33 Commercial Street
Foxboro, Massachusetts 02035
Fax: (508) 549-6770
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Siebe, P.LC.
Incorporated: 1908 as the Industrial Instrument Company
Sales: $600 million
SICs: 3823 Process Control Instruments
The Foxboro Company is a leading manufacturer of industrial controls. The company supplies devices for monitoring and automating manufacturing processes to the chemical, oil and gas, paper, food, pharmaceutical, mining, electric, water, and scientific industries. Founded in New England in the early years of the twentieth century, Foxboro grew as a result of continuous innovation in the products that it offered.
Foxboro was founded by the Bristol brothers. Edgar Hiél Bristol and Bennet Beri Bristol were heirs to a company run by their father and based in Waterbury, Connecticut. They withdrew from the family business, though, and set up the Industrial Instrument Company in 1908. As part of their effort to launch a company capable of producing instrument controls, the Bristol brothers purchased two companies in this industry: the Standard Gauge Manufacturing Company, of Syracuse, New York; and the Standard Electric Time Company, a clock manufacturer in Waterbury.
The Bristols then set out to find a suitable site for their new business. They settled on Foxboro, Massachusetts, a town of 3,500 people that had an unused set of 12 sturdy brick industrial buildings. The fledgling company bought these Neponset Avenue buildings, originally built in 1894 by the Van Choate Electric Company, in the summer of 1908. Industrial Instrument began the process of transferring the operations of the Standard Gauge company from Syracuse to Massachusetts. In December 1908 the first set of Standard Gauge employees arrived from New York, and much of the firm’s equipment later followed in wooden crates.
Industrial Equipment also bought another firm, the Shepherd Plating and Finishing Company, based in Waterbury. It moved that company to Foxboro as well. By the end of the year, the company had 53 employees who earned about 13 cents an hour turning out gauges for use in steam boilers, refrigeration units, and automobiles.
In 1909 Industrial Instrument bought the American Instrument Company of Newark, New Jersey, a subdivision of the Western Electric Company. This company specialized in precision instruments, and Industrial benefitted from the purchase of its lathes, presses, and automatic screw machines. In March 1910 the company closed its Waterbury head office after the Bristols determined that its distance from the Foxboro plant made management of the company difficult.
Throughout the second decade of the new century, Industrial Instrument struggled to stay afloat. The company even rented out extra space in its plant to other manufacturers in an effort to raise revenue. Industrial marketed low pressure automobile gauges, high pressure gauges, and temperature monitors. By 1911 the company had introduced the first multiple-pen recorder and sold its first long-distance recording psychrometer. As time passed, Industrial began to market flow instruments and devices to measure differential pressure. The company’s primary clients for these instruments were gas companies, utilities, and the process industries.
In 1912 Industrial Instrument sold its Standard Time division back to its original owner after determining that its operations did not fit in well with the rest of its activities. The company also established branch offices in major industrial cities across the United States, including New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, and kept in touch with customers through a publication called The Foxboro Recorder.
In 1912 Industrial Instrument adopted a trademark featuring Foxboro, the name of the company’s hometown, in order to clear up confusion about the company’s identity. On January 1, 1914, Industrial Instrument also changed its name to the Foxboro Company. The following year, the company mounted an exhibition at the World’s Fair in San Francisco in an effort to market its goods to a wider variety of national manufacturers.
Foxboro continued its record of innovation in recording devices in the mid-1910s. The company entered the field of automatic controls and introduced a recorder-controller contained in a single case. In addition, the company adapted its automobile temperature gauge for use in airplanes after winning a large contract from the British military, which was fighting the Germans in World War I. Bolstered by this agreement, the Foxboro Company left its state of financial jeopardy behind.
In the wake of World War I, Foxboro continued to market its products for measuring manufacturing processes. The company’s pneumatic controller and mercury flow meters were installed in many different process plants. After Foxboro attached an electric motor to its chart drives, the company’s products became even more popular.
The company’s fortunes improved in other respects as well. Foxboro had previously established an outpost in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to serve the natural gas industry. As a result of innovations in this office, Foxboro altered the way the proper size of a gauge was determined. In addition, the company’s Oklahoma employees experimented with modifications to its controllers. Spurred by these innovations, Foxboro created the Model 10 Stabilog Controller, the industry’s first proportional plus reset controller. This popular product allowed the company to survive the difficult years of the 1930s.
