Northeast Philly manufacturing company celebrates 100 years

Stockwell Elastomerics, which makes rubber gaskets at a plant in Upper Holmesburg, has survived a century of change in the manufacturing world.

Decades of dedication: Stockwell Elastomerics opened its third building at its Upper Holmesburg campus in 2018. The structure serves primarily as a warehouse for raw materials. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

It’s rare to find a success story in Philadelphia manufacturing.

Back in the 1970s, many companies moved to the South to cut costs, and, in the early 2000s, more moved to China.

Bill Stockwell, the fourth-generation owner of Stockwell Elastomerics, said his company was tempted to relocate. Some of his clients insisted he set up shop in China or risk losing their business.

“We had the decision before us whether to move over to China or set up a second facility in China,” Stockwell said. “Our decision was no; we didn’t want to do it.” 

This year, Stockwell Elastomerics, which has a three-building plant in Upper Holmesburg, is celebrating its 100th anniversary — a full century of doing business in the Philadelphia area.

Old photographs show Stockwell Elastomerics’ first building at 6th and Arch streets as well as a family photo featuring company founder Frederick Stockwell. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

The company, formerly known as Stockwell Rubber Company, manufactures rubber and silicone gaskets and seals. It’s mainly a business-to-business firm, and buyers include Lockheed Martin, General Electric and a host of technology companies, Stockwell said. 

Elon Musk’s SpaceX purchased gaskets from Stockwell Elastomerics for its returnable booster rocket. The first successful mission involving one of the rockets, the Falcon 9, drew much fanfare and publicity in 2015.

Most of the time, people using products with the company’s gaskets aren’t even aware part of their device was made in Northeast Philadelphia. Stockwell said the gaskets are usually well-hidden.

The decision not to outsource production meant that Stockwell Elastomerics had to transition from a high-volume manufacturer to a company that makes a lower volume of more specialized products, Stockwell said.

Clients will ask the company to help design a gasket or seal to solve a problem with something they’re building.

“A lot of the customers have gotten very specific about what they want,” said Parkwood native Bob Walsh, Stockwell’s value stream manager, during a tour of the site.

Many of the 93 employees work in one of two buildings where gaskets are cut, molded and packed. The company has a variety of specialized tools, including waterjet cutting machines, an electric knife and a cryogenic deflashing system. 

A waterjet machine at Stockwell Elastomerics’ plant in Upper Holmesburg cuts out parts which will later be packed and sent to the company’s clients. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Stockwell Elastomerics started from humbler beginnings. Like so many other companies, it began in a garage.

Legend has it that Stockwell’s great-grandfather, Frederick, broke away from a Massachusetts-based rubber company and began selling belting, house and rubber products from his garage in Palmyra.

Less than a year later, he moved into a building at 6th and Arch streets. Then, in 1950, the company moved into a series of carved-out rowhomes in Fishtown.

In 1981, after outgrowing that space, Stockwell Elastomerics moved into its current location at 4749 Tolbut St., right off I-95. Stockwell said they acquired an adjacent building in 1996 to expand their operations.

Just last year, the company constructed a third building, mainly to serve as a warehouse for the raw materials used to make the gaskets.

“That new building is going to keep us in Philadelphia,” Stockwell said. “That’s the good story there. Otherwise, we were going to run out of space here in no time. It was really getting hard to maneuver around.”

Stockwell said the firm has nearly 20 more employees than it did three years ago.

All of the company’s full-time workers have the opportunity to have a stake in Stockwell Elastomerics. A couple of years ago, Stockwell started an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

So far, 30 percent of the business is owned by employees. Stockwell, who took over the reins at the company in 1980 when he was 25, said the goal is to eventually transition 100 percent of the firm to its workers.

“One of the obvious things that people of my age do, when they get to my age, in a multi-generation business, is they sell the business,” Stockwell said. “My strong preference was not to sell the business because I wanted to make sure the business perpetuated and sustained for decades to come in this location in Philadelphia.”

“To me, (the ESOP) is the best way to go,” he added. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com.