The Power of Association
History lessons from a dozen charter members that shaped the
industry 75 years ago by starting the Spring Manufacturers Institute
During the depth of the Depression in 1933, a group of springmakers gathered in Buffalo, NY, as part of the National Industrial Recovery Administration process. With 40 charter members, they formed the Spring Manufacturers Association (SMI’s name until 1961). Their goal was to overcome economic challenges and strengthen their companies by joining together as an industry.
From the tenacity of those 40 springmakers grew an association that has become an indispensable part of the precision spring industry. This has required the dedicated service of many individuals and the continued support of its members. Of those 40 companies, 12 are still in operation and have remained members of SMI for the past 75 years.
This article not only celebrates the history of these companies that have survived and thrived for more than 75 years, but it also shares some of the wisdom gleaned from roughly a millennium of collective experience.
American Coil Spring, Muskegon, MI
Tim Zwit, president
Incorporated on May 27, 1923 by brothers Albert and Edward Bitzer, American Coil Spring immediately purchased the Mechanical Steel Spring Co., which had a plant in the central manufacturing area of Chicago. In the beginning, American Coil Spring had 15 employees and primarily served the automotive industry.
Growing steadily, the company built an additional plant in Muskegon, MI. Both the Muskegon and Chicago plants were in operation together for two years, and employment then totaled 60. In 1930, the Depression led to the closing of the Chicago plant. When World War II began, the company began producing war materials. Additional employees, including many women, were hired. During the post-war economic expansion, the company switched back to non-military production and expanded the Muskegon facility.
In the years since the death of founder Edward Bitzer in 1958, the company has had several presidents and two ownership changes. Today, American Coil Spring has 75 employees and is owned by Hines Corp. of Spring Lake, MI. American Coil Spring produces over 1,000 different types of springs for the automotive, appliance, industrial, recreation and residential industries.
Factors for success: Without a doubt, the biggest factor in the ongoing success of American Coil Spring is the craftsmanship and dedication of the associates. Our associates have always had the creative ability to take a spring and come up with innovative ways to tool and manufacture it. In addition, Western Michigan has always had a metalworking attitude and skill set, so those skills have been handed down from generation to generation.
What SMI means: SMI offers us a chance to get together and network with other key industry contributors and competitors. Networking is key to understanding what is going on in the market, and how best to react to current and future trends, whether as a group or individually. In addition, the relationships formed through service on the technical committee have helped us expand our knowledge base in technology, design and metallurgy.
Advice for the next generation: Document a robust training process, including machine, metallurgy and design information so that training can be a regular part of your business. You can’t make springs without having qualified associates.
Barnes Group Inc., Bristol, CT, headquarters
Jerry W. Burris president, Barnes Industrial
Founded in 1857 by Wallace Barnes in Bristol, CT, the year 2007 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Barnes Group. Barnes Group has a long and storied history of innovation and technological advancements in manufacturing and distribution. A business that began as a metal parts shop in Bristol, CT, has become a diversified leader in engineering and manufacturing precision metal components, and an international distributor of maintenance, repair, operating and production supplies. Today, Barnes Group consists of three businesses Barnes Aerospace, Barnes Distribution and Barnes Industrial (formerly Associated Spring) in more than 65 locations with nearly 6,500 employees.
During the past 150 years, the one constant has been change. Through the years, the company has grown and capitalized on growth segments from clock springs and hoop skirts in the late 1850s, to the rapid increase in manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century, to the mass production of commercial products, to aircraft engines and airframe components made from exotic alloys, to high-precision components in a multitude of end markets. Though the markets and the environments have changed, Barnes Group’s ability to attract and retain talented employees, and sustain a culture of continuous improvement has enabled the company to serve its customers through the shifting times.
Factors for success: Barnes Group’s 150-year anniversary is a testament to the many generations of dedicated employees who have contributed to the innovations and technological advancements that have spelled the company’s enduring success. The men and women of Barnes Group have consistently demonstrated their ability to succeed ethically in a constantly changing business environment.
What SMI means: SMI has been an industry support organization and a best practice exchange network for Barnes Industrial (formerly Associated Spring) since its inception 75 years ago. In fact, Associated Spring President Fuller F. Barnes in 1933 played a leading role in establishing the Spring Manufacturers Association (now SMI). He also served as the association’s president from 1933-41 and again from 1944-46.
