Pioneer Balloon Company celebrates a cool century in business
By the late 19th century, Ohio had become a bedrock of rubber production in the U.S., with Akron aptly nicknamed the “Rubber Capital of the World.” B.F. Goodrich Company, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Firestone Tire and Rubber company were just some of many large-scale rubber producers with area factories.
In 1917, Pioneer Rubber Company opened its doors in Willard, Ohio, about 70 miles west of Akron, and began manufacturing various rubber products including latex gloves and balloons. The company grew by investing in engineering teams to advance its technologies and procedures to maximize quality and production efficiency.
In 1970, Sherwood Medical Products, interested in Pioneer’s production of surgical and medical exam gloves, purchased Pioneer Rubber. But the balloon portion of the business was not in the new company’s wheelhouse and in 1979, Betty and Ted Vlamis acquired that part of the company and its 85 employees. The couple still owns Pioneer Balloon Company (PPAI 113823) and this year they are celebrating its centennial anniversary.
Today the company has over 1,000 associates worldwide. Headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, Pioneer Balloon produces and markets balloons in many configurations for both domestic and international markets. Its primary printing and U.S. distribution facility is in El Dorado, Kansas, though the balloons are manufactured in several other locations.
“We produce approximately 1.5 billion balloons per year collectively in our Dallas, Texas; Ashland, Ohio; and Toronto, Canada, manufacturing facilities,” says Mark Jenkins, MAS+, managing director, promotional markets. Jenkins, who was destined to join the balloon business after growing up in Ashland--which he says was the “balloon capital of the world” in the 1960s and 1970s--was happy to find his place at Pioneer Balloon.
“I work in the same office and building I walked into 30 years ago,” says Jenkins, who served as chair of the 2014 PPAI Board of Directors. “That kind of longevity can only come from a sense of ownership in the company, product, work and passion for the customers we serve.”
He attributes reaching the centennial mark to the teams that have been assembled throughout Pioneer Balloon Company. “There is definitely a family atmosphere here that promotes and honors creativity, hard work and excellence. We have a large number of associates who have been part of the team and our success for decades,” Jenkins adds.
Part of the reason Pioneer’s employees enjoy being part of the team is the company’s creative and empowering approach to people management, such as offering “flexible” job descriptions.
In a 2013 article in the Wichita Business Journal, Pioneer CEO Ted Vlamis said, “Where many companies have ‘boxes’ into which they try to fit an employee to perform a certain job, Pioneer Balloon takes talented employees and creates jobs that fit them. We want people to take ownership of what they’re doing. By giving them that kind of latitude, we enable them to grow.”
Pioneer Balloon has led the way in both retail/wholesale and custom print markets, says Jenkins.
“As leaders, we have been able to grow both our business and the marketplace for our products. We have been at the forefront of manufacturing technology and have, in fact, created and perfected many of the processes for manufacturing and printing balloons. As balloon industry pioneers, we have been able to drive our own success as well as the success of the product category. In promotional markets, we have changed the way distributors and clients look at balloons,” he says.
No longer just a traditional giveaway, balloons are now used most successfully as a cost-effective signage solution.
“The large everyday orders that really drive our custom print business, for both Pioneer and our distributors, are used to sign events, places of business, in-store products and promotions. It's not as much about a keepsake promotional product. Multiple impressions for our medium are driven by a bold, attention-getting and very visible product to the multitudes—or masses—each time balloons are inflated and displayed,” he says.
The company continues to perfect its product and processes. This year, it is touting a new Suprafoil™ material for its Qualatex Microfoil® balloons, which, when inflated with helium, float for 30 days making them an even more cost-effective signage solution. The company has also added both indoor and outdoor products that help promote businesses and events in a big bold way, including flags, tents, table covers and indoor banner systems. “These are all designed to complement our core balloon product and provide a one-stop solution for our distributors,” adds Jenkins. “We will continue to expand that product offering, as well.”
Pioneer kicked off its year-long celebration at this year's PPAI Expo in Las Vegas, but that was just the beginning. “We will have a large, more formal 100th anniversary event at our Wichita, Kansas headquarters in September, along with a milestone planning meeting that will include our international teams from across the globe,” he says. “Company-wide we are celebrating our history and accomplishments, but are also taking a fresh look forward to the next 100 years.”
Julie Richie is associate editor for PPB.