Founded in 1898, Reichel-Korfmann Co. Inc. – also known as RK Rubber – is one of the country’s most-respected fabricators of industrial rubber parts. That reputation comes hard earned, forged by solving problems with innovative, customized solutions that minimize downtime and keep factories and processes humming, year after year, decade after decade.
To survive and thrive for more than 120 years requires a certain business DNA – that uncanny knack for adapting to changing business trends and climates. Over the years, RK Rubber has done just that by growing and evolving into a company that’s as resilient as the rubber it uses to fabricate custom parts and components.
When rubber parts fail; belts engineered by original-equipment manufacturers don’t do the job; or industrial processes require custom-designed and manufactured rubber parts, companies know to call RK Rubber.
1890s - Dynamic Duo Emerges
Of course, there would be no RK Rubber without the two men for which the company is
named Ernst Reichel and Ludwig Korfmann. Their relationship began when they became colleagues at what was then known as the Charles Baumbach Co., a supplier of brewery equipment and beer ingredients that later evolved into the company that bears the two mens’ names today.
Born in 1878 in Milwaukee, Reichel was the son of a Prussian immigrant, Hugo Reichel, who came to America in 1867 at age 17. Hugo arrived in Milwaukee in 1870 and began working for Charles Baumbach.
After graduating from high school, Ernst began his career as a clerk for the Mohr-Holstein Commission Co. After two years there, he joined his father at Charles Baumbach, which had changed its name to Baumbach-Reichel Co. in 1898, reflecting his father’s position in the company. Ernst became company treasurer in 1902.
Korfmann, on the other hand, was born in Germany in 1869. In 1885, just shy of his 16th birthday, he persuaded his widowed mother to let him travel to America with an older friend, promising her he would return in a year. He secured his first job at a department store in Racine, Wisconsin, working for $2.50 a week while paying $3 a week for room and board.
Virtually penniless, he then borrowed $1.50 and moved to a suburb of Milwaukee in January 1886, where he got a job at a combined saloon/grocery store. After holding a couple more jobs, Korfmann became a salesman for a coppersmith named Herman Pietsch, who made mashing equipment for breweries. That eventually led to employment at Charles Baumbach.
In 1898, he became a partner in the business, and rose to the position of president in 1908. In 1922, the company name changed again, this time to Reichel-Korfmann.
1900-1950s - Forging a Rubber Connection
Although its main customers were breweries, the company already was forging a connection with rubber products by supplying corks, bungs, keg-filling lines, pitching machines and other rubber products to breweries. By the 1920s, with Prohibition depleting demand for brewery supplies, the company began to expand into industrial supplies and mechanical rubber.
But the beer industry continued to play a strong role in the company’s fortunes. Convinced that Prohibition would be repealed eventually, Korfmann bought two Wisconsin breweries, the Berlin Brewing Co. in 1920 and the Stevens Point Beverage Co. in 1924, and also invested in hops fields in Washington.
Korfmann remained a prominent figure in brewing circles. When he died in 1941, he was president and treasurer of Stevens Point Beverage, treasurer of Berlin Brewing and vice president of the Old Port Brewing Co. of Port Washington, as well as a member of the Master Brewers’ Association of America.
But the company strove to diversify and become less reliant on the brewing industry. It took a step in that direction as early as 1918, when it started supplying rubber hoses for anhydrous ammonia handlers. That, in turn, led to its status as the first Wisconsin distributor for B.F. Goodrich rubber products, a relationship that lasted for decades.
In 1941, after Korfmann’s death, his son, Calvin, became president of the company. During the ensuing decade, demand for rubber products greatly increased in the 1940s, enabling the company to further diversify its business base, while still retaining brewing-industry customers.
1960-1970s - Business Focus Changes
In 1967, Korfmann, who was preparing to retire, sold the company to Gutknecht and two other employees, the late Bill Ehlers and Lou Miller.
The ensuing two decades proved eventful for RK Rubber as the company adapted to changing times. In the early 1960s, the company moved from its shop on the south side of downtown Milwaukee to the city’s northwest side. In addition, the company switched gears in 1968 and became a distributor of a full line of Goodyear rubber products, including conveyor belts, V-guides and sheet-rubber and engineered products for industrial companies.
“It was a pretty exciting time,” Gutknecht recalls. “We bought the whole kit and kaboodle and had a lot of great ideas and high hopes…and it all paid off.”
The business landscape changed, too. During the early 1960s, business volume was split just about evenly between brewery supplies and rubber products for industrial companies. But the brewery end of the business slowly faded, reflecting a larger beer-industry trend as smaller breweries around the state gradually went out of business.
“It’s a changing world all the time,” Gutknecht points out. “There’s always something new coming along, whether it’s different customers or new fabrics for new applications. We can do so much more now than we could back then, when our resources were more limited.”
