FEBRUARY 2009

A Closer Look E-mail the author

Huffman Rubber, Inc.
Alan Huffman • 517-568-3353

Huffman Rubber got its start in 1989 when Alan Huffman realized that farming wasn’t working out for him. “Potatoes and onions were so cheap, you couldn’t make a living,” he said.

Huffman’s brother, a lawyer, made a connection in the tire and rubber business, and Huffman decided that rubber recycling was the way to go. Unfortunately, that deal fell through, but Huffman stayed in the business. “Once you’re in it, you’re in it.”

But as a newcomer in the industry, he made his share of mistakes. He rented space in storage sheds that he had previously used for his potatoes and onions. The renter filled the space with 25,000 tires, and then vanished. Huffman wasn’t getting the rent he was due, and he was stuck with all of the tires on his property.

“I bought three or four shredders in a row that wouldn’t make a good boat anchor,” he said with a laugh. One of those shredders could only handle 150 tires an hour “on a good day,” but more often than not the teeth fell out or it just wasn’t working the way it was supposed to.

Now, the company has six tire shredders, and they’re all working just fine. Huffman’s brother is a part-owner of the company, and Huffman’s son, Jim also works there. Along with the family, there are 28 employees at the company.

Huffman said that his son “helps me get accounts; he deals with the buffing guys.” With an engineering degree, “he knows all about rubber and plastics,” from the chemical perspective, and that knowledge is part of the company’s future. “We got some R&D going on,” Huffman said. “I can’t talk about it.”

Meanwhile, Huffman handles the material from a large tire chain in Michigan, as well as some other, smaller accounts. Six semis, five straight trucks and “a hundred or so” trailers make up the fleet.

Huffman said that one of the biggest challenges is product quality. “So many things can go wrong with a shredder.” His customers want a product of consistent size, with all of the bead wire removed.

While much of the material goes to power companies as fuel, the company also sells to places that make floor mats, playground surfaces, football areas, and some goes to plastic injection molding companies who use the rubber as filler material in their plastics.

The future might bring the company a press to use some of its own material, “We’re going to make something,” Huffman said, but for right now he’s not sure what that something might be.

Since the business started, the company has expanded its markets significantly in terms of both inbound and outbound material. Huffman explained that keeping that balance is very important in Michigan, where the law requires that the company sells at least 75 percent of the material that comes in during the year, and where “you can’t have a big pile of tires.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sets these standards, and Huffman said that in all the years he has been in business, he has only received one warning letter. In that case, a tuft of grass was growing on one of his earthen berms, and all it took to comply with the letter was to go up on the berm and pull out the grass. “I’m legal in every way,” he said.

At 64 years of age, Huffman said that he could retire, but said, “I like to play the game.” He enjoys the competition for the customers, and he likes to be the one doing the negotiations. “I like doing the dealing.”

But it’s not always easy, particularly with the economy. “I’m proud that I made it through 2008,” Huffman said. “Many people didn’t. It’s scary.” He does, however see light at the end of the tunnel, and thinks that the economy will pick up very soon for his business.

As for the future? “We’re going to be making tire rubber, and we’re going to be making products.”