Advice for the next generation: Focus on globalization, and have the flexibility to serve your customers from around the world.
Duer/Carolina Coil Inc., Greer, SC
Thomas G. Armstrong, CEO and chairman
Originally Duer Spring and Manufacturing Co., the company was founded in 1896 in McKees Rocks, PA. Duer started out making springs for the transportation, industrial equipment and mining industries. In 1960, it moved to Coraopolis, PA, and in 1986, Duer Spring acquired Carolina Coil.
Today, Duer/Carolina Coil has a staff of 115. The company still serves the same industries it did in 1896, as well as the power-generation and military equipment industrial segments.
Throughout our history, Duer/Carolina Coil has been dedicated to the manufacture of large springs. Our legacy has always been having dedicated and talented people focused on meeting our customers’ specific application needs. Notable in this area was Jake Thornton, a former general manager of Duer who was instrumental in the development of highly specialized springs used in the nuclear power-generation industry.
Factors for success: Listening to customers’ needs and helping them to be successful.
Succession planning tips: Hire talented, committed people and provide them with constant training and development opportunities.
What SMI means: SMI has always been a resource for technical services, educational materials and peer idea exchange. From 1951-55, Duer President, J.D. Culbertson III, served as president of SMI.
Advice for the next generation: Set goals, be flexible, and embrace and manage change.
John Evans’ Sons Inc., Lansdale, PA
Frank L. Davey, chairman
John Evans’ Sons was founded on March 8, 1850 in New Haven, CT. In its beginnings, the company made springs for carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles, as well as machinery for manufacturing springs. It moved to Philadelphia in 1870, eventually combined with the Philadelphia Spring Works and was located within walking distance of Philadelphia City Hall. In 1967, G. Delmar Bennett purchased the company and moved it to the Philadelphia suburb of Lansdale. John Evans’ Sons is currently owned and operated by brothers Frank and Allan Davey, with a staff of 76 people serving the defense, electrical, elevator and homebuilding industries.
Factors for success: Providing excellent customer service, remaining technically current, and hiring the best employees.
Succession planning tips: Be prepared to make some difficult decisions involving next-generation family members. Investigate how others have done it.
What SMI means: SMI provides a forum for professional discussion and information exchange.
Advice for the next generation: Recognize that you are working in a rapidly ever-changing world.
Kokomo Spring Co., Kokomo, IN
Joe Vernon, vice president manufacturing
Founded in 1910, Kokomo Spring started out making seat springs for Hanes Automobile. The company was sold in 1961 to Johnson Container and again in 1967 to Stanray Corp. Currently owned by American Baily, Kokomo Spring has 20 full-time and two part-time employees.
Factors for ongoing success: As, always, good employees. I feel employees, by and large, come to work every day to do a good job. Success is determined by management’s ability to make good decisions. The guy on the floor is the real reason for success; he just has to have the leadership to sustain market shifts.
Succession planning advice: Employ the methods of Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement. Someone is always going to be eager and hungry. Be creative and flexible, make good decisions, and prosper.
What SMI means: SMI is the common bond for all in the industry. It supports, educates and provides information in a very neutral manner. It is a great resource for the hundreds of springmakers out there that are not big enough to afford on their own the resources SMI can provide.
Advice for the next generation: Learn the basics and be flexible! Anyone can run a coiler but not everyone is a springmaker. The more open and flexible you are, the more valuable you will be. Springmaking is an art, but it is the solid process that will set you aside from others in the industry. We all trade customers, but remember that they buy for their reason, not ours. If we put good processes in place to provide good quality, service and competitive pricing, we will enjoy this industry for years to come.
Lee Spring Co., Brooklyn, NY, headquarters
Steve Kempf, CEO
Robert Lee Johansen founded Lee Spring Co. in 1918 in Brooklyn, NY, where we maintain our headquarters and primary manufacturing facility to this day. The company has enjoyed consistent organic growth throughout the years, twice expanding to larger Brooklyn facilities and supplementing that capacity with a Bristol, CT, facility in 1968. Growth of our customer base outside the Northeast led to the opening of facilities in the Southeast (Greensboro, NC, in 1981), West (Gilbert, AZ, in 1984) and Midwest (St. Charles, MO, in 1985). Meanwhile, international demand for our products led to the opening of facilities in Europe (Workingham, England in 1978), Latin America (Monterrey, Mexico in 2003) and Asia (Shanghai China in 2006). Today, the company employs 275 people, serving a broad base of industrial, commercial and consumer industries.
