ACE Brings Innovation in Technology & Services to the Rubber and Silicone Markets
ACE Laboratories may have seemed like the new kid on the block a few years ago – but make no mistake – this young, dynamic company of highly trained professionals, led by president and CEO Erick Sharp, is no newcomer to the rubber and silicone testing and R&D services industry. With over 100 years of combined experience, the ACE management team is pushing ahead with key growth initiatives to help their current and future customers and the industry.
The company, an ISO 17025:2017 accredited, independent laboratory facility, offers a full-range of high-quality testing, R&D and consulting services to the rubber industry. It also provides industry educational opportunities to address key issues facing the rubber and silicone market.
Housed in a modern 172,000 square foot industrial park facility, ACE is located in the heart of rubber country on 72 acres of land and has ample room for expansion beyond the immediate planned expansion. The company’s immediate access to rail transport and major shipping road routes make it an ideal site for attracting additional polymer-type businesses to the park.
ACE has embarked on a six-phase growth plan that will continue over the next 18 months. Phase I (testing lab) & Phase II (process lab) are complete. Phase III (conditioning lab) is near completion and Phases IV-VI are under construction in ACE’s additional 8,000 square feet of space. That is in addition to the original 10,500 square feet for a total of 18,500 square feet.
Erick Sharp, in front of lab equipment at Ace Products and Consulting’s Ravenna facility.
Photo by Kyle Brown, Rubber & Plastics News
Prior to launching ACE, Sharp worked with Portage Precision Polymers, Inc. (P3) for several years. Then, in December of 2014, P3 was acquired by Hexpol AB and it was then that Sharp decided to exit the corporate environment and start something new.
“I’ve been through this before, going big to the corporate side,” he said. “I’d rather go completely to the other side and start grassroots.”
So, at the start of the year 2015, Sharp decided to launch out on his own and he started ACE Laboratories. The company began operations with some basic testing and R&D equipment in a 2000 square foot facility in Akron, OH.
“That was going well for us and there was a lot of feedback from customers pushing us to go into independent testing and expand the scope of what we were doing,” said Sharp.
He had been looking at “industry anxieties” in the rubber and silicone industry for several years prior and began establishing a plan to build the next generation of an independent testing laboratory with a broader scope for research and development. Sharp noted that he could maintain the business as a small company or look for investment partners to grow and become a world-class laboratory.
He decided to invest in growth. Erick Sharp is a man who is never content with the status quo. He loved the challenge of growing ACE to better serve customers and the rubber industry through innovation and forward-thinking. It was then that he teamed up with three other investors as part of his core team. He began acquiring additional equipment, adding capabilities and planning for ACE’s laboratory accreditation. Moving to Ravenna gave ACE the space to expand while being in a strategic location to key customers.
Pursuit of ISO 17025:2017 Accreditation
Throughout the year of 2017, the ACE team worked tirelessly to earn its ISO 17025:2017 accreditation as an independent testing laboratory – a requirement by many customers. Accreditation was awarded in 2017 and was facilitated by the company’s technical team which consisted of several key employees with many years of experience working in an accredited lab at DuPont.
How ACE Built Their Team
During the year 2017, DuPont laboratories closed its Stow, Ohio location. Sharp was there to seize the opportunity. Several former DuPont employees that Sharp contacted upon the announcement of closing gave him a lead on purchasing used equipment through DuPont’s silent bid method. ACE needed the equipment and entered the bid process. It was there that a Banbury internal mixer, a guillotine cutter and press, and a rebound and resilience tester were purchased.
During that same time, Sharp noticed and was impressed with the professionalism of the people who were assisting him with the evaluation and purchase of the equipment.
“It stuck out to me that they were going through a shutdown and people were losing their jobs, yet they were extremely helpful,” he said. “All the equipment, they had cleaned it and had all the spare parts sitting with it.”
“I thought, ‘there’s a really good culture here,’ and that’s key to what we’re putting in-place at ACE. We have the unique opportunity to build something from the ground up, so we want to be able to choose the equipment, choose the people, choose the culture and choose the way we do things because we know how special that opportunity is, and you get one shot at doing that.”
The employees from DuPont already understood the specific needs and priorities needed for the process of accreditation. It was then that Erick Sharp started handing out business cards and inviting some of those DuPont technical experts to interview at ACE.
“We went from trying to figure out how we were going to source all of the equipment and recruit employees to where we are now,” Erick said. “It accelerated our timeline and expanded our capabilities from what we initially thought – what we needed to do to acquire both – to having experienced people available to hire right out of the gate. That really helped push us forward.”