Foxboro also relied on sales to the oil industry in the 1930s. This market was growing rapidly, driven by the country’s industrial expansion and the increasing number of cars on the road. Foxboro sold gauges for use in oil refineries, and also moved into the metal treating, ceramic, and glass industries. To expand its product offerings, Foxboro bought the Wilson-Maeulen Company in 1932. This acquisition became the core of the company’s pyrometer department, which made electrical high temperature controls.
In 1933 Foxboro expanded its operations to Canada with a three-man office in Montreal that did business under the name Foxboro Company, Limited. In the following year, the company expanded to Britain, merging the British Gauge and Instrument Company and the Yoxall Instrument Company into Foxboro-Yoxall, Limited. Foxboro also continued its expansion in the United States. By 1935 the company had 14 sales offices distributed around every region of the country. In 1936 Foxboro added to its product line again when it bought the Atlantic Precision Instrument Company of Maiden, Massachusetts. With this move, the company entered the market for electronic instruments.
Foxboro’s ties to British industry helped the company win contracts for war-related work even before the United States entered World War II. In June 1941 the company began to manufacture torpedo mechanisms for the British Admiralty. Later, the company took on a number of projects for the U.S. Defense Department, including an effort to improve mechanisms to chart the course of U.S. torpedoes. Foxboro’s payroll doubled during the war, and the company hired a large number of women for the first time. The company’s British unit doubled its personnel as well. Both of Foxboro’s founders died in the early 1940s, and leadership of the company was assumed by two Bristol sons. Benjamin became president and Rexford was named treasurer.
After the conclusion of World War II, Foxboro returned to its peacetime production levels. The company rolled out a new controller in 1946, the Model 40, which significantly updated the pre-war Model 30. Foxboro also introduced all-electronic Dynalog instruments; a CycleLog Controller for use by textile firms who were dying fabric; the Dynatherm temperature bulb; and a large number of other innovative products.
By 1950 Foxboro had grown to include 1,550 employees. The company embarked on a building program in the early 1950s in recognition of the ever-increasing number of orders that Foxboro’s facilities were being asked to fill. In addition to a new warehouse and a new assembly building, Foxboro also constructed a “House in the Pines” for the use of its training school at that time. In 1952 the company built a new print shop that also doubled as a home for its New England sales office. Four years later, Foxboro expanded its physical plant again.
Throughout the 1950s Foxboro continued its program of product innovation. In 1951 the company rolled out its Consotrol series of indicating receiver controllers. This new model was followed by other instruments, both pneumatic and electric, to transmit measurements.
Foxboro expanded its geographic reach as its product line grew and its production capacity was bolstered. In 1952 the company added a Mexican company, Gráficas e Instrumentos S.A., which provided instrument supplies and repair services to customers in Mexico. Three years later Foxboro completed an agreement with Yokogawa Electric Works, Limited, based in Tokyo. Under this arrangement, Yokogawa manufactured and distributed Foxboro instruments in the Far East. In addition to these alliances, Foxboro established ties with a number of companies in other areas of the globe. The company typically selected well-regarded engineering firms that were able to provide service and engineering support to foreign users of its instruments. Foxboro partnerships were set up in South Africa, Cuba, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the East Indies, among other locations.
Foxboro also strengthened its operations in the United States during the mid-1950s. Branch shop operations in San Leandro, California; Dallas, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were moved into new buildings. Foxboro also established new branches in Skokie, Illinois; Houston, Texas; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Atlanta, Georgia.
By 1958 Foxboro employed more than 2,100 workers and the company’s physical plant had expanded to encompass 490,000 square feet. That year the company sold shares on the stock market for the first time, becoming a publicly-owned company. Benjamin and Rexford Bristol, along with a third investor, retained control of a third of Foxboro’s shares.
In the 1960s, Foxboro continued its record of product innovation. After introducing its first solid state electronic control system in the late 1950s, the company came out with a direct digital process control system in 1964, and an intrinsically safe electronic control system certified by the Underwriter’s Laboratories two years later. Foxboro finished out the decade by rolling out its first computerized batch process.