Factors for success: Lee Spring has maintained a loyal and stable base of employees that has served us well throughout the years, and this remains our foundation for success.
Succession planning tips: Continuously work to foster and maintain a depth of talent with a breadth of knowledge throughout the organization, and any transitions will work out fine.
What SMI means: Lee Spring was a founding member of SMI but had become less active by the turn of the century. We are excited to have re-engaged over the past few years to take advantage of the collective knowledge of SMI’s community of companies and individuals all working toward advancement of the industry.
Advice for the next generation: Move forward with advancing technology, but don’t lose sight of the basics.
Mid-West Spring & Stamping Inc., Romeoville, IL headquarters
Jeffrey L. Ellison, president and CEO
The Muehlhausen family operated MWS for three generations. In October 1986, Federal Resources Corp. purchased the company. Then it was sold in 1989 to Clegg industries. In 1993, Pathe Technologies Inc. was acquired by Clegg, and the name was changed to Pathe Technologies. After several unrelated business purchases, MWS went through a reorganization where Clegg’s ownership was ended, and the creditors and management became the new owners, returning the company to its original name. Today, the company serves virtually every industry, employing 150 people in its manufacturing plants in Mentone, IN; Muskegon, MI; and Azusa, CA.
Factors for success: Quality, customer focus, service, engineering support and employee loyalty.
Succession planning tips: After leaving the family ownership structure of the Muehlhausen family, MWS became a publicly-traded company, and then went private again by a group of equity participants. Succession planning in a family business is very different than for a group of equity investors. In the latter case, succession becomes a matter of selling to the highest bidder. The control and operation structure can become integrated into the purchaser’s structure if it is a strategic purchase, or management can continue if the purchase is a financial transaction.
What SMI means: There is a lot of valuable information shared informally at SMI functions. Friendships made there can be called upon in a time of need.
Advice for the next generation: This advice is the same for any low-tech manufacturing industry: Watch out for China. There will be a long period of adjustment in American industry while China comes of age in the international industrial arena. We can anticipate the same process that occurred when Japan developed into an industrial world competitor. However, because of China’s size, there will be massive shifts in manufacturing jobs. Springmakers should build their businesses on high service, low-volume customers that will be the last to go to China.
Newcomb Spring, Decatur, GA, headquarters
G. Donald Jacobson Jr., chairman
In the 1880s, the company known today as Newcomb Spring started out as Chas. A. Cook and Sons in Brooklyn, NY. Later, it became Reliance Spring, which split into two companies in 1921, one of which was headed by Leroy Newcomb, with George L. Jacobson as its office manager. By 1924, George Jacobson was president and sole owner of the company, which made springs for firearms, shipyards and industrial machinery.
For many years, Newcomb manufactured Shuttle Tensions for the then-thriving U.S. silk industry. Done entirely by hand, these were made by twisting the eyes and soldering them solid, and then the remaining piece of wire at one end was hand-coiled into a torsion spring.
The company was growing, and after moving to larger building in Brooklyn, NY, and then again to a factory in Valley Stream, NY, still more room was needed. In 1953, a new plant was built in Southington, CT, near Bristol to take advantage of the city’s infrastructure for springmaking. At the same time, the first of several acquisitions was made: Nutmeg Spring was purchased and merged with the Southington plant. Since then, three other spring companies were purchased, and five started from scratch.
Today, the company has nine locations with around 500 employees in Decatur, GA; Stanton, CA; Mississauga, Ontario; Charlotte, NC; Denver, CO; Southington, CT; Ooltewah, TN; Dallas, TX; and El Paso, TX. Newcomb serves many industries, from electro-mechanical to medical, with some automotive.
Factors for success: Before truck deregulation and interstates, shipping costs and days of travel were major factors in bidding for jobs. Newcomb kept following its major customers by adding plants near the assembly sites. This evolved into a policy of being close to the customer, not just for cheaper shipping but also for faster response to customer needs.
The other major factor for longevity has been Newcomb remaining a closely held family business. This has enabled the company to take a longer view, from the training of new employees, to developing new markets.
