Neil Tillotson, The Wizard of Dixville Notch
Tillotson Rubber Company was founded in 1931 by entrepreneur Neil Tillotson, or “Mr. T,” as he was affectionately called. Synthetic rubber had been invented only 20 years earlier by Russian scientist S. V. Lebedev, and latex (rubber in its liquid form) had just been introduced in the 1920s. Those breakthroughs, combined with processing and vulcanizing technologies developed earlier and improved during the 1910s and 1920s, initiated a new era for the rubber industry. During World War I, particularly, demand for rubber surged as warring nations sought substitutes for limited traditional rubber supplies.
Tillotson got into the latex and synthetic rubber industry just as it was dawning. The 16-year-old Tillotson left a commercial trade school early, forgoing a probable future as an accountant to pursue his interest in technology and engineering. He answered an ad for a position in Singapore with the United States Rubber Company, but a concerned uncle arranged for him to take a job closer to home with the Hood Rubber Company laboratory in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts. His experiences at Hood, a processor of natural rubber, eventually led him to become interested in emerging synthetic rubber technologies and to form his own company.
From the start, the adventurous, ambitious, and forward-thinking Tillotson was destined to run his own unique and successful enterprise. And his background had prepared him well for the challenges he would face. His ancestors had thrived in the Northeastern United States before the French and Indian Wars, and Tillotson was raised by frugal, independent Yankees in northern Vermont. His upbringing taught him that “the simple solution was often the best one and that an open mind was the seed bed of successful solutions,” and that “if you own things at the ‘right price’ you never have to worry about being able to make a profit.”
Tillotson had shown his entrepreneurial bent at the age of ten. He saved enough money to buy a 1,000-mile book of commuter railroad tickets, for which he paid only two cents per mile. The cost of a single ticket was three cents per mile. The enterprising Tillotson was able to rent the books to other travelers at a rate of two-and-one-half cents per mile and turn a quick profit. According to his son Tom (in a 1990 speech to the Newcomen Society), that “fifty-fifty sharing of the benefits between the participants in a transaction became the cornerstone of his business philosophy.”
By the time he was in high school Tillotson was anxious to be on his own. He left home and high school early, in his early teens, and managed to find work on a chicken farm for room and board in Lowell, Massachusetts. He began attending the commercial trade school to prepare for a career in accounting. Shortly thereafter he left to take the job with Hood Rubber. He would work for Hood Rubber for several years before starting his own business, but not continuously. Shortly after taking the job at Hood, he quenched his desire for adventure by enlisting in the cavalry during World War I. The underaged recruit–Tillotson lied about his age to get in–expected to go to Europe, but was sent to Texas instead. Interestingly, Tillotson served as a cavalry trooper under General Pershing, chasing the infamous Pancho Villa through the hills of northern Mexico.
In 1918 Tillotson returned to Boston, and to his job at Hood Rubber. He studied engineering at night school, but his boss at Hood quickly realized that Tillotson’s problem-solving abilities and lab skills were largely innate. Tillotson, a high school dropout, in many ways was outperforming graduate engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In fact, Tillotson’s lack of formal training was a plus in that he often reached solutions based on intuition–Tillotson later adopted a lab technique championed by rubber industry guru Harvey Firestone of not taking any lab notes and minimizing formality in an effort to enhance creativity and problem solving.
After latex was invented in the 1920s in Germany, Hood Rubber assigned Tillotson to a team of researchers that investigated uses for the natural liquid rubber. Tillotson quickly realized that a big advantage that latex had over hardened natural rubber was that it could be used to create products without heavy machinery. Although Tillotson was fascinated by latex, Hood Rubber showed little interest in the material because it had already invested heavily in hardened rubber technologies. So Tillotson worked in his attic lab at home, along with his unemployed brother and father-in-law, to develop a product that they could produce with latex and sell.
True inspiration to develop a product came to the threesome early in 1931, when fallout from the Great Depression forced Hood to shut down its Watertown plant for a few weeks and to furlough its workers. The entire Tillotson family worked almost endlessly during the downtime to perfect their first marketable product: a balloon made with ears and painted with a cat’s face. A Boston novelty company named C. Decieco & Son was Tillotson’s first customer. Decieco purchased more than 2,000 of the balloons and was able to sell them the next day at a parade in Lexington.
The Tillotson family went to the parade to see how their product was received. Neil Tillotson was sure that they had a hot product on their hands when he saw a little girl pull her balloon down and kiss the cat’s face. The next day he sunk his entire savings of $720 into his new venture. He rented a factory for $25 per month and started what was first called Gardner Rubber Co. and soon dubbed Tillotson Rubber Co. Incredibly, the fledgling business churned out a whopping 5 million balloons during its first year of business. The company generated sales of $85,000 that year and turned a tidy profit of $5,000, which was an impressive sum for a business started with only $720 in the midst of the Depression.
Tillotson left his job at Hood in 1932 to devote all of his time to the new company. He paid $8 for a Greyhound bus ticket that would allow him unlimited stops on a trip from Boston to St. Louis. For five weeks he jockeyed from town to town. When he would get to a new city he would get the names of wholesale novelty dealers out of the phone book at the bus station and then visit and try to sell his cat-faced balloons to them. True to his frugal upbringing, he cut costs by sleeping on the bus, washing in men’s rooms, and eating sparingly in small-town cafeterias. He returned from the five-week trip with a bounty of orders for the upcoming year.
