the world economy. We are very proud that almost all of our products are made in the USA by our American team members.
Jason: We’re glad that an American brand like yours is an industry leader. I also read that you work with the military. What do you do for them?
Ken: We supply the US Government with hundreds of different kinds of brushes. For instance, we engineered a brush that cleans the massive gun barrel on the Abrams tank. When the Abrams tank entered service in the 1980’s, they had no way to clean the chamber of the gun barrel where they create the explosion that launches the munitions. So, when the chamber walls got too full of contaminates, it would make the tank’s aim less accurate and they would discard of the entire gun barrel. This was costly, because each gun barrel cost $150,000. In 2007, we engineered a brush for them that sold for only $150 back then. Gordon Brush® received a letter of commendation from the United States Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) for the development of a “Chamber Brush” that cleans the main gun on the Abrams Tank. The development of this brush saved the Army $1.5 billion.
Jason: Wow, I’m sure that’s been a great investment for them. How does the processing work? Is it mostly automation?
Ken: One of the things that separates us from competitors is that we can make more than 20,000 brushes a day with one operator per shift. We do that with machines and robots. But at the same time, we can also make one at a time for special circumstances–we’re very flexible in that way. Our engineers can design any type of brush if there’s a need for it. We use data and algorithms of the website to continually improve.
Jason: It must be cool to be able to look at that data so easily as opposed to many years ago. Finally, I’d like to ask if you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs or executives?
Ken: One quote that Gordon Brush uses that I love is, “This is America, we can do anything.” We’ve used that for 25 years. That mentality allows us to make anything that somebody throws our way.