The Ribbon Factory
“ALL WE KNOW ABOUT ALL THIS EQUIPMENT IS that it came over new from Germany in the 1920s,” says Lorette Russenberger, standing in the light, airy loft space of her Milwaukee factory. “You see, the company went through a lot of owners before the last one basically drove it into the ground.” She shakes her head. “He was very stubborn. I offered him five times as much for the company as I ended up paying at the 1RS auction.”
The Cream City Ribbon Company makes ribbons for wrapping gifts; it is one of two factories in America that make curling ribbon out of all-natural materials. Not that that’s a dying industry; it is booming, but it is one that nobody makes machinery for any more. Russenberger’s customers include retail giants like The Limited and Bath & Body Works. “The product was killed when plastics came in,” she explains, “but now, with so much interest in biodegradables and so on, it’s growing very quickly.”
Leading me into the main workroom, she tells me, “We have a number of setups, including one we assembled ourselves out of all the old parts we had. A single operator can run a whole setup.”
A whole setup, she shows me, consists of a half-dozen modest machines laid out in a U. First there’s a rack of several dozen bobbins of cotton thread. At one end of the rack, strands from the bobbins gather through eye hooks onto rollers from which they emerge woven into a ribbon. The ribbon swims through a small vat of animal glue and emerges to be squeeze-dried between little brass rollers and then air-dried on a sevenfoot-high pair of reels. Next it winds onto a governor, a device that takes up any slack while maintaining tension, before reaching a calender, which smooths the surface; a printer, where a brand name or pattern can be stamped on; and finally a winder, which puts it on spools like the ones that hold the ribbon you see at the corner store.
I notice that the employees are all women. How come? “Oh, we’re not prejudiced. We’ve had some men here, but they just haven’t worked out.”
Why not? I ask. She pauses. “Let’s just say they found it hard to go to a bar at night and say they make ribbon. And the women who work here are all very good with their hands, good with small things. They’re all detail-oriented.”
And what about the woman who runs the business? How did she come to own and operate a factory full of manufacturing machinery from the Weimar Republic? She smiles. “I don’t know. How do you get involved in something? I was in a service business and figured out I wouldn’t be a good employee.”
A service business? “Art restoration. Well, before that I had a Ph.D. in architectural history. But I discovered I didn’t want to go into teaching. So I got interested in restoration, apprenticed with a restorer, and then bought the business when he retired. When I got tired of restoration, I looked around for something to do and decided by process of elimination that I’d like to buy a manufacturing company.” She says it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“I liked this business partly because it didn’t really involve chemicals. And I liked the old technology. Of course I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew nothing about the packaging industry. If I had known then—seven years ago—what I know now, about finding good machine operators and everything else, I’d never have done it. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.”
How do you run a failed business in a field and technology you know absolutely nothing about? “Well, I’ll never forget the day we moved the equipment here from the old owner’s location. It was a gray, rainy day in May. There was no heat. It was very dark. I looked at the pile of junk I had, and I asked myself, What have I done?
“But there was one older gentleman who had worked for the previous owner whom I hired as a consultant. The first thing he did was take me to one of the machines and walk me through it. That was the beginning. Now I can look at any box of parts and know everything in it.”
Mightn’t you get bored, the way you did with art restoration? She smiles again. “Oh, absolutely. I can’t imagine doing this for twenty years. When I’ve met all the challenges, the job will just be maintenance, and then I’ll go.”
Go where? “Oh, maybe back into teaching, unless I get into something environmental. I’d like to manufacture a product that seems more important.”
And the machinery?
“I’ve created a viable business out of this. I hope I can find someone to run it, in which case I’ll keep the business. If I can’t, I’ll sell the business. But either way, there’s no reason it should ever go under now.”