The Shoals’ Inventor/Entrepreneur
For most of his life, this 82-year-old Muscle Shoals entrepreneur has been staking out patents like fence posts, and they pop up everywhere.
At the Blue Water Creek Polo Club he founded in Rogersville, Shoals entrepreneur E.S. “Ed” Robbins shows off his horses and the fencing he designed to keep them safe.
Imagine. That’s what Edward “Ed” Stanley Robbins III has done his whole life. It’s the reason that, at age 82, he holds more than 170 patents, many related to durable plastic products that people use daily.
For example, that plastic mat under your desk chair, Robbins probably designed it.
“My imagination is what started it,” says Robbins, founder and still head of ES Robbins Corp., the Muscle Shoals company he founded in 1967.
Inspiration can strike at any time, Robbins says. More than a half century ago, he remembers reading about Phillips Petroleum’s new high-density polyethylene products. The company was looking for ideas, and he had one for them.
“I went down to the dairy and walked around to see what was going on,” Robbins recalls. “At that time, they were using these heavy metal wire or oak wood baskets for
picking up and delivering milk.
“The wire baskets would rust and the oak ones were really heavy and came apart with age, so I called Phillips Petroleum.”
He says he met with their development team from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and shared his idea.
“I now know that at that point I should’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, and I should’ve filed for a patent,” Robbins says.
Instead, he talked freely with the Phillips engineer before he went back to his lab in Oklahoma.
“In their lab, I dare say that the first milk case in the world was made out of plastic,” Robbins says.
When the engineer returned to visit Robbins in the Shoals to deliver the finished product, Robbins was focused on how much it would cost to produce it, rather than protecting his invention.
“I told him I couldn’t afford to buy the machinery and mold. At the time it was a solid plastic box, but we discussed how a cutout grid would make it even lighter,” Robbins remembers. “When he left, he left it on my table. Then a few years later somebody started making them, but if you think about how many of them have been made — probably billions of them by now — I bet I could’ve retired when I was 30.”
It was a hard lesson learned. But it didn’t stop Robbins from moving forward.
The invention that launched his company was a plastic water trough system for poultry farmers.
“I got a patent this time,” he says. The original patent drawing dated March 9, 1967 is framed and hangs in his office to this day. “That’s what started the business.”
Then Robbins started producing vinyl carpet runner, which was a key product until imports began.
“There was so much competition from importers, so we went to chair mats,” he says, as his cell phone rings with the sound of a horse racing bugle call.
Office products are a key for the company today. A conference room outside of Robbins’ office displays a wide array of floor and desk mats. The vinyl carpet runner is still there, along with various samples of the company’s horse fencing product, Centaur fencing.
The ringtone on Robbins’ cell phone is just one clue to his love of horses. Horse prints are showcased throughout the company’s headquarters. Centaur fencing came out of a desire to make the safest possible horse fence.
“Some of the most expensive horses in the world are contained behind our fencing,” says John Tate, the company’s vice president. “Quite a few horse farms in Kentucky are using it, but the same thing goes for people who have two to five acres. It is a great product and a great benefit to the equestrian world, and it’s an area that’s growing for us every day.”
Robbins says the fencing has saved injury and fatalities for horses — and humans. Public safety officials have commented to the company that traffic accidents involving the plastic fencing have resulted in fewer injuries and fatalities.
Robbins also has a newspaper clipping of an 18-wheel truck stopped by the fencing after it left the roadway.
“It would probably work out as a good highway barrier. I knew it was strong, but even I was impressed when I saw that picture,” he says.
Centaur fencing has been in production for 25 years and is sold worldwide.
“I started working on it in the 1980s, and I worked on it seven years before we got it to market,” he says. “And we continually work to improve it today.”
The flexible design of the fence rail ensures that if a horse pushes or rushes the fence, the rail will give just enough to prevent injury without the fence breaking.
“Our exclusive high-tensile polymer bracket with steel reinforced bar is indestructible,” Robbins says.
The Aleco Division of ES Robbins Corp. has been around about 36 years. Its primary product is a vinyl strip door used to limit the amount of heated or cooled air leaked between two areas.
“We also do traffic type doors used in commercial applications, food service and industrial plants to control the loss of heated or cooled air,” Robbins says. “We even have some that keep flies out. When a company’s fortunes are going down, it’s easy to get inspired.”
The company also manufactures small plastic containers suitable for pharmaceutical and home storage needs. Their containers provide safe, dry and convenient storage for food, pills, capsules and beverages.
Robbins lets his imagination range wide to come up with new and innovative ideas.
He even found time to create a Centaur-branded Polo Ball, for “when you’re looking for the perfect flight.”
It goes along with one of his personal passions.
“I’ve been a horseman all my life, ever since I got my first pony as a kid,” Robbins recalls. Racehorses and polo ponies are a big part of his life. He also has a dozen Brittany Spaniels for hunting, with a Jack Russell terrier thrown in the mix.
In 1980, Robbins founded Bluewater Creek Polo Club in Rogersville, a year after he was introduced to the sport. He loved it so much he wanted to bring the game to North Alabama.
“Hunting, polo and racing keeps me busy,” he says. “Time to me has become more important, because the more you do the less time you have to devote to different things,” he says. “There’s always something I want to do right now.”
But he still remembers his humble beginning in a 5,000-square-foot building, across the street from its current location.
“It was me, my wife, our four girls and no money,” he remembers. “The only person we could afford to hire was a mechanic, and that was because he came reasonable, and he helped when we started up with the watering trough, and he was really good.”
He had an SBA loan for $75,000.
“That was about like trying to wet down a dirt road” to keep the dust down, he remembers. “I knew what I wanted to do, but I really didn’t know what to do when I was starting.”
Today, the company has grown from that 5,000 square feet to facilities with more than 200,000 square feet.
“And everything in here has a patent,” Robbins says. “It’s important, because if you’re an innovator, you’ll always have followers.”
An Entrepreneurial Family
Ed Robbins comes from an impressive line of innovators and entrepreneurs in the Shoals area.
His maternal grandfather, Jordan Skinner, helped his father, Stanley Robbins, start Robbins Tire and Rubber Co. in the Shoals. Both grew up in south Alabama around Castleberry. Skinner went to Ohio looking for work, landing a job at the Dayton Tire Co. He eventually left and started his own tire company in Springfield, Ohio.
Stanley Robbins went to work for Skinner at his tire plant in Ohio. A business trip to Muscle Shoals convinced Skinner that the site was a good place for a tire plant.
Skinner and Stanley Robbins sold their respective tire companies right before the start of WWII.
Stanley Robbins later founded National Floor Products Co. (NAFCO). He was inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame in 2001, five years before he died, at age 98. In 1994, NAFCO was sold to Domco Industries, which eventually merged with Tarkett.
Ed Robbins was one of three sons from Stanley Robbins’ first marriage. His brother, John Robbins, owned R&D Trucking. And his brother Harvey Robbins, who died in 2013, owned Robbins Property Development.
Like his father, who had worked with his grandfather at the tire plant before striking out on his own, Ed Robbins worked with his father at NAFCO before starting his own company, ES Robbins Corp.
Wendy Reeves is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.