“We’ve established a nice reputation,” he continues. “Lots of old companies have disappeared, but there are still plenty around who recommend us to new customers.”
Amid all the changes, though, RK Rubber is, ironically enough, a lot like vulcanized rubber: Even when subjected to pressure and stress, it’s durable and flexible enough to always bounce back strongly.
“The bottom line is we’re the problem solvers,” Gutknecht notes. “It’s what we do best.” For more than 114 years…and counting.
1980s - Go-To Guys for Solving Problems
By the late 1980s, RK Rubber made a key decision that dramatically changed the scope of its business. In order to play to its strength solving problems for customers by fabricating custom rubber products the company decided to end its relationship as a Goodyear distributor.
Changes in the industry influenced the company’s decision. Over the years, distributors became mega-distributors-one-stop shops for everything from rubber products to motors, chains, gearboxes and sprockets that could sell product, but not necessarily service the end-users if things went wrong.
That left a niche for players like RK Rubber, which through decades of experience had established a sterling reputation as problem solvers.
That sharper business focus led the company to move to a larger facility in 1989, creating room for new equipment like a longitudinal belt, splicing press, and vulcanizer that could handle new rubber fabrics and applications. And the company’s clientele changed, too, as new companies emerged and older ones disappeared in the wake of increased global competition and tumultuous economies.
1990s - Centennial Celebration and Looking Forward
After moving from leased space to our own building and doubling our footprint, we installed a longitudinal press with multiple platen sets increasing our ability to cleat belts for magnetic separator belts in a much more competitive manner.
As the industry matured, there was a significant number of mergers and acquisitions. This M&A activity necessitated a higher sales figure per square per square foot for many distributors and fabricators. RK RUBBER saw this as a positive and we retooled our business model from that of a distributor into a fabricator. We became the “fabrication shop” for many of our former competitors. Our years of expertise had come full circle.
Keeping a watchful eye on the changing sheet rubber market and a focused approach on customer service, General Manager Dell Gutknecht has guided Reichel-Korfmann Co. Inc. to its 100-year anniversary. (read full Rubber & Plastics News article by Julie Miller)
2000s - New Capabilities and Expanded Capacity
With our distributor/fabricator relationships building, we became actively involved with NIBA – The Belting Association. Many of the members dabble in fabrication, but are pressed to maximize profit per square foot. Equipment, space requirements and experienced personnel are higher cost than inventory racking that can be turned multiple times a year.
With increasing industry demand we began experimenting and refining our fabrication skill in silicone sheet rubber. Understanding the material and learning to vulcanize this compound allowed us to expand the variety of product options we are able to offer to our customers.
A very large distributor with a segmented rubber fabrication division decides it is no longer cost effective to keep that division in house. They expanded their trust in RK RUBBER and decided to shut down their shop. RK acquires an 18-foot longitudinal press, an eight-foot longitudinal press, a boloney slitter and other equipment.
Our unique and effective splicing abilities continued to evolve and gain respect within the industry. We purchased state-of-the-art field splicing equipment for conveyor belts for direct customers and to service other distributors as their field service experts.
RK personnel take on active roles in the industry.
We serve on NIBA – The Belting Association Committees; Education & Technical Membership and the Board of Directors. We also take active roles as trainers for NIBA 3T – Track Train and Troubleshoot for Heavy Weight Conveyor Belt, as well as HW (heavy weight) Splice School. Yes, we do share our knowledge and 120+ years of expertise with our “competitors.”
In 2013, RK RUBBER was a featured manufacturer and host for the popular radio show, Bob and Brian.
115th Anniversary Celebration
All those years of experience also means we know how to throw a party. A proclamation from Milwaukee’s Mayor, local dignitaries stopping by and a TV news story were some of the highlights of the celebration.
Sgt. Donald Gutknecht enjoys a hero’s welcome at MKE Mitchell International Airport. He took part in the Korean War Honor Flight.
A low light in our timeline…
Donald A. Gutknecht
May 22, 1932 – October 15, 2019
The RK RUBBER “family” along with the Gutknecht family takes this time to share with you the news of the recent passing of their patriarch, Don. He was the longtime owner and President of Reichel – Korfmann Co., Inc. (RK RUBBER). And it is in that capacity that you may have known Don. He was also a caring husband, father, grandpa and great-grandpa. Add to that a proud Korean War veteran and renowned dog trainer and you begin to get a glimpse of the full man.
It is because of Don’s vision, energy and guidance that we at RK RUBBER have and will continue to be a leader in our industry. His endless work ethic has been a model for now a third generation of Gutknechts here on our shop floor.
Of course we grieve and will daily miss this man in our lives. We find comfort in the example he led in life; a man who loved his Lord, his family, and every dog he ever met (in that order).
We respectfully thank you for taking the time to read this special message. May it give you cause for pause during your work day to calibrate and prioritize the things in your life. Don would find that a fitting remembrance.