R&B Wire Finds Rhythm in Laundry Carts - Orange County Business Journal (2024)

A laundry cart by R&B Wire Products Inc. has a touch of Hollywood.

“We’ve been making this product for so long that it’s become synonymous with our company,” said owner and Chief Executive Rick Rawlins. “It’s not just called a laundry cart. It’s called an R&B cart. It’s like Kleenex is called tissue.”

The signature R&B cart has made appearances on TV shows like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Desperate Housewives.” It’s played bit roles in movies like “Anchorman 2,” “Wayne’s World” and “Catch Me if You Can.”

The Santa Ana-based manufacturer was honored in the medium-size category at the Business Journal’s 19th annual Family-Owned Business Awards on June 15 (see profiles of other award winners, pages 4, 6 and 8).

Grant Rawlins, Rick’s 25-year-old son, picked up the award on behalf of the family. He said the family’s various carts are known for their quality.

“People love our carts. They’re similar to the way you would buy a high-quality commercial product for your home, like a Viking stove or freezer.”

USC Welder

R&B Wire Products traces its origin to 1946, when laundromats were becoming popular. The R stands for founder Ray Robinson, but it’s unclear where the B came from, Rick said.

Rick’s father, Rea, bought the business in 1966 for “a very small amount of money.”

“It was small enough to afford, but large enough that we saw potential,” Rick said.

Rick spent his summers as a welder, donning heavy clothing and a mask to work in a hot, tin shack. “I wasn’t very good” at it, he said.

After graduating with a business degree from the University of Southern California in 1974, he wasn’t sure he wanted to join his father’s business because of unpleasant welding memories.

But he dove in anyway. “I thought I at least owed it to my father to give it a try.”

After six months, Rick discovered he “loved it.”

“I learned more about business during the first six months than I did in four years at USC business school. There’s nothing like practical experience when you have to go out and sell something and produce a product and make it happen.”

His sister worked at the firm for a year, and Rick took over the business in 1985. His parents have died.

His wife, Lucy, worked for a decade for then Congressman Robert Badham. Lucy, who’s known in political circles as a member of the New Majority, a group of business executives, joined the company about a year ago, handling special projects. The couple’s three other children have pursued different careers. Grant, the youngest child, worked at a variety of jobs at the family factory during summer breaks. He graduated a couple years ago from Pepperdine University with a degree in integrated marketing and communications. While at the Malibu school, he played on the water polo team, which was coached by the legendary Terry Schroeder and often ranked in the top five in the U.S.

Patented Wheels

Over the years, the company’s clientele has expanded from laundromats to businesses such as nursing homes and hotels. Most competitors are small, though one is giant manufacturer and distributor Rubbermaid.

“We’ve been able to compete with them on costs and a personal touch with our distributors,” Rick said.

“It’s not our goal to be the low-cost provider, down and dirty making products as cheaply as possible. Our job is to make the best-quality products we can in our industry. Our job is to educate our customers on why it’s worth a little extra money, not a lot, to buy a better quality product.”

For example, Rick designed a “clean-wheel system” to keep lint and hair out of the wheels, thus preventing them from sticking, a common problem with supermarket carts. Rick holds a patent on the fix.

In recent years, it introduced a cart featuring vinyl protection on the edges to prevent them from dinging doors and walls, sometimes inflicting thousands of dollars in damages. A patent is pending, Rick said.

The carts are helpful at Newport Beach Country Club, which spent millions of dollars on its new building, said Recreation Manager Natalie Bernal.

“The bumper trucks from R&B Wire are a great idea if you’re looking to protect your investments,” she said in a video on R&B’s website.

The cart has “trade dress,” which means it’s intellectual property that can’t legally be copied by a competitor. The right can be compared to how Coca-Cola can protect the shape of its famous bottle, Rick said.

“Our cart has become such an established shape over the years that if somebody knocks off our products directly, we’ve been able to protect our rights.”

Harmful Tariffs

Rick said that recently announced steel tariffs have driven up the price of the raw material for its products by 20% to 25% in the past four months. That’s why it’s stockpiled spools of steel wire at its factory.

It uses a mix of machinery and hand work to cut, bend and weld the wire into baskets. Every week, the company sends out five to seven shipping containers of products.

About 15 years ago, Rick decided to expand manufacturing to China, which makes about half of its products. He said he wants to bring some production back to California, so the company recently bought two robots to weld, thereby cutting costs—the young Rick would’ve appreciated them.

Manufacturing in California is tough due to a combination of taxes, fees, high wages and environmental regulations, Rick said. R&B Wire Products, which has occupied the same facility since 1977, has seen neighbors switch from manufacturing to importing.

“California is a very hard environment to run manufacturing.”

Doubling Size

The firm has 48 employees and may hire more, depending on sales, Rick said. Some employees have been with the company for more than 20 years, and some are couples or parent and child.

“We have a lot of responsibility, because a lot of families rely on us,” Rick said. “We take that seriously.”

Grant is interested in the company, and that means it’s in the expansion mode.

“As long as he’s interested in growing it, he’s the future here,” Rick said.

Last year, the company bought a nearby building, doubling its size to 60,000 square feet. Already, two offices in the building are being removed to create more space for manufacturing operations.

While Rick intended Grant to learn functions like welding, there was an immediate demand to “straighten out” the company’s website, which nowadays handles most of its orders. Grant was marketing coordinator for 18 months, then an account manager, keeping his finger on the industry’s pulse.

Grant said he enjoys exchanging business ideas with his parents.

“I absolutely love it. It’s a great thing to be able to mold the company and have an effect. When you’re able to brainstorm ideas and implement things, that’s the most rewarding thing in a work environment.”

R&B Wire Finds Rhythm in Laundry Carts - Orange County Business Journal (2024)

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