Tony Bon: From Yarn Handler to CEO

Tony Bon (Photo: Samson)

Posted by Eric Haun

January of 2017 saw the retirement of one of the
veterans of the Samson family. Tony Bon, CEO through 2015 retired
as of December 31, 2016.

Bon shares his impressions of the time he's been with Samson and
the high points of both the company and the industry it serves.
In the Navy they have an expression to describe a captain that
moves up through the ranks: "He came up through the hawse pipes."
Bon's journey to the corner office at Samson is a similar story.

In 1974, after leaving Berklee College of Music in Boston, Bon
needed a job. He was about to start work at a tannery (a job he
says would have been horrible, at best), when an opportunity
arose at the Samson plant in Shirley, Mass. He'd heard it was a
good company with a reputation for taking care of its employees
so he applied for the job. Starting as a yarn handler on the
factory floor, a position he recalls as the lowest paying
position in the plant at the time, he moved quickly to production
supervisor for the twisting department, then shift
superintendent. He took on the role of special projects manager
to set up the company's first computerized bills of materials
(BoMs) system.

"I remember when Tony first started with Samson in 1974. I guess
you could classify him at that time as kind of a beatnik; long
hair, beard and into music. Talk about a Horatio Alger story: he
starts as a bobbin boy and retires as CEO. Some politicians say
the American Dream is over…well they should know the Tony Bon
story," said Steve Swiackey, former CEO at Samson.

In 1980, Bon was sent to Ferndale to take over as plant manager.
The Ferndale plant had been set up with the mission to serve the
Pacific Northwest fishing industry. It was 35,000 square feet and
employed about 35 people. Always willing to serve the company
where they needed him, Bon returned to Shirley in 1985 to manage
both plants. Then, in 1987, when the decision to consolidate the
two plants was made, Bon returned to western Washington to set up
and prepare the new company headquarters.

In the following years Bon advanced through the organization with
several different positions such as Materials Manager, COO, was
named company president in 2007, and assumed the role of CEO in
2013. In 2016, Bon completed his tenure at Samson with a year
spent as Advisor to the new President and CEO, Andrea Sturm.

"Tony left a legacy at Samson and within the cordage industry. He
should be proud of his achievements. It was a pleasure to work
with Tony by my side during my first year, both because of his
experience and knowledge of the industry….and because he is a
great person to be with," Sturm said.

Evolution of the Samson Brand during the Bon

Since joining the Samson family in 1974, Bon has seen many
changes. In 1976 the name was changed to Samson Ocean Systems,
and two years later was acquired by Enserch. 1988 saw Samson
Ocean Systems acquired by the management team. It was then that
the modern era of Samson really began. The company was
consolidated and the headquarters moved to Ferndale, Wash. The
plant in Anniston, Ala. was expanded while engineering, test labs
and large rope manufacturing came to Ferndale. 1993 saw the
merging of Samson Ocean Systems, AMCO and Herzog Ropes into The
American Group-the worldwide leader in the engineering and
manufacture of high performance rope. In 2001 the company
returned to its roots and was renamed Samson Rope Technologies.

Through all the changes, Samson has continuously advanced the
state of the art in high-performance rope design and development.
The opening of the Innovation Center in 2013-15,000 square feet
devoted to research and development-is just the latest statement
reinforcing Samson's commitment to innovation, which has guided
the organization since founder J.P. Tolman patented his improved
switch braider in 1878.

Bon Tells the Story of Samson's Place in the

When Bon first started at the Shirley plant, he was fortunate to
work with Ken Fogden, the Samson engineer who invented the
double-braided rope. Introduced in 1957, it was a pivotal
innovation that changed the industry. Synthetic fibers had
overtaken the natural fibers that had dominated the cordage
industry for generations, and the new double-braid construction
made the most of the potential that nylon, polyester, and the
olefins brought to the industry. This innovation cemented
Samson's already acknowledged industry leadership in both
engineering and technology.

"We are an innovation leader. We pioneered double-braided
synthetic ropes- replacing three-strand ropes and natural fibers
in a number of industries. We had established a track record of
breaking new ground," Bon said.

In the 1970s and '80s, Samson leveraged the knowledge and
experience it had gained as an early innovator in synthetic fiber
and pioneered the use of newly introduced high-performance fibers
in cordage products. Pairing these new fibers-first aramids and
then high modulus polyethylene (HMPE)-with a single-braid,
12-strand construction created a new industry standard that is
still a top-performing product today.

"The business has grown beyond just products-the technology, the
fibers and the constructions. The key components of the value
proposition are all the extras we bring to the sale. The data we
bring to the customer, the service programs we provide-all those
things we call The Samson Advantage-that help the customer get
real value from the product," Bon noted. "It's a dedicated focus
on the customer-centric strategy, innovation and always making
sure we're walking the talk. We want to innovate not just in
product but in everything we do-from lean manufacturing on the
plant floor to service programs, even our marketing programs
reflect that dedication."

Samson's Corporate Culture, the Role of Leadership, and
Where It Goes from Here

On the company's leadership philosophy, Bon commented, "I hope
we've built a culture that's less dependent on the individual
leader. It's what Rafael [Dr. Rafael Chou, vice president of
development] discusses as the transition in a company's
leadership, culture and growth from entrepreneurial leadership to
management. I think that's the stage we're at. One of the
strengths of Samson's culture, values, and strategy is that it
functions almost independent of the leadership. So, whether it's
me, or any other leader, the leadership is, to some extent, a
caretaker's role; breaking down obstacles enabling the people to
do their jobs and carry the strategy forward."

The keys to Samson's success, Bon said, "...Are pioneering in new
industries, like the crane market, continuing to explore the
adjacencies within existing markets and investigating new
industries where we can be replacing commodity synthetics or
steel wire ropes while staying focused on the service that allows
customers to get full value from their investment. It allows them
to have a good experience, cradle to grave."

"I always come back to the people I work with. Samson has such a
strong culture of integrity, passion, and commitment to the
business, along with a loyalty to our people. We've had a lot of
good people over the years. It makes it fun to come to work," Bon

What's Next for Bon?

As of January 1, 2017, Bon stopped coming to work on a daily
basis. While he's retired as Samson's CEO, he will be serving on
Samson's board of directors, so don't be surprised to see him
once in a while. As for the future beyond Samson, Bon has plans
to continue his participation in several non-profits in the area,
has been asked to participate on an advisory board for the school
of business at Western Washington University, and is looking
forward to spending some time travelling with his wife-just for
the fun and adventure of it for a change.

And, if there's still some open time to fill, there's a stack of
books that's been accumulating, a dusty ukulele he'd like to
learn to coax a tune from, and a few old turntables to rebuild as
part of his audio hobby.

Feb 17, 2017

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