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Button company offers lessons for business today

Business Archive:
Button company offers lessons for business today

A block from the Eastman Kodak Co. tower on State Street, there is another building, a little less refined and certainly less well-known, but also a powerhouse in its industry–at least at one point. For some 80 years, the eight-story edifice on the corner of Platt and State churned out buttons by the billions. The Rochester Button Co. left the site in 1986, leaving behind lessons that could help its former neighbor down the street today.
Buttons are one of those inconspicuous everyday items whose presence are only noticed when they are absent. Then it is time to scramble for a needle, thread and a spare fastener. For non-sewers, replacing a missing button can bring quite a sense of accomplishment.
A similar pride comes with making something of use.
“When you like (something), you do it well,” Connie Ruffino says.
At the age of 16, Ruffino went to work for Rochester Button. That same year the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. It was 1944 and the country was at war, but the button industry was booming. In 1948, Rochester Button was the largest manufacturer of buttons in the world with more than $5 million is gross sales.
The beginning of button-making in Rochester began when Moses Shantz opened his button factory on North Water Street in 1887. Rochester had become a burgeoning garment town, as ready-to-wear apparel came into fashion after the Civil War.
Near the turn of the 20th century, there were three healthy manufacturers in Rochester making the buttons from natural materials.
In 1926, Rochester Button merged with two of its competitors, and two years later the young son of one of the presidents took over. Neil Broderson was 31 when he took the helm of a firm with more than $1 million in debt.
Buttons had been a safe market until the 1920s, but changing demographics and technology forced Broderson to realign the company’s investments, recreate its markets and essentially reinvent its processes.
Buttons had originally been made from the meat of the Tagua palm nut from abundant forests in Ecuador, Panama and Africa. The Tagua nut produced durable buttons, but the process of transforming the natural material into a round fastener with holes was an extremely labor-intensive process. The nut would pass through the hands of more than 50 workers before the product was finished.
The high-labor investment was not a problem in the late 19th century when immigrants flooded the labor market and, at the same time, increased the consumer market. The demand for buttons remained steady through World War I as American-made buttons traveled overseas in large numbers on the shirts of soldiers and sailors.
But by the end of the 1920s, the cost of importing the nuts was rising and the government had began to ease the tide of immigrants coming to the United States.
Broderson also did not ignore the fact that cheaper plastic substitutes had already penetrated the market for vegetable ivory buttons. Broderson realized the precarious position of his company and proceeded to invest in new material, new technology and new knowledge.
The self-taught scientist and inventor was said to be as adept in the laboratory as he was in the company boardroom. After much research and development, Broderson chose the milk product casein from which to produce his buttons.
Rochester Button eventually erected its own casein plant in Wisconsin to produce 40,000 pounds of skim milk daily. Broderson’s vision allowed Rochester Button to get a jump on the competition and create a new market–before the old one became obsolete.
In the early 1920s, there were more than 30 vegetable ivory button manufacturers in the country. By 1949, there were less than 12.
Paul Grebinger–an anthropology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology who researched the history of the company and sorted through years of records–summarizes Broderson’s philosophy as the following:
“Never sacrifice quality, make haste slowly, and innovate in order to maintain the current advantage built on traditional technologies.”
Under Broderson’s lead, the company continued to find ways to fashion buttons from synthetic rather than raw materials. Rochester Button was the first manufacturer to create a polyester resin substitute for mother-of-pearl buttons in 1950. That led to Capital Plastics Inc., a spin-off company that manufactured plastic for other companies as well.
Several patents for churning buttons out of plastic were developed in the research labs at Rochester Button, one of which was a button-feeding gadget that spurned out the buttons even faster. The Speed Feed Corp. on Mill Street manufactured the invention to other button makers.
Ruffino recalls the Brodersons as being sensitive to the needs of their employees. She remembers the monthly newsletter that was sent out to all of the employees who had enlisted in World War II.
Big Bertha was sent to the men and women who were abroad and at home. News of how the company baseball team was doing, cartoons and recipes of mom’s cooking were sent to 131 Rochester Button workers in 1945. The newsletter also circulated the tidbits of news from the vast amount of letters soldiers sent from their barracks.
But prior to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union organizing the shop in the 1930s, work conditions at Rochester Button were like many sweatshops at the time. In its early days, factory employees worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, with no overtime pay. Other than Sundays, Christmas, New Year’s and Thanksgiving were the only vacation days allowed.
Broderson retired from the company in 1968. A year later, Rochester Button was acquired by Duplan Corp., a clothing and textile manufacturer based in New York City. Since then, the company endured several owners until its closing in 1990.
Duplan went bankrupt not long after it acquired Rochester Button. The succeeding owner, Panex Industries, sold it to Alpine Geophysical Corp. for $20 million in 1984.
Ruffino, who worked at the Rochester facility until it closed, laments how those who succeeded Broderson “mishandled” the fate of the company.
“You need to be in the business to care about it,” she says. In its former days, says Ruffino, management “made you feel like you were part of something; it wasn’t all for nothing.”
Rochester Button shipped its last button on Jan. 1, 1990. The firm spent its last days as a subsidiary of U.S. Plastics, which sold most of the company’s machinery and shipped the rest to a facility in Connecticut.
Rochester Button had moved three years earlier from State Street to Norris Street.
There were only 42 employees left at the end, but Ruffino says she still had many peers who had worked with her through all the years and ownership changes.
Just this year a few of the button makers gathered for a reunion. The “retirees liked (the gathering) a lot,” she says.
Even though Rochester Button is an artifact of the past, Grebinger thinks that its history could provide much insight for changing businesses today.
“The button story,” he says, “is in fact the story of American industry.”

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