Atwood Mobil Products
Atwood Mobil Products
Division of Dura Automotive Systems Inc.
Incorporated: 1909 as Atwood Vacuum Machine Co.
Sales: $150 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 336332 Other Motor Vehicle Electrical and Electronic Equipment Manufacturing; 336360 Motor Vehicle Seating and Interior Trim Manufacturing
Based in Rockford, Illinois, Atwood Mobile Products manufactures a wide variety of products—including chassis components, cooking appliances, gas alarms, heating systems, seating, water heaters, windows and doors—for boats, recreational vehicles, and towed equipment. Founded in 1909, the company has served a number of different commercial and industrial markets throughout its history including the automotive and agricultural sectors. According to the company, its products are found in 90 percent of recreational vehicles (RVs) in America.
Arguably, Atwood Mobil Products’ foundation was laid during the childhood of James Thomas Atwood. In the eighth grade, Atwood constructed models of two miniature engines from one toy steam engine. By his freshman year of high school, he had constructed a three-horsepower steam engine and his physics teacher had arranged for him to experiment in a nearby manufacturing shop. After graduating from high school in 1899 and earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois four years later, Atwood obtained a faculty position in the University of Wisconsin’s engineering department. There, he developed a stationary vacuum cleaner intended for use in buildings.
Finding it difficult to ignore his entrepreneurial spirit, Atwood left the academic world in 1908 to produce and market his vacuum cleaner system, which consisted of a central unit and many tubes that allowed hoses to be attached at different points throughout a building. Established in 1909, his new enterprise initially was located in Madison, Wisconsin. However, by 1910 James Atwood had moved Atwood Vacuum Machine Co. to his native Rockford, Illinois, where his brother Seth B. Atwood— who had been a student at the University of Wisconsin when the elder Atwood was a professor there—joined him in the venture. This was a dream come true for the Atwood brothers, who had always wanted to go into business together.
Experimentation and Enterprise: 1909-49
In the beginning, the Atwoods rented space in what used to be Rockford’s Water Power District, where a dam on the Rock River once provided power for area manufacturers. As the young company expanded, it moved to other locations, including sites on South Church Street and North Water Street.
It was not long before the Atwood enterprise changed direction. The impetus came when a rattling door in Seth Atwood’s automobile led to the development of an adjustable door bumper in 1915. Eventually, the bumper became a standard automotive industry product. Production levels skyrocketed to 21 million units by the mid-1920s. Inspired by the success of their door bumper, the Atwoods began offering additional products to the automotive industry, including hinges for doors, trunks, and hoods. As the brothers succeeded in the automotive arena, they moved away from vacuum cleaner production, stopping it completely by 1919. The Atwoods pioneered many innovative automotive products such as telescoping props for holding open trunk doors and forward-aft seat adjusters that eventually became commonplace in most automobiles.
In 1925, the Atwood enterprise continued to prosper, leading to the construction of a new, 30,000-square-foot plant on North Main Street. Recalling this period of the company’s history in an early news article, Seth B. Atwood commented: “During that period we worked day and night shifts at the N. Water St. plant and two shifts at the new building before it was even enclosed.”
Midway through the 1930s, the company continued to expand. It became the first manufacturer to produce concealed hinges for car doors, which were unveiled on the 1937 Graham-Page. In 1936, a division was established to manufacture automobile and tractor clutches. In 1938, this division moved to Auburn, Indiana, where Atwood operated the Auburn Manufacturing Co. This operation served a vital production role during World War II, supplying both Ford and Willys with clutches for U.S. military jeeps. Atwood’s clutch unit was acquired by the Toledo, Ohio-based Spicer division of Dana Corp. in 1947.
In addition to the clutches it manufactured for military use, Atwood also supplied other parts to the U.S. Army and Navy during the war for use in tanks, amphibious vehicles, gun mounts, and in the Flying Fortress bomber. On several occasions, the company received the E Award from the military for excellence in the area of production. Sometime in the late 1940s, the Atwoods’ partnership officially became a corporation.
Growth through Acquisition: 1950-69
By the early 1950s, Seth G. Atwood, son of Seth B. Atwood, had joined the firm as executive vice-president. Atwood’s employee base had increased to 700 workers. This growth was mirrored in the company’s physical infrastructure. In approximately 25 years, the North Main plant had grown to include nine different buildings. Linked together, these facilities represented some 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space. It was around this time that a new, 100,000-square-foot plant in nearby Stockton, Illinois, was constructed.
