Upon his retirement after 40 years in the industry, EHC Global founder and Chairman Ron Ball reflects upon his company’s past, present and future.
After graduating in 1966 from Ryerson University in Toronto with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Ron Ball worked for nearly 10 years at a nearby Goodyear Engineered Products plant in a variety of jobs, from product design to marketing and sales. Ball says the experience provided him with a great general education and prepared him for his lifelong dream of running his own business. “As it turned out,” he says, “making handrails for escalators was an easy transition from making conveyor belting at Goodyear.”
Finding a niche product like escalator handrails was an accident, but a fortunate one, as it developed into the career and business of a lifetime. Ball opines:
“Like many startups, it was pretty tough at the beginning. With one helper, Rob Stewart, I designed and manufactured most of the basic equipment, and it took about nine months before we were able to make our first handrails. A friend introduced me to my first major client in Moline, Illinois: Glen Wainwright at Montgomery Elevator. I was able to introduce some tire technology in order to make our handrails more flexible, eventually convincing [Wainwright] that our handrails would last longer on the reverse-bend escalator drives that had become common with the introduction of glass balustrades.”
Within five years, Escalator Handrail Co. (later, EHC Global) would become a major Montgomery supplier, a relationship that continues to this day with KONE. Soon thereafter, EHC assumed a dominant position in North America with the addition of its first “foreign” plant in Buffalo, New York, in 1984. With new technology and production capacity, EHC was on a march to globalization.
Montgomery subsequently invited Ball to set up in its backyard in The Quad Cities region. Ball jumped at the opportunity to become the company’s sole supplier.
Growth was steady and progressive. When the Canadian government encouraged export sales by offering free plane fare to Asia, Ball was on the first plane. South Korea was developing a significant domestic lift industry, and, by the mid 1980s, EHC was exporting the majority of the country’s handrails.
Success in Europe was more difficult. European handrail suppliers were mature and well established with original equipment manufacturers. “Their product quality was good, but they lacked creativity,” Ball notes. O&K in Germany received an order for escalators with colored handrails. When O&K was told EHC could field splice colored handrail, Ball and Mike Alcott were soon on a plane bound for Dortmund, Germany, for a demonstration.
O&K was so impressed that, by the early 1990s, EHC began looking at setting up manufacturing in Europe. Jeno Eppel (now EHC president) and his wife, Diane, were soon packing, going to live in Baesweiler, Germany, to launch European production. Since that time, EHC’s European operations have grown to include manufacturing and distribution facilities in France and Spain. Teams there now offer direction and execution of installation and modernization of escalators, moving walks and elevators. This expansion continues today with the addition of partners and distributors throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
By the early 1990s, Otis and Schindler were starting to see some significant success in China, and other OEMs were making expansion plans. Not to be left behind, EHC set up manufacturing in Shanghai in 1996. When troubles struck in 1997 with the Asian financial crisis, EHC’s newest manufacturing plant in Shanghai was soon oozing red ink. Ball again jumped on the opportunity to learn how to run a business in China, where he put his spirit of adventure and relentless determination to the test. Within two years, the business was profitable. It has never looked back.
EHC Shanghai has become the world’s largest handrail manufacturing operation. In the company’s 20 years in China, EHC has diversified and introduced additional products. Its Engineered Polymers division opened in 2005 in Shanghai, producing polyurethane rollers for the lift, automotive and agriculture industries. In 2014, EHC Shanghai’s High Tech Center began manufacturing composite belts for elevators, enhancing EHC’s materials and processing capabilities.
Growth in Asia continued in 1999 when Patrick Bothwell (now EHC’s vice president of Sales) relocated to Japan to take on the highly lucrative Japanese market directly. By 2010, EHC had expanded its presence in Japan through a technology licensing agreement with Hitachi Cable. Several years later, EHC also has successful licensing and distribution arrangements in South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and India.
In 2005, Ball’s attention turned to the emerging markets of Latin America, which soon resulted in the opening of sales offices in Barbados and Mexico. In 2013, the decision was made to break into the Brazilian market to directly overcome the unique challenges of doing business there. Since that time, the EHC team has Wdeveloped strong relationships with key local players and is enjoying an increased share of the handrail replacement market, which includes several transit systems. Expansion in Latin America continues through distribution partnerships and customer-managed Splice Boutiques in Chile, Peru and Colombia.
Meanwhile, as he continues to reside in Shanghai, Ball has become an expert on doing business in China and is often asked to share his Asian knowledge. “Ron is not just involved; he’s committed,” says his wife, Olivia, a successful businesswoman.
“Forty years ago, I never would have imagined that from humble beginnings, our small business would have blossomed into the worldwide enterprise that it has become. I’ve always had a strong belief in the power of people, and I’ve had the great fortune to have had many great minds share my vision and determination. I’m looking forward to stepping back and spending more time with Olivia and my children, Alexandra, Stephen and Jaclyn, and my grandchildren.”
Ball’s future plans include spending more time on the golf course, diving and fishing on the high seas, exploring the friendly skies and developing his keen love of karaoke. Ball concludes:
“I’m happy to continue to lend any business insight I can as EHC Global continues its growth in the decades to come, but I’m also confident that I’m leaving my baby in very capable hands!”