Those DuPont employees included Doug Foster, ACE’s lab manager, who originally came from DuPont’s Performance Materials Technical Service and Development Laboratory. At ACE, Doug oversees daily operations and assisted with the implementation of the ISO accreditation. Also, from DuPont came John Leonhard who is the quality coordinator at ACE. John managed and maintained DuPont’s quality systems. Wendy Naugle, ACE’s administrative manager joined the team from P3 where she and Sharp had been acquainted previously.
Investors with the Right Stuff
Erick also values input from his highly experienced group of three primary investors. They all have backgrounds in business and help Erick avoid pitfalls as he continues building ACE from the ground up. Two of those investors are silent partners and the third is Doug Hartley, who currently serves ACE as vice president of sales and marketing. Hartley and Sharp share a past history through their work at P3. The two men collaborated on many ideas after ACE was launched and Hartley looks forward to spending time advising and mentoring at ACE.
“I’m focusing on the areas of business I enjoy most which are sales and marketing,” said Hartley. “I and the other investors have all had experiences starting and running businesses in the past. I believe being able to come here and offer what we know about common start-up mistakes and how to avoid them will be of great value to Erick. He can learn from our past mistakes and avoid the things that cost us money. That’s huge.”
Hartley noted that in his younger career journey, he had a mentor who took him under his wing. He credits that mentor with much of his success and now, it is his desire to continue paying-it-forward to a young, very talented and dedicated entrepreneur such as Erick Sharp.
An example of the insight and advice the investors and Hartley offer is the installation of a Laboratory Information System (LIMS). The LIMS system is designed to help track samples and tests for customers in a much more robust and valuable manner than current industry methods. Hartley recognized that some sources have advised on waiting to implement the system. However, Hartley encouraged Sharp to move forward with the implementation of the LIMS system knowing that it would help set ACE apart from other laboratories.
“I knew how costly implementing LIMS would be, particularly not having it available from the start but then having to convert to it later,” said Hartley. “If we came out of the gate with LIMS in-place, that would provide a cost-savings for ACE but also provide a better quality of product right away for customers. That’s vitally important.”
The Right People, the Right Culture
Erick Sharp strongly believes in surrounding himself with the right people on his growing team. He stated that it’s an important factor when building a testing facility, particularly one that incorporates some manufacturing elements as well. And so, during the interviews with the candidates from DuPont and others – ACE reviewed those philosophies with each person and it resonated well. Everyone hired at ACE is of one mind with what the company is trying to accomplish and that makes all the difference when striving for excellence.
“ACE continues to focus on physical and mechanical testing,” Sharp said, in addition to providing evaluations on raw materials. Another service is the capability to do silicone testing.
“We are moving forward with silicone testing carefully,” said Sharp. “We don’t want to be labeled as solely a silicone lab because we are both a rubber and silicone lab. However, a rubber lab that does silicone and has that capability helps set us apart from other rubber labs.”
As silicone becomes more widely used in various applications, ACE’s ability to provide silicone testing opens the door into new markets. Some of those areas where Sharp sees silicone taking over are in the automotive market for heat applications and in the construction market for weatherability applications. Sharp noted that being able to compare samples side-to-side within the same lab is of value to customers.
Erick Sharp is also a man with heart and a big vision. He has a passion for people, the industry and continuous learning. To that end, he is planning to enlist ACE as a means to provide educational opportunities to the industry by establishing approved, free training courses on a quarterly basis.
“We want to put some practical knowledge out there,” Sharp said. “With the lab’s testing capabilities and process equipment, we are in a position to be able to talk about and demonstrate the details of rubber processing and testing in real-time situations. The goal is to make the rubber industry seem less complicated and more practical.”
Longer term, Erick plans to partner with colleges and high schools with the goal of fostering an interest and understanding in students for the rubber industry, ultimately, leading those students into choosing a career in the rubber industry. Training won’t be focused solely on lab testing – it will also include elements of extrusion, molding and fabrication.
“We want to modernize and simplify the concept of rubber to the industry,” he said. “We want to help be that interpreter and find a way that resonates with the learning style of those graduating or just starting out in a career so that we can get people into the industry and maybe make it look cool in the process.”
Erick Sharp is always looking forward to the potential for new growth. If volume continues current trends, he expects to hire additional employees and be close to twenty employees within the next three years.
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