2455 Dayton-Xenia Road
Dayton, Ohio 45434
Fax: (513) 426-7181
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of General Electric Company
Sales: $80 million
SICs: 3444 Sheet Metal Work; 3312 Stainless Steel; 3356
Titanium and Titanium Alloy Bars, Rods, Billets, Sheets,
Strip, and Tubing
Elano Corporation is one of the most successful manufacturers of castings, pipings, tubings, and various other components used primarily by the aerospace industry. Under the direction of founder Ervin J. Nutter, Elano became one of the first to employ new and highly sophisticated technology, despite its small-business roots. In fact, the company has been recognized as one of the best of the small manufacturers in the United States and has garnered many quality-control awards, including the Air Force “Zero Defects Award,” General Motors’ “Certificate of Excellence,” and General Electric’s “Outstanding Performance Award.”
Elano Corporation was established by Ervin J. Nutter. Like many other companies, Elano’s history is intimately related to the background, interests, and determination of its founder. Nutter came from a family of entrepreneurs. His grandfather, John Nutter, had traveled west to Wyoming and established one of the territory’s first wagon freight hauling businesses. Nutter’s father, Ervin F. Nutter, who gained a reputation for his construction and operation of large commercial power plants, eventually became chief engineer of McGregor Golf Equipment Company and was attributed with the development of state-of-the-art golf ball processing. Nutter’s mother, Carrie McDavid, was among the first women to earn a teaching degree from the University of Kentucky, Nutter’s eventual alma mater.
Ervin J. Nutter was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1914. While in high school, he constructed, in his words, “a nice little business erecting radio antennas and manufacturing radio crystal sets,” which helped his neighbors receive station KDKA in Pittsburgh. Among the materials he used, in short supply at the time, were empty Mothers’ Oats oatmeal boxes, and the young entrepreneur eventually went out of business as demand exceeded supply. Nutter also earned money building fish and lily ponds made of concrete and rocks, as well as popular water fountain bird baths—creative projects that whetted his appetite for success.
Nutter entered the University of Kentucky with plans to one day preside as president over a company he had started from scratch. He planned to work his way through school and exit with a mechanical engineering degree. With all the experience he had gained following his father around commercial power plants since his early childhood, he felt he could pass the State of Ohio Stationary Engineer’s test. At the age of 21, upon completion of his sophomore year, he acted on his convictions and dropped out of college. Nutter traveled to Dayton, Ohio, determined to take the State of Ohio examination necessary to earn a stationary engineer’s license. “Don’t even waste your time trying,” he was told.
Yet Nutter was determined, and did in fact become the youngest person in Ohio history to pass that test. The accomplishment was no small news and was featured in a Hamilton, Ohio, newspaper, prompting a job offer from the Hamilton-based Hooven-Owens-Rentschler Company, where Nutter became assistant to the chief engineer.
During this time, according to Nutter, the company had purchased two second-hand coal pulverizers, whose parts were shipped completely disassembled and piled into two railroad coal cars. The company’s chief engineer assigned his favorite crew to tackle the difficult assembly assignment, but no progress was made. Too ready and willing to pester his boss with ideas to improve plant operations, Nutter was, in retribution, assigned the task of assembling the machines himself with no instructions. With a little assistance from a maintenance carpenter, Nutter grouped the parts by appearance and gradually assembled the complex machines, much to everyone’s surprise. However, shortly thereafter, the chief engineer concocted a reason to fire Nutter. As Nutter was leaving the plant, Gordon Rentschler, the company’s CEO, asked Nutter where he was going. “I’ve just been fired,” Nutter explained; “well then,” Rentschler replied, “you’ve just been rehired. Come along with me.”
Nutter kept his job, but soon became bored with machine assembly and found work as a stationary engineer at Procter and Gamble, where he hoped to eventually fill a retirement vacancy as chief engineer. His anticipated course of action was foiled, however, when the position was offered to a young mechanical engineering graduate. “I knew right then that I’d traveled as far as two years of college could take me,” Nutter explained, adding that “with a borrowed trailer stacked high, reminiscent of the Grapes of Wrath, I left for Lexington.”
Nutter packed his belongings and headed for the University of Kentucky. When the college dean told Nutter he couldn’t enroll in classes in the middle of a semester, Nutter simply ignored the statement and advised the dean that he would need a job for food, tuition, and books. The dean complied. At the university, Nutter worked 30 to 40 hours per week in addition to the many hours he spent studying, and under such a difficult schedule, his grades suffered. However, during Nutter’s final semester, the dean of the engineering college bet Nutter a new hat that he couldn’t achieve all As for the term. Nutter later was pleased to recall that the dean lost that bet, adding “God bless him, I know he wanted to lose.”
Upon graduating from the University of Kentucky, at the height of World War II, Nutter received a framed copy of Kipling’s poem “If” from his mother, a leather briefcase from his father, and a new hat from the dean. Moreover, the dean took Nutter to a local bank and co-signed a note for $200 to pay expenses for Nutter’s move from Lexington to Dayton, Ohio.
At an advanced civilian’s salary, Nutter accepted a position at Dayton’s Wright Field, one of the most important aviation research and development laboratories operated by the U.S. government. While designing, building, and operating laboratory equipment, he learned the intricacies of modern aviation.
Nutter rose fast at Wright Field and was soon the only civilian branch chief in the laboratory, where he was placed in charge of environmental testing for the Air Force. During his spare time, Nutter assisted his friend and future Elano partner, Captain Lee Otterson, by designing an aerial spraying device capable of covering huge areas with DDT, a new insecticide. “It seemed like a strange project,” Nutter later confessed, “until I found out we were losing more troops to malaria than to combat in the South Pacific.” Knowing Nutter’s background in thermodynamics and flow of fluids, Otterson confided the details and, off the record, asked for suggestions. Nutter worked evenings for weeks on the project, eventually designing a device to hang under the belly of a B-25; with the bomb bay full of tanks, the plane was capable of spraying a gallon of the liquid over an acre of ground. Nutter was granted his only patent for the invention, obtained by the Air Force, and was commended for helping eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which saved countless lives.
V-J Day arrived and Otterson, now a major, formed a unique verbal partnership with Nutter that gave birth to a new company, the Agricultural Aviation Company (Ag Aviation), which was the precursor to Elano Corporation. According to their plan, Otterson returned to his home in California to operate a rice farm, while Nutter remained in Dayton to open an engineering firm. The sole purpose of the enterprise was to design and manufacture an aerial spraying device for small aircraft. Still employed at Wright Field, Nutter contributed a portion of his salary to hire the company’s first employee, Bob Calvert, a mechanical engineer, Air Force captain, and former classmate of Nutter. Otterson pitched in numerous small loans from his farm income, once the rice was harvested, all of which Nutter would later repay.
“About that time,” Nutter recalled, “the family moved from Dayton to Trebein Road in Beavercreek. We had a couple of acres, a nice home with a single-car garage, a small barn with a chicken house, and an old, two-room tenant house which later became Elano’s first plant.” Having made an early decision that Ag Aviation would not accept government contracts due to the complexity of paperwork involved, Nutter nonetheless changed his mind when the Air Force asked for a bid on spray devices for its smaller aircraft. Under Bob Calvert’s direction, Ag Aviation landed the contract.
With virtually no equipment, Nutter converted his spacious back yard into an impromptu manufacturing facility, supervised by Calvert. The old tenant house became plant No. 1, equipped with less than $400 worth of machinery. The government was so pleased with the spray device that it asked Nutter to provide a bid for volume production. However, Ag Aviation lost the contract when a team of inspectors deemed his makeshift facility incapable of producing the large production volume required by the Air Force.
Nevertheless, another line of business was emerging at Ag Aviation. “Our first line of products came quite by accident,” Nutter recalled. “One day while I was in the office of the manager of Overlook Homes, a World War II housing project, he showed me a worn kitchen faucet stem. He told me that he would have to buy a whole new faucet, since parts for wartime-built plumbing fixtures were not available. Sensing a national market, we mailed our first advertisement to every government housing project in the United States, eventually building the plumbing replacement parts business into a $10,000-a-month operation.” Specifically, a need existed for swing spouts for kitchen sinks. When bending metal tubing into the shapes necessary for such a swinging spout presented a challenge, Nutter designed a special tube bender. Nutter would later note that “the bending of those kitchen swing spouts was the key that unlocked the door to the future of Elano Corporation.
As the company grew, Nutter expanded his manufacturing operations into a cow barn and a garage located at his home. However, as his family’s life was constantly disrupted by the operations, Nutter moved the facilities to the basement of Marshall Brothers’ Garage on Dayton-Xenia Road. When a salesman calling at the little plant saw the company’s bent tube production, he asked to represent the company. The salesman said that General Electric was having a difficult time purchasing critical jet engine parts, particularly those involving curved, tubular, stainless steel. Nutter had the answer.
His company’s improved and relocated manufacturing site passed a government survey team’s inspection, and on August 20, 1951, the company won seven GE contracts totaling $25,025. Ag Aviation was renamed Elano Corporation, a name coined from the initials of Nutter and partner Lee Otterson.
