Listening and developing for 50 years
Specialty Polymers President and CEO Sheryl Southwell has a lot to reflect upon as the Woodburn-based company celebrates 50 years in business – 1969-2019 – this year.
But a considerable amount of that reflection precedes the business, musing back to the conditions her father, Raymond Southwell, negotiated through early in his life before ultimately founding and developing the framework for what Specialty Polymer is today.
Specialty employs 150 workers between two locations; the Woodburn facilities and an east-coast facility established in 2005 in Chester, S.C. But the business that serves customers worldwide had humble beginnings in Raymond's West Salem garage, above which was young Sheryl's bedroom.
Business before the business
"What amazes me looking back is how my dad went from a one-room school house in eastern Colorado, to graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in chemical engineering," Sheryl reflected on her father's upbringing.
Ray was one of 10 kids, a part of a homesteading family that lost its farm in the Dust Bowl and gradually moved to Oregon.
"There was often not enough to eat," Sheryl said. "They had one bed for the boys to sleep in, and one bed for the girls. My father slept with his shoes on so his brothers wouldn't take them.
"Today, we might get frustrated when the water is not hot enough; imagine what it was like going into an outhouse – especially in the winter."
At age 14 Ray transitioned from the one-room school house to Molalla High School where he graduated in 1944. Following a stint as a welder in the Vanport shipyards during World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps before the GI Bill allowed him to follow his interests to college.
Ray earned his degree in 1950, but like many students of the era he also worked in agriculture during the summers. It was in a strawberry field in 1950 where he met Eva Aho, a young lady six years his junior but soon to become his lifelong partner.
Sheryl dons an amused look as she relates that story.
"You pick strawberries in June, and they got married in October," she chuckled. "My mom's dad was not very happy.
"It was definitely a whirlwind romance...but they were married 55 years, until my dad passed in 2005."
Learning polymer in Viking country
Sheryl was one of Ray and Eva's six children, and although she would graduate high school at McNary in Keizer, her most vivid early years were the ones spent in Shoreview, Minn., near St. Paul, where Ray worked for the HB Fuller Company, known for its industrial adhesives, sealants and coatings.
The family was five-sibling strong when they first quested to Minnesota in 1960, adding another while residing there.
The Southwells spent the better part of a decade in Minnesota, and it was there Ray began his first work with polymer. But destined to create his own niche within the field and become his own boss, the family packed up and headed west again in 1969.
"We had one U-Haul trailer, and my dad drove that," Sheryl recalled the journey. "My mom drove the station wagon. And my brother, who was 16, drove the Plymouth Valiant. He had his license for only a few months and now he's driving across the country."
They bounced around with relatives immediately following their return. But a few stones turned fortuitously and a couple of breaks followed to afford the Southwells a new family abode in West Salem.
Eva, who had a degree in education, worked with special-needs kids in the Salem School District, while Ray went to work on his own brand in the family garage, the beginning of Specialty Polymer.
By 1973 Ray had a partner who lived to the north in what is widely considered part of the Portland metro area today. With the Southwell home located in West Salem, Woodburn became an appealing locale to situate the growing Specialty business. Access to the valley's main railroad line was another feature of locating in Woodburn.
Specialty became the second business, after Gem Equipment of Oregon, to set up shop in Woodburn's industrial area just north of 214.
Both are still thriving.
The early Specialty edifice was humble, to say the least.
"There were no windows; it was a big old barn, basically," said Linda Bring, a Specialty accountant who was just the fourth employee hired when she went to work for Ray in 1976.
The company's second employee, a senior polymer chemist, Larry Roth, came on board in 1974 and is also still working for the firm.
Bring still remembers a few "perks" from the early days.
"I did have a metal desk," she said. "(Ray Southwell) had two filing cabinets with a piece of wood (spanned) over the top for his desk."
While there was no doubt about his knowledge of the product, Ray had to get up to speed in other ways.
"All my dad knew was that he wanted to develop and make polymer," Sheryl said. "He had never run a business before; he had never designed a polymer plant; he had never worked in a production role at a polymer plant.
"What he did know was how to design polymer – and how to meet the customer's needs."
Uncle Walter's touch
While the business grew, bit by bit, over the years, Sheryl stresses that there was no strategy involved. The growth came gradually, often in reaction to circumstances or customer needs.
But there was a familial tip handed down, perhaps even developed into an informal credo, may have been a boon to Ray early on.
His older brother, Walter, never had the chance to finish high school, much less attend college. As the oldest in a struggling family, Walter went to work at an early age, and stayed busy throughout his life. But the work carried an education in and of itself, knowledge Walter applied to starting and running his own flourishing business, Palisades Market in Lake Oswego.
Sheryl sensed that her uncle may have had lingering uncertainty due to his scholarly gap, but she also believes that Walter's words to Ray were rewarding ones:
"He told my dad two things: treat people right; invest back into your business."
Ray did both, and Sheryl believes that may have been infinitely influential on Specialty's development over the decades.
Sheryl followed her father's lead in a sense; after high school she returned to the Midwest and earned her degree in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota. She then went to work for a firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Ray and Eva visited, they were impressed with her work. Ray was enough so that he thought: "Why isn't she working in the family business."
By 1998, she was, working alongside and learning from her father.
While developing the product was Ray's forte, he also knew how to listen. That skill proved invaluable as Specialty would grow into a firm that its customers knew would adapt the product to fit their needs.
"My father wasn't an extroverted person at all," Sheryl said. "He liked the technical part; the problem solving.
"But he also developed the product to meet the customer's needs and wants – listening to the customer was very important to him."
That's a legacy the family hangs its hat on today.
Ray's son Jeff Southwell, president of Specialty's TorZo Surfaces brand and Sheryl's son Chris Coduto, who is Sales and Marketing Manager of the company's Roo Glu product, have followed the patriarch and his philosophy into the business today.
Sheryl would say that carries over to all the employees.
"It's built into our business model; how we've structured the company," she said. "All of our investments, whether it is in people or in equipment, is done with that in mind."
Every few months employees gather collectively to go over the vision. Sheryl enjoys pulling out old stories; stories that bring Ray to life within the business culture that the chemical engineer successfully cultivated by trial and error over the years. The mantra-like axioms that emphasize it – responsive, flexible, innovative.
But mostly it sustains through hard work and acting within your principles.
"I'm a firm believer in that everyone comes to work with the intention to do a good job," Sheryl said. "You need to give them the right tools and the right support to let them do just that."
After all, isn't that exactly what Raymond Southwell did?
1969 Ray Southwell starts Specialty Polymers in his garage in Salem, OR
1973 first production building in Woodburn with a 3,000-gal reactor
1985 Polymer development lab built
1989 Built second production building in Woodburn
1997 Roo Glue becomes part of the Specialty Polymers' family
1998 Ray's daughter, Sheryl, joins the company
1999 Ray's son, Jeff, joins the company and a new green field production facility is built in Chester SC
2005 Expanded footprint in Woodburn with addition of new warehouse and administration building
2005 Ray passes away at the age of 78
2005 New polymer development and applications lab, and warehouse built in Chester, SC
2007 TorZo Surfaces introduced, a line of sustainable and innovative materials for commercial interiors
2010 Ray's grandson Chris Coduto joins the company
2015 Chester, SC production site expanded to add capacity
In 2004, Ray Southwell was inducted into the Oregon State University Engineering Hall of Fame. That same year, Specialty Polymers received the Austin Family Business Award for Oregon in the Large Business category.
In 2005, Specialty Polymers received the Most Innovative Product award from SEDCOR.