The company’s explosive growth was fueled by demand for its expanding array of 2,500 products, which, according to the November 7, 1952, Rockford Register Republic, included house trailer couplings, rotary lawn mower housings, electric motor bases and radios, brakes, items for tractors, and parts used by the railroad industry. Atwood also supplied products for the defense industry that were used in jeeps, tanks, planes, transport vehicles, and ammunition boxes.
The company’s manufacturing diversity did not stop there. Atwood was also a supplier to the bicycle industry, for which it had pioneered the development of kick-stands (the Atwood KickUp Steel Stand) and training wheels (the Atwood Stabilizer). Among Atwood’s other product offerings were items made of sheet metal, including cabinets and junction boxes. In addition to its depth of product offerings, the company’s reach was also growing, extending to international markets such as England, where items were manufactured under the Atwood name.
In 1952, Atwood constructed a new manufacturing plant at 1400 Eddy Avenue. Within two years, the company established a Canadian affiliate called Lake Simcoe Industries in Beaverton, Ontario. In October of 1954, Seth G. Atwood was named president upon his father’s elevation to chairman, and James T. Atwood became chairman emeritus.
It was around this time that Atwood began acquiring other companies, beginning with Royal Oak, Michigan-based Press Products Inc. and Chicago-based A.B.T. Manufacturing Corp. in 1955. The latter firm, which became a wholly owned subsidiary of Atwood, manufactured items like change-making devices, coin chutes, and slug rejectors. In mid-1958, Atwood announced that A.B.T. would remain a separate corporation but that all operations would move to Rockford. In 1956, Atwood acquired the trailer hardware division of Maywood, Illinois-based H.W. Crane Co., expanding its offering of couplers.
The arrival of the 1960s was characterized by more acquisitions. In February 1961, Atwood bought the assets of Pontiac, Michigan-based American Forging & Socket Co. and transferred production of the company’s products—which included various kinds of automobile locks and latches, as well as parking brakes and seat adjusters—to Atwood’s Rockford and Stockton plants. The acquisition created about 100 new jobs in northern Illinois and involved only business assets and certain pieces of equipment.
In September 1961, the company suffered a loss when James Atwood died. His inventive spirit and entrepreneurial drive was responsible for the formation of Atwood Vacuum Machine Co. However, growth and success continued with Seth G. Atwood at the helm. By 1963, Atwood had established a manufacturing facility in Havana, Illinois, expanded its engineering and manufacturing departments, and increased the company’s presence in the European market through additional licensing agreements.
In December 1964, Atwood acquired Wixom, Michigan-based Hemco Inc., a manufacturer of both electric and gas heaters for use in trailers and mobile homes. As a result of the acquisition, a new organization called Atwood-Bowen Co. was formed. Led by Seth G. Atwood as president and Hemco’s Max E. Bowen, the new firm combined the product offerings of Hemco with those that Atwood Vacuum Machine already provided to the trailer industry, including couplers, hitches, hydraulic trailer brakes, and jacks. In early 1966, Atwood established the General Products Division to serve the automotive, trailer, and mobile home markets from the company’s plants in Wixom, Michigan, and Rockford, Illinois (North Main Street).
In 1967, Atwood constructed a new foundry in Havana, Illinois, to make iron castings used mainly for non-automotive purposes. The new plant included high-speed molding machines as well as a lab with x-ray capabilities for conducting metallurgical analyses. In July of that year, long-time Atwood employee Robert B. Rosecrance was promoted from executive vice-president to president, succeeding Seth G. Atwood, who became Atwood’s chairman. Seth B. Atwood was subsequently appointed senior chairman.
Customer service is paramount at Atwood. Whatever the situation, customer service is the primary concern. That means meeting your delivery schedules and product specifications, monitoring installation and solving any difficulties that may occur, and actively participating in trade associations and standards development in all markets that we serve.
By 1968, Atwood had established itself as the world’s “largest independent manufacturer of internal auto body hardware,” according to the February 15, 1968, Rockford Register Republic. At this time, the organization employed about 2,500 workers at six different plants that collectively represented manufacturing space of approximately 750,000 square feet.
