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Rubber Baron

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Eddie Cobankiat welcomes people he meets with a simple greeting, “Hi, I’m Eddie.” The Anvil president and owner of ISO-certified Hicor Manufacturing Corp. is friendly and unassuming. But behind his modest demeanor is a knack for business and being in the right place at the right time.

[Photo of Candid Cobankiat]The Cobankiat rubber business was actually founded by another brother. “At the time, I was studying industrial engineering at UST,” Eddie Cobankiat recalls, “then I took my master’s in Ohio. It just so happened Akron, Ohio is the rubber capital of the world. That’s the place where they invented synthetic rubber. And that’s the reason I got into rubber.”

Cobankiat relates that the research and development (R&D) for all the big tire companies are in Akron: Goodyear, Firestone, Goodrich (which eventually sold its tire business to Michelin in the late ‘80s—Ed.)

“During World War II, Akron was one of the fastest growing cities in the US because of rubber. At the time, the only source of rubber was rubber trees, which are from Malaysia. The Japanese were so smart they cut the supply of rubber from Malaysia, thinking if there’s no rubber, planes cannot fly, tanks cannot roll,” Cobankiat recounts. So the US government invested in R&D so they wouldn’t have to rely on supply from Malaysia. They commissioned our school, the University of Akron, Department of Polymer Science.”

Although Cobankiat studied at the university many years after synthetic rubber was invented by scientists connected with the school, he had a chance to meet one of the inventors. This inspired him further in his chosen career.

Cobankiat says his company, Hicor, now uses mostly synthetic rubber, which is a petroleum byproduct. “The only advantage of natural rubber is its resiliency. Other than that, other properties are more inferior. With aging the rubber tends to get brittle. It doesn’t have resistance to high pressure. Then you need to have chemical resistance, ozone resistance.” But since natural rubber is more resilient, Hicor uses it for its rubber fenders, which are attached to piers so ships are cushioned from impact as they dock.

He points out that after synthetic rubber became popular, the demand for natural rubber went down— and prices followed suit. But lately, Cobankiat has noticed a change. “After more than 20 years in the business, I observed the price of natural rubber grew to be almost steady. Suddenly, in the last few years, it went up because the demand from China became great (leading up to the Olympics).”

Hicor sources its rubber from southern Philippines, from Mindanao. “But now my supplier will say ‘This container is going to China at this price. If you can match the price, I’ll divert the container to you.’ I still source from Mindanao, but I have to buy at their price,” Cobankiat comments ruefully. Synthetic used to be more expensive than natural rubber, he says, but today natural rubber is at par if not more expensive.

There is a disparity in rubber supplies around the world, Cobankiat points out, because Malaysia cut down on land devoted to rubber trees. One big rubber tree plantation was even completely converted to palm oil. “They didn’t know natural rubber would make a comeback,” he says.

Despite all the industry challenges—and competition from China, India, and even Sri Lanka— Cobankiat made sure Hicor stayed on the cutting edge, attaining ISO certification to be able to compete globally.

“I started with small products,” Cobankiat says, recalling Hicor’s early days. “I even used to do cheapy, cheapy ilaw pang-fiesta (inexpensive festival lights). Those would only earn you a few thousand. I used to handle the shop and mix my own compound.”

Today, Cobankiat’s rubber company Hicor has graduated to big, more expensive products with greater value added. His clients are no longer local town fiestas, but large shipping and manufacturing firms in Europe and the US. Still, Cobankiat retains the unassuming demeanor and wide-eyed fascination of the young Akron University student, who was inspired while studying in the rubber capital of the world.—MM

print ed: 06/08

 

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