Tillotson managed to grow his company throughout the early and mid-1930s, despite the rough economy of the period. In 1937 he moved to a larger manufacturing facility. He also began developing and manufacturing a few other latex products, including latex-coated gloves and aprons for chemical workers. During World War II, when demand for latex and other rubber products soared, Neil Tillotson served as a consultant to the War Production Board, identifying sources of rubber to replace depleted natural supplies.
It was not until after the Second World War that Tillotson’s sales soared. Balloons continued to be the company’s mainstay, but Tillotson began experimenting with other products. Among other successful offerings, the company developed and manufactured latex girdles, baby pants, and latex-coated ink sacks. Tillotson Rubber secured its niche by staying on the cutting edge of technology. The company built the first high-volume automated dipping conveyor, which allowed a single operator to produce large volumes of balloons and other goods at a rapid pace. The high-tech machine was a major advancement, as most companies at the time still performed latex dipping by hand using racks. The conveyor was still in use in the early 1990s, producing boots that kept windshield wipers from freezing in the winter.
Tillotson Rubber’s big breakthrough came in the early 1960s, although the company would not fully capitalize on the breakthrough until the 1970s. Neil had hired a part-time lab technician named Bud Consolie. Consolie, who was a full-time fireman, became known in the company as a development genius. He was instrumental in helping Tillotson Rubber to develop the first latex medical glove. The chief advantage of the glove was that it was elastic, so one size easily fit all hands. With gloves and balloons as its core products, Tillotson Rubber managed to post average annual sales of about $1 million throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s.
Neil’s sons, Rick and Tom, became involved in the business in the 1960s and in 1971 the family restructured the company as a partnership composed of all three men. Rick took charge of plant operations and Tom assumed responsibility for sales. The brothers started moving the company’s manufacturing operation to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, where their father had purchased a hotel called The Balsams. The hotel had been a successful resort near Neil Tillotson’s grandparents’ home when he was a boy. It went bankrupt in the 1960s and Neil purchased it with the intent of running it as a hotel, or even as a factory for his company. It eventually became both; the Balsams became a premier ski resort in the 1970s and was also used to house part of the company’s manufacturing operations.
Tillotson Rubber flourished during the 1970s and much of the 1980s under the direct guidance of Tom and Rick. Rick took control of the balloon business, diversifying from conventional novelties into new markets for balloon bouquets, balloon sculptures, and mylar foil balloons. The company was eventually churning out more than 100 million balloons per year, and it was still producing the original cat-faced balloons. Tom oversaw the medical glove business, which grew rapidly. By the mid-1980s Tillotson was operating the largest examination glove plant in the world. A subsequent plant expansion gave the company a production capacity of more than 1 billion gloves annually.
Meanwhile, Neil Tillotson remained active in the business and pursued related interests. In 1972 he engineered the purchase of the former Firestone Tire & Rubber facility in Fall River, Massachusetts. It became the foundation of the company’s manufacturing expansion in the Northeast. In the late 1970s Neil pursued a goal he had set during World War II of developing a commercially viable source of natural rubber latex in the Americas. He bought 35,000 acres on the east coast of Nicaragua on which he planned to build a plantation, but the property was seized a few years later by the rebel Sandinista government. In 1979 Neil purchased an experimental plantation in Guatemala from Firestone. He nurtured the plantation and by the late 1980s all of Tillotson’s latex glove operations were being supplied by the local source. Neil even bought a freighter and built a latex processing plant as part of an effort that resulted in full vertical integration for the company.
Aside from innovative products and manufacturing technology, Tillotson Rubber Co.’s success throughout the mid-1900s and through the 1980s was largely attributable to Neil Tillotson’s partnership philosophy. Tillotson believed that any time the right people were brought together with the right products, success was imminent. Thus Tillotson’s organization was essentially composed of a number of partnerships that gave responsibility for different aspects of the business to different people or entities.
For example, Tillotson marketed its latex examination gloves by forming numerous partnerships with medical products distributors. To set up that marketing stratagem, the company formed a partnership with a respected Tillotson employee named Cal Robinson. The Tillotsons helped Robinson set up his own company, which ultimately assumed responsibility for all aspects related to marketing the gloves. Meanwhile, Tillotson handled all manufacturing-related duties. As with all of the company’s partnerships, the arrangement created a win-win situation in which all parties benefited.
Tillotson’s partnership strategy eventually resulted in a network of companies centered around Tillotson Rubber Co. Those companies, by the early 1990s, included the following: Best Manufacturing, a top producer of industrial gloves; Tillotson-Pearson, a maker of fiberglass sail and power boats and industrial fiberglass products; Textile Rubber and Chemical Company, the largest independent supplier of backing compounds used by the carpet industry; and Borden and Remington Chemical, which was a leading New England manufacturer and distributor of industrial chemicals.
Among the most prosperous of Tillotson’s segments during the late 1980s was latex gloves. The fear of contracting and transmitting AIDS in the medical community, and in other markets, spawned massive demand growth for hand protection.Â Remarkably, the company’s 97-year-old founder, Neil Tillotson, was still active in the company in 1995 after nearly 65 years of service. He died at age 102 on October 17, 2001.
Principal Subsidiaries: Best Manufacturing.
Source:Â International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.