Succession planning tips: If you want your children to be interested in your business, don’t scare them away. Growing up, I talked to many other kids who had the opportunity to get into the family business. Most didn’t want to for the same reason: All they ever heard about the business was bad. When their parents talked, all the kids would hear were the problems with the employees, government regulations, customers, suppliers and even competitors. It was no wonder, when given the chance to be part of the business, they said, “No thanks,” believing a person would have to be crazy to want all that trouble.
My father did talk about problems, but more often he would tell us about the wonderful things the springs were going into. He told me about so many interesting people who were customers or suppliers. I knew my father was glad to be in the spring business, where he would gladly buy a competitor a drink and share a joke. Of course I wanted to be in the business.
What SMI means: SMI has provided many useful services, from the safety inspections to the software; but the people staff and other members are the key. The opportunity to share experiences with your peers is priceless. To have them become friends is a bonus. SMI is a continuing-education program; you just have to ask questions and be willing to share.
Advice for the next generation: Have some fun. There will be good days and bad, so enjoy the job or find something else to do. Take care of the customers, but take even better care of your employees. And don’t forget, “plastic” is a dirty word.
Peck Spring Division/MW Industries Inc., Plainfield, CT
John Everett, vice president and general manager
Peck Spring was founded in 1917 by D.C. Peck and his two sons in his cellar workshop. By 1920, it was incorporated and a factory was constructed. The company grew quickly in the ’20s, serving the office product, electrical instrument, machinery and home appliance industries. The plant was expanded, and a screw machine products division was started under the guidance of David Smyth.
During World War II, Peck Spring developed techniques to achieve previously unattainable precision and became a critical supplier of components for an airplane bomb-sighting device. After the war, production was shifted to civilian products.
In 1998, Peck Spring was purchased by MW Industries. Operating at its original location with several expansions over the years, Peck provides critical parts to the electrical, electronic, medical, hardware and automotive industries.
Factors for success: Quality, customer service, extremely talented and dedicated employees, and a never-ending drive for continuous improvement.
What SMI means: SMI provides an opportunity to meet and learn from others operating similar companies, and helps us understand the ever-changing marketplace.
Advice for the next generation: Springmaking talent is developed from within, so employee training and retention is critical.
Peterson American Corp., Southfield, MI, headquarters
Alfred H. “Pete” Peterson III, CEO
In 1914, Norwegian immigrant August Christian Peterson and his son, Alfred, founded the first mechanical spring factory in Detroit. Today, Peterson Spring is one of the most important privately owned springmaking groups in North America.
August Peterson, an apprentice blacksmith, came to the U.S. in the 1880s and worked for the William D. Gibson Co. in Chicago, IL, making hot-wound springs.
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In 1904, August moved to Pennsylvania to run the spring operation of a steel mill. His 14-year old son, Alfred, worked in the mill as well. The mill closed and they moved to Kentucky to work in a new mill, which also failed. In 1912, the family decided to start Springfield Spring in Springfield, OH, making springs for the railroad, wagons, farm implements and automobiles. When the company eventually became successful, non-family shareholders accepted an offer to sell to International Harvester.
August and Alfred came to Detroit in 1914 to make springs for the expanding auto industry. They started a new corporation, General Spring and Wire, in a small rented building with the help of loyal employees who had followed them from Ohio. Majority ownership was again in the hands of investors. In the late 1920s non-family shareholders voted to sell the company. The Petersons then started Peterson Spring, which was sold to Eaton by non-family investors. When Alfred founded Precision Spring in 1932, the family finally held controlling interest.
In 1936, Alfred built a new plant that grew to exceed 100,000 square feet. During World War II, the company manufactured war-related products. In 1937, Alfred’s daughter Thelma became the first woman to earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. After graduation, she joined her father at Precision Spring and, shortly after, her brother Bud joined the company, too.After the war, the spring industry experienced a boom. The Peterson organization expanded with more plants in Michigan, followed by others in Mexico, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ontario and England, as well as an interest in operations in Italy, Australia, Japan and South Africa.
Today, Peterson Spring operates 11 manufacturing facilities with 710 employees in North America and England. Bud’s four children, the fourth generation, all work for the company, which supplies springs to the automotive, agriculture, heavy equipment and home appliance industries.
Factors for success: Remaining financially conservative, emphasizing engineering and technology, and consulting high-quality outside advisors.
Succession planning tips: Make someone the boss, and have assets besides company stock to give to other family members.