Operating as Two Divisions: 1970-98
Atwood began the 1970s by reorganizing. In May 1970, the company announced that the newly named Automotive and Contract Division would serve the automotive market and the Mobil Products Division would serve the trailer and mobile home markets. In 1971, total company sales were approximately $50 million, $40 million of which was attributed to the Automotive and Contract Division and the remainder to the Mobil Products Division. Approximately 80 percent of Atwood’s workers were employed in the former division.
In 1971, record sales and optimistic projections for the Mobil Products Division prompted Atwood to announce construction of a new 48,000-square-foot facility for the division on Hiawatha Drive in Rockford, along with a 10,000-square-foot office building. Completed in fall 1972—another record year for the Mobil Products Division—the new facilities were located on a 14-acre site.
In 1973, Atwood made several acquisitions. In April, the company acquired Oakland, California-based Gilro Stamping Co. and made it a wholly owned Atwood subsidiary under the Automotive and Contract Division. The newly acquired firm had established relationships in the heavy-duty trucking sector. In December, Atwood sold its high-tech foundry in Havana, Illinois, to automotive part maker Dana Corp. By 1975, the Automotive Division had established a new plant in Oregon, Illinois, to make parking brakes, adding to the company’s overall lineup of plants in Illinois, Michigan, and California. The following year, construction of yet another plant—a 40,000-square-foot facility situated on 29 acres—was announced in Western Union, Iowa.
Business continued at a steady, uneventful pace until 1985. That year, after 75 years of continuous operation, the Atwood family sold its enterprise to Anderson Industries, a local holding company operated by Rockford businessman John R. Anderson. According to the February 22, 1985 Rockford Register Star, Anderson Industries was selected from a group of several potential buyers. Commenting on the transaction, in which Atwood became a wholly owned subsidiary of Anderson Industries, John Anderson remarked that the quality of Atwood’s 1,800 workers was a key factor in the acquisition. At the time of the acquisition, Atwood’s annual sales totaled $138 million.
Following the sale to Anderson, long-time Atwood employee John R. Henriksen was named president. In 1986, the company added air conditioners to its line of mobile products and acquired Greenbriar, Tennessee-based Wedgewood Industries. In December of that year, the company’s name changed from Atwood Vacuum Machine Co. to Atwood Industries Inc. According to comments from Henriksen in the December 12, 1986, Rockford Register Star, the “change was made to give the name a broader scope and image consistent with the company’s products and markets.”
Progress continued into the late 1980s. In December 1987, Atwood purchased Jonesville, Michigan-based Mark I Molded Plastics Inc. Then an $18 million company, Mark I manufactured molded automotive body parts and trim, as well as plastic cabinets and hardware for the electronics sector. According to Atwood President John Henriksen in the December 18, 1987, Rockford Register Star, the acquisition put the company in a stronger position to compete in the market for foreign automobiles manufactured in the United States.
- Brothers James and Seth Atwood establish Atwood Vacuum Machine Co.
- Seth Atwood develops an adjustable door bumper, which eventually becomes a standard automotive industry product.
- The company ceases production of vacuums and concentrates on serving the automotive market.
- A new 30,000-square-foot plant is constructed.
- A division is established to manufacture automobile and tractor clutches.
- Explosive growth is fueled by demand for Atwood’s expanding array of products; company constructs a new manufacturing plant.
- A Canadian affiliate called Lake Simcoe Industries in Beaverton, Ontario, is established.
- Atwood establishes a manufacturing facility in Havana, Illinois.
- Atwood reorganizes, establishing the Automotive and Contract Division and the Mobil Products Division.
- Sales reach approximately $50 million.
- The Atwood family sells its enterprise to Anderson Industries.
- Atwood Vacuum Machine Co. changes its name to Atwood Industries Inc.
- Sales reach approximately $200 million.
- Elkhart, Indiana-based Excel Industries Inc. acquires Atwood Industries.
- Excel closes Atwood’s automotive division and consolidates operations into existing Florida and Tennessee plants.
- Excel Industries is acquired by Dura Automotive Systems Inc., and Atwood Mobil Products becomes a division of Dura.
