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Factory era finally loses its bounce

While rubber company competes globally, its Canton plant is closing

When Julie Medeiros started working at Plymouth Rubber Co. in 1967, the parking lot was so full she had to rent a space in the driveway of a nearby home.

The Canton plant was the largest manufacturer of rubber bands in the world, and a leading producer of rubber and vinyl tapes. It boasted more than 1,000 workers.

Last week, few cars were parked in the front rows of the large lot across from the Revere Street plant, and a couple of dozen employees rattled around inside the 540,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space. By mid-September, all manufacturing employees will have been let go and the remaining 67 workers moved to new office space in a modern mauve and green office building at 500 Turnpike St.

It will end a long history of manufacturing on the site that started when Paul Revere built a copper rolling mill on the banks of the East Branch of the Neponset River in the early 1800s. Meanwhile, Napleton Acquisitions LLC, which bought the 40-acre property at a bankruptcy sale recently, began negotiations with the town on its plans for the site. The preliminary plans call for the mélange of brick, concrete, and wooden buildings to be torn down to make way for more than 600 new and neatly landscaped condominiums or apartments and some small stores or offices. Officials are hoping the original Revere buildings can be saved.

Plymouth Rubber has gone the way of most traditional New England manufacturing companies, moving its manufacturing operations to areas of the world with lower energy and workforce costs. It is still a leader in the production of vinyl and rubber automotive and electrical tapes, which are manufactured in two locations in Spain and in a new joint venture in Shanghai. Its subsidiary, Brite-Line Technologies, produces pavement marking tapes in Denver.

"I've gotten over feeling sorry about ending our manufacturing at the Canton plant. It has really outlived its use as a manufacturing site," said Maurice J. Hamilburg, president and chief executive officer, whose family has owned Plymouth Rubber since 1922. Hamilburg said his company announced to its roughly 400 employees nearly two years ago that it would be ending manufacturing in Canton. It emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization a year ago ready to compete globally, he said.

"We're still a manufacturing company. We're very proud of that," he said. "We still control and develop the specifications for our products."

The hardest part for managers like Hamilburg and Medeiros has been laying off workers. Medeiros, who started as a clerk typist and is now the manager of employee relations, said that the company managed to maintain an employee severance package and that many employees have taken advantage of a federal retraining program. She said that the average laborer at Plymouth Rubber made roughly $40,000 a year, and that finding that elsewhere is difficult. Medeiros said the heavily Portuguese workforce often drew several members of a family.

"People came to work there and they stayed. It was like a family," said Medeiros, who celebrated 40 years with the company in July.

At the Revere Street site, Sheldon S. Leppo, who has been at the company for 50 years, echoed Medeiros's sentiment.

"I have two families: my personal family and this company," he said, walking through the scattering of deserted metal desks and stained linoleum.

Leppo said one of the toughest goodbyes was when Fiore "Dee" DiGiovine retired Aug. 24.

DiGiovine, 80, of Watertown, was vice president of manufacturing development.

He said the company produced more than 1.5 million rolls of tape a day in Canton in its heyday. It also made materials for gas masks during World War II, rubber-coated fabrics, rubber bands, molded shoe soles, and so many products that he "can't even remember them all."

DiGiovine recently returned to the plant and walked through a room that held machines once used to squeeze the product into thin sheets that eventually ended up being cut into rolls of tape of various sizes. "It's all dead in here," he said. "It used to be filled with the chatter of people and the rattle of the machines. It's disquieting to walk through."

Meanwhile, Leppo, 73, is still workign as vice president of research and development.

He said he joined the company when the ink was still wet on his Northeastern University chemistry degree.

Leppo said he has been traveling to China every month for the past 2 1/2 years to make sure the company's product is meeting quality standards.

When he's in Canton, he said, he's still in his office by about 6 each morning so he can call his workers in China, where it's about 6 p.m., and in Spain, where it's noon. "If one wants to stay in business one has to change," Leppo said. "I'm still changing."

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