Scovill Fasteners Inc.
Scovill Fasteners Inc.
Incorporated: 1850 as Scovill Manufacturing Company
Sales: $300 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 3965 Fasteners, Buttons, Needles & Pins; 3714 Motor Vehicle Parts & Accessories; 3812 Search & Navigation Equipment
One of the oldest manufacturing concerns in the United States, Scovill Fasteners Inc. is a leading designer, manufacturer, and distributor of apparel fasteners and specialty industrial fasteners, supported by production and distribution facilities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Belgium, and throughout Asia. Scovill was founded in 1802 in Waterbury, Connecticut, where the company began making pewter buttons. During the course of the company’s business life, Scovill was involved in an assortment of businesses that centered around its metal casting and rolling operations, including the production of lamp burners, hinges, wire, artillery cartridge cases, and a number of other products. Buttons, however, represented the common thread connecting the modern Scovill to its early 19th-century roots. Scovill buttons were worn on U.S. military uniforms in every war during both the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with the pewter buttons worn by military personnel in the War of 1812. During the late 1990s, the company was divided into two divisions: apparel and industrial. The apparel division manufactured fasteners for basic garments such as jeans, infants wear, childrenswear, and outerwear. On the industrial side, Scovill manufactured fasteners for a broad array of customers, including manufacturers of marine textiles, sporting and recreational products, electronics, and footwear. In 1997, Scovill moved its headquarters from Waterbury, where it had been based for the previous 195 years, to Clarksville, Georgia. After the move, management acquired the company from Kohl-berg & Company, a Mt. Kisco, New York-based merchant banking firm.
The Early Years
From the founding date recognized by the company, Scovill began business in 1802 in what was most likely a small wooden shed hidden behind a house in Waterbury, Connecticut. Its origins were steeped in the much-vaunted tradition of New England entrepreneurship, although the exact details of its first decade of business were murky at best, clouded by the passage of time and the modest origins from which it sprang. A handful of businessmen were affiliated with the company at its outset, when the business was known as Abel Porter & Company, including its namesake, the self-proclaimed “first Gilt Button Maker in the United States.” Abel Porter, whose tenure with the company lasted less than a decade, was joined in 1808 by David Hay den, a button maker from Attleborough, Massachusetts, who stayed with the company through its first meaningful transition in 1811. In 1811, the cadre of Abel Porter & Company directors went their separate ways to pursue other interests, giving way to a new triumvirate of leaders. Hayden was one of the trio, a “second partner,” whose prominence on some undetermined level fell short of a new arrival in 1811, Dr. Frederick Leavenworth. Leavenworth, who according to contemporary reports was “possessed of a quick insight into men and things,” breathed new life into the company and offered himself as its leader. Although Leavenworth asserted his seniority in both the name of the new business and his rank within it, the true leader of the company was its third partner, James Mitchell Lamson Scovill. Together, the three formed Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill, the successor to Abel Porter & Company.
Prior to the arrival of new blood in 1811, the company made buttons with pewter, a material most likely obtained by melting down old kitchen utensils, but soon the switch was made to buttons made out of brass. Waterbury, the company’s home town for nearly two centuries, was regarded as the brass center of the United States, and Scovill, as one of the primary brass producers in the region. With the metal, Scovill manufactured a wide range of products, including buttons, hinges, and many other commodities at its metal castings operation. In the beginning, however, the company’s production capabilities were decidedly meager. For nearly a decade, the company used horses to power its small “flatting” rolls, but when Leavenworth and Scovill arrived they invested several thousand dollars in a new production facility to manufacture one of the commodities the company made from brass. The new button shop, built in 1812, helped accommodate the surge in demand for buttons ushered in by the War of 1812. Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill supplied pewter shank buttons for naval forces during the war, as well as buttons for the U.S. Army, Artillery, and Rifleman, beginning a long tradition of supplying the federal government with military buttons for every war from 1812 to the end of the 20th century.
Although Leavenworth appeared at first blush to be the leader of the company, closer scrutiny suggested otherwise. Leavenworth assumed the role of traveling representative, shuttling from market to market to sell the company’s variegated list of products, while Scovill, third in line in the partnership’s hierarchy, assumed the mantle of leadership. His ancestral roots in Waterbury stretched back to the mid-17th century, when his great-great-great-grandfather, John Scovill, left Shapwick, Dorset, England, and settled in what would become the state of Connecticut. The younger Scovill, referred to as Lamson Scovill in the company’s historical accounts, went into business for himself at age 19, although there is no historical record to suggest what type of business endeavor he undertook. Lamson Scovill was 22 years old when he joined the three-man partnership, and with Leavenworth frequently on the road representing the company and Hayden naturally inclined toward the technical management of the firm, