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Illustration: Ryan Snook

Jeno Eppel has spent his entire 37-year career working in the escalator industry. Moreover, he’s only ever had one employer—EHC Global in Oshawa, Ont. Yet the industry still fascinates the CEO. “Am I the only guy who finds handrails sexy?” he asks.

Perhaps. But what is certain is that we’ve all probably touched an EHC handrail. With 500 employees and manufacturing facilities in Canada, Germany and China, the company supplies handrails across North America, Europe and Asia; EHC purports to command 40% to 50% of the market. (Definitive outside data is scarce.) Its largest competitor is an Austrian firm called Semperit. “They would tell you they are a rubber company,” Eppel says. “We take pride in being part of the escalator industry.” (In fairness, handrails are but one of Semperit’s many products.)

But EHC’s unabashed enthusiasm is an advantage, helping forge strong ties with escalator manufacturers. Also beneficial is its drive for innovation. The firm distinguished itself early with a model made from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) instead of rubber. Modern escalator designs put handrails under increased stress, and EHC argues TPU handrails are more durable. They can also be recycled.

The company was founded in 1977 by Ron Ball (Eppel was an early hire, just 18 years old when he started), and it expanded quickly—first with a plant in Buffalo, then to Europe and, as the industry moved east, to China in 1996. Ball personally decamped to Shanghai and lives there today. He retired in June.

Ball’s dream was to make the rubber escalator handrail obsolete. “We’re still living that dream,” Eppel says. While some escalator firms embraced TPU, others have not, owing to the conservative nature of the industry, Eppel says. “I remember going to a respected engineering manager who was employed by one of our customers, and he said, ‘Get that handrail away from me.’” Still, the company will produce more TPU than rubber handrails this year, a first. As such, it guards its trade secrets. In China, EHC has a facility where the labels are stripped from raw materials before they’re shipped to the main plant.

One further benefit of TPU is that printing messages on it—such as advertising—is easier than with rubber. That leads to EHC’s next challenge: convincing the world that handrails are more than commodities. The firm has long produced coloured handrails, for instance, but they’re only popular in Japan and Korea. Most manufacturers care solely about cost and have no interest in shades beyond black. That’s why EHC is expanding its sales strategy to build relationships to let architects and developers know coloured handrails are not only available but also serve as a brand extension. The company has already supplied red handrails to Uniqlo in Manhattan and green for Crocs’s Colorado headquarters. The chance to bring colour to the world of escalator handrails is partly why John Calderon, who previously sold high-tech electronic equipment to NASA, joined EHC Global as director of marketing last year. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.

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