In the 1970s Foxboro continued to update its products. This practice contributed to the company’s steady 15 percent growth rate during this period. In 1972 Foxboro introduced its first distributed control system, which it dubbed the SPEC 200, with an INTERSPEC serial digital data highway. Three years later, the company introduced its first pneumatic composition transmitter. This was followed by the 1976 roll-out of VIDEOSPEC, Foxboro’s first CRT-based shared video display system with variable function keys.
By the end of the decade, Foxboro’s sales had grown to $471 million a year. While the company competed with another firm, Honeywell, for the leading position in the process controls market, it dominated the field in serving the chemical, petrochemical, and oil markets. Sales in these three areas accounted for nearly half of Foxboro’s orders.
In 1979 Foxboro introduced its Spectrum series of systems for electronic control. This line allowed the company to combine newer digital control devices with standard analog measures and computerized communications equipment into one process control system. The analog devices measured, while the digital mechanisms counted. Mixing these two modes represented an important advance for Foxboro. On the strength of the Spectrum line, Foxboro reported a 20 percent surge in orders over the first half of 1980.
Foxboro also got a boost in July 1980 when the federal government decided to promote the development of synthetic fuels. Plants built to manufacture these substances relied heavily on Foxboro controls, and this development pushed the company’s stock up ten points, lending fuel to rumors about a potential takeover by partial-owner Schlumberger, Limited.
Despite this good news for the company, some industry observers faulted Foxboro’s tradition-minded management for not wringing the maximum profit from their operations. “It’s all so paternalistic. They don’t lay off people when they should, and that’s why the upper management is pretty lackluster,” one New York analyst told the Wall Street Journal.
Nevertheless, Foxboro’s sales rose to $484 million in 1980. A year later, the company formed a joint venture to manufacture electronic instrumentation with two Chinese firms. This project, called Shanghai-Foxboro, was launched in 1982. In October of that year, Foxboro also bought a significant portion of the Microprocessor Systems company, a manufacturer of small computers. In November, however, the company announced a freeze of all salaries for the next six months; earnings had dropped 28 percent in one quarter. In December 1982 the company made a further effort to cut costs when it shut down all U.S. operations for a week. Despite these measures, the company’s fortunes continued to worsen in the following year, as Foxboro reported that its net income dropped 83 percent in the first half of the year. In August the company announced that it would again shut down for a week in an effort to conserve costs.
In 1984 Foxboro added to its product line by acquiring two other companies. The company paid $8 million for Octek, a maker of machine vision devices, then purchased Systronics, a manufacturer of flow monitoring and control equipment. Despite these acquisitions, Foxboro was forced to lay off 150 people in mid-1985 in response to a slowing economy. The company ended the year in the red.
Foxboro’s troubles continued throughout the late 1980s. In 1987 the company suffered yet another loss, and in December of that year Foxboro’s management announced that the company would take a $45 million charge, allowing it to reduce its work force by more than ten percent. Although many of Foxboro’s longtime employees took early retirement at this time, the company was again in financial trouble in 1989. It posted losses of $4.5 million, largely as a result of miscalculated costs for big European contracts.
By the spring of 1990, Foxboro’s five-year record of financial difficulties had aroused the ire of the company’s stockholders, which included members of the Bristol family, who still owned 22 percent of the firm, and high-profile investor George Soros, owner of 4.8 percent of Foxboro’s shares. In response to this investor dissatisfaction, Foxboro announced in March 1990 that it was seeking an outside buyer. By June of that year the company reached an agreement with Siebe P.L.C. The British company paid $656 million for Foxboro and announced that it planned to “bury” the company’s closest competitor.
Essential to this effort was Foxboro’s new process control automation system. With open architecture and object-based communications features, it was called the Intelligent Automation (I/A) Series. This system, one of the most advanced available, cost Foxboro $250 million to create. When the I/A Series developed software problems, Foxboro’s profits took a nosedive, and the company was forced to cut back on research and development spending in other areas. Siebe hoped that a retooled I/A Series would contribute strongly to a return to robust profits. Under its new corporate leadership, Foxboro continued to update its products to remain competitive in the 1990s. It became the cornerstone of its parent’s Siebe Control Systems Division.
A Little of Ourselves, Foxboro, Massachusetts: The Foxboro Company, 1958.
Melcher, Richard A., and Gary McWilliams, “Shakeup On The Factory Floor,” Business Week, July 9, 1990.
Shenon, Philip, “Eyes of Investors Turn to Shy Foxboro As Synthetic Fuel Future Looks Good,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1980.