What SMI means: SMI was an important part of my life for 15 or 20 years. Both my father and I served as SMI president; Bud in 1970-72 and I in 1993-95.
W.B. Jones Spring Co. Inc., Wilder, KY
Robert Witte, secretary-treasurer
W.B. Jones, a wire salesman for Wickwire Spencer, founded the company in 1913, selling stock springs and assortments to hardware stores. The company had several locations in downtown Cincinnati, OH, before moving to Fairfax, OH, in 1965 and then to Wilder, KY, in 1997. In the early days, the company sent mass mailings to prospective customers, many of which were written in poetry form about current events or company employees. When Jones passed away in 1955, the company was managed by long-time employees until it incorporated in 1962. Since then, we have expanded our stock line, and manufacture springs to specification and prints for industrial supply and OEM accounts.
Factors for ongoing success: Talented and dedicated employees, and purchasing up-to-date equipment.
What SMI means: We appreciate the technical information SMI provides, as well as Springs magazine.
|SMI Charter Member Spring Companies|
ABC Spring Co.
The Yost Superior Co., Springfield, OH
Bert Barnes, majority owner and CEO
The Yost Superior Co. was founded in 1902 by officers of The Yost Gearless Motor Co., which manufactured a reciprocating water motor for washing machines. In 1924, Superior Spring acquired the assets of The Yost Gearless Motor Co., and The Yost Superior Co. was formed, with John L. Lloyd as president and Bert F. Downey as secretary. Downey had worked for both Superior Spring and The Yost Gearless Motor Co. since 1906 and played a major role in the forming of The Yost Superior Co. In its beginnings, the company made springs for agriculture, hydraulics, food processing, mining, drilling, musical instruments, pumps and compressors.
In 1946, L. Vaughan Barnes, Downey’s son-in-law, joined the company as a salesperson, as well as performing other duties. He went on to become CEO in 1957. He was active in SMI and served as president from 1964-1966. His son, Bert D. Barnes, was chosen to head The Yost Superior Co. in 1977.
Today, the company focuses on slow growth and high capital investment, performing high value-added small to medium quantity work. The company has branched out, serving not only its original markets but also the medical and dental, scientific, food, energy and fluid-handling industries, as well as other spring companies. Manufacturing custom springs only, and avoiding the toy, automotive and home appliance industries, the company has “stuck to its knitting” and has no financial debt. The 57 employees of Yost Superior have over 1,000 years of experience with the company.
Factors for success: The grace of God, and lots of hard work by dedicated people with an extreme determination to survive and thrive. Taking a conservative approach to financial management, we keep fixed costs low and make as many costs variable as possible.
We are “incentive fanatics” and try extra hard to pay people according to their performance, and we are deeply committed to profit sharing. We have remained flexible, especially concerning flexible work rules. Great people and a fortunate geographic location have helped us succeed, along with sticking with what we do well and undertaking few risky ventures.
Succession planning tips: Work at it, keep it in mind every day, and pray. Make every possible effort to be extremely fair to all that would be concerned with succession. Seek outside counsel, but with care and only when really needed. Always make the business’ success the No. 1 goal, not keeping family members happy or pacified. Never try to coerce family members to work for the business, and don’t over- or under-pay them.
Always keep in mind that the business must have a thoroughly competent CEO who has the authority to make decisions and get things done promptly. Without that, you’re in trouble. Turn heaven and earth to remain profitable, always.
What SMI means: SMI has served Yost in many, many ways: One, we get to be friends with other springmakers. Two, we get counsel from various people of SMI that broadens our perspective on business and the economy. Three, we get information via SMI that is not available any other way. Four, we learn at and enjoy the national and regional meetings. Five, Springs magazine is informative and interesting. Six, there is more!
Advice for the next generation: Be alert and vigilant of all that’s happening inside and outside of your business. One last thought: Use the fruits of your business to serve others charitably. Wise, good, Godly stewardship is essential.
Looking back on the history of SMI’s charter members helps us realize that the industry’s future lies in the same place where it began: Gathering together to exchange information, forge relationships, address common problems and, ultimately, to thrive as companies and as an industry. That’s the power of association.
Happy Anniversary, SMI!
Rita Kaufman CAE is the editor of Springs magazine and communications director of the Spring Manufacturers Institute. Readers may contact her by phone at (630) 495-8588 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.