Within four months of the first contract with General Electric, Elano had backlogged a quarter of a million dollars in additional business. To expand his operations, Nutter secured bank loans, which he paid off early. Throughout the remainder of the 1950s, Elano grew at an enormous rate. As more and more orders were taken for tubings and engine components, the company’s reputation for product quality and reliability also grew. General Electric contracted the small rural community business to produce engine components for some of the most famous aircraft during the Cold War, including the J-79, the F-4, the J-93, and the C-5A transport.
Mutual dependency led to mutual success. In Erie, Pennsylvania, GE had developed a powerful diesel engine to power its line of railroad locomotives, and Nutter was tapped to help GE develop an exhaust system capable of withstanding the high temperatures and vibration of the new engine. Nutter met with GE’s engineering staff in Erie, and returned home with a preliminary design—a sophisticated, stainless steel manifold with a state-of-the-art bellows system that utilized three sheets of thin stainless steel that would withstand a 2,500 horse power engine. Ironically, at the time he made the trip, Nutter didn’t realize that GE’s chief competitor, General Motors, was also in the locomotive business. Upon parking his Cadillac on the GE lot, Nutter received a humorous but nonetheless serious suggest that he not park a GM car on GE property. “Needless to say,” Nutter quipped, “I didn’t have a bit of a problem parking a Lincoln on that lot the next time I was in town.” Nutter’s manifold design, manufactured by Elano, was, by 1996, withstanding a 4,000 horse power engine.
During the early and mid-1960s, Elano Corporation, under the leadership of Nutter and Otterson, had grown large enough to merit an acquisitions and expansion program. The company’s first purchase came in 1966, when it bought Acme Screw Products, a firm that specialized in machine components. In just a few years, sales for Acme Screw Products grew from $500,000 to over $3 million. Elano East, an engineering firm in Rowley, Massachusetts, was also created in 1966 and specialized in developing prototypes for aircraft engine companies throughout New England.
With expansion and acquisition in place, Elano braced for a period of unparalleled growth in the 1970s. Nutter purchased Otterson’s company share in 1972, channeling profits into future development. Not long after establishing a quality name for itself as a major defense contractor, Elano developed a highly sophisticated device for suppressing infrared radiation in helicopter engines, which helped prevent heat-seeking enemy missiles from honing in and destroying the aircraft. The company also created its own laboratory at this time, Enlo Incorporated, to develop, design, and manufacture aerospace industry castings and hardware.
In a somewhat unusual personal move, Nutter created KBJ Ranch, an agricultural business that devoted itself to specialized crop development and sophisticated cattle-breeding methods. Nutter teamed up with Ohio State University and built a complete medical operating room for cattle. Scientific research there, performed by staff at Ohio State, produced such findings as a record 35 pregnancies from a single conception and eventually produced approximately 50 state and national champion cattle. Nutter also eventually teamed up with former classmate David Scott, CEO of Allis Chambers, to help pioneer no-till crop planting equipment, widely used into the 1990s. As Nutter’s work gained recognition, he was installed as a Fellow in the Engineers’ Club of Dayton, and was among the first four University of Kentucky School of Engineering graduates to be enshrined in that school’s Hall of Distinction.
Discussing the key to Elano’s success, Nutter observed that the company’s achievements could be traced to “the truest principles of our country’s free enterprise system … privilege based upon responsibility, dignity based upon justice, and rewards based upon individual effort.” He added, “These principles all apply to Elano, for it was built on individual initiative through the continuing hard work of many.”
The 1980s continued an upward growth swing at Elano, due to its solid partnership with GE. A 1985 agreement to sell Elano to GE at the height of Elano’s success was not an easy decision for Nutter, who, growing older, had become mentally and physically exhausted by the company’s daily demands. Yet he retired, content that he had parlayed a childhood dream into a rich, lifelong endeavor. Acknowledging the hard work of others at the company, Nutter noted “one may leave a legacy of achievement, but that achievement will be remembered only if it serves the needs of others.”
Elano endured a comprehensive reorganization under its new managers at General Electric, who revamped the firm’s business operations. Under GE’s direction, the company began to focus exclusively on marketing and selling aerospace industry products and increasing sales to the international market.
In the early and mid-1990s, Elano Corporation was producing tubular and sheet metal components, bracket assemblies for jet engines, and fittings, connectors, and vacuum casting for the aerospace industry. Its tubular components were designed and manufactured specifically for fuel, air, and oil lines of high-performance aircraft. The company also formed an extremely lucrative repair-service unit for aircraft engines. Elano is regarded as one of the most reliable U.S. manufacturers of quality components for the aircraft and aerospace industries. Moreover, General Electric has made a commitment to Elano’s research and development facilities, and the result has been a wealth of new aerospace component designs.
CorpTech Directory of Technology Companies, CorpTech: Boston, 1995, Vol. 3, p. 61.
Nutter, Ervin, Elano Corporation, Newcomen Society: New York, 1982.