- Atwood Mobil devotes resources to the development of new technology, including innovative fuel cell systems for RVs.
In 1988, Henriksen was named Atwood’s chairman. James H. Rilott, a long-time employee who had been serving as president of the Mobil Products Division, was named president of Atwood Industries. These and other executives were at the company’s helm as it began to concentrate more heavily on international markets like Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan. That year, Atwood entered into a partnership with Yokohama, Japan-based Ohi Seisakusho Co. Ltd. that, like the Mark I acquisition, strengthened Atwood’s ability to prosper in the market for U.S.-made foreign automobiles. In addition to the prospect of international sales, the aging Baby Boomer demographic held great promise for Atwood in the recreational vehicle sector.
Together, these factors led to projected annual sales of approximately $200 million in 1989. In August, it purchased Travel Star Inc.’s line of cooking appliances, giving Atwood a market share of 50 percent in the recreational vehicle market for slide-in range ovens and drop-in ranges, according to the August 29, 1989 Rockford Register Star. Atwood also acquired the Marvel line of trailer couplers and jacks from Franklin, Kentucky-based Dayton Walther.
Atwood’s Mobil Products Division continued to prosper in the early-to-mid-1990s. In late 1992, the division acquired Hydro Flame, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based manufacturer of heaters for recreational vehicles, in a deal worth roughly $9 million. In June 1994 the Mobil Products Division also acquired Better Products Inc. of Elkhart, Indiana, allowing Atwood to add seat frames to its line of RV products. Finally, in 1996, the division announced its intention to purchase Greendale, Wisconsin-based The Compliance Group.
Meanwhile, Atwood’s Automotive Division was suffering from a reduction in orders, forcing the layoff of roughly 185 workers in December 1993. Conditions continued to worsen for the division. When Elkhart, Indiana-based Excel Industries Inc.—a manufacturer of automotive window systems with annual sales of approximately $888 million—acquired Atwood Industries in March 1996, it announced that the division’s technical and engineering staff would be relocated to Detroit. By May 1997, Excel closed the entire automotive division in Rockford and moved operations to its plants in Florida and Tennessee.
1999 and Beyond
In March 1999, Excel Industries was acquired by Rochester Hills, Michigan-based Dura Automotive Systems Inc., a $2.5 billion company with approximately 20,000 employees. Atwood Mobil Products then became a division of Dura. By the early 2000s, the company that John and Seth B. Atwood started in the early 20th century continued to offer a wide array of products to the recreational vehicle market. Following in John Atwood’s entrepreneurial footsteps, Atwood Mobil also devoted resources to the development of new technology, including innovative fuel cell systems for RVs, allowing the company to evolve with the needs and demands of its customers.
Teleflex Inc.; Ventra Group Inc.
“As Rain Falls, Atwood Begins Shutting Down,” Rockford Register Republic, May 3, 1997, pp. 1A, 4A.
“Atwood Grows in New Plant,” Rockford Register Republic, January 4, 1972.
“Atwood Names New President, Board Chairman,” Rockford Register Republic, June 28, 1988.
“Atwood Utilizes 5,000 Parts in Marketing 2,500 Products,” Rockford Register Republic, November 7, 1952.
“Atwood Vacuum Adds New Division,” Rockford Register Republic, December 27, 1966.
“Atwood Vacuum Changes Name,” Rockford Register Star, December 12, 1986, p. 11 A.
“Atwood Vacuum Is Sold,” Rockford Register Star, February 22, 1985, p. 1A.
“Atwood Vacuum Machine Co.,” Rockford Register Republic, February 15, 1968.
“Atwood World Leader in Seat Adjusters,” Rockford Register Star, January 29, 1974.
“Autos, Trucks Use Atwood Products,” Rockford Register Republic, February 1, 1972.
“Honor 3 Atwoods As Firm Marks 50th Anniversary,” Rockford Morning Star, September 20, 1959.
“Ideas to Aid Production Reward Atwood Employees,” Rockford Register Republic, May 25, 1955.
“James Atwood Dies,” Rockford Register Republic, September 11, 1961.
“Trailer Firm is Formed by Atwood,” Rockford Register Star, December 27, 1964.
“VEHICLE: Firms Work on RV Systems,” Fuel Cell Technology News, March 2001.
—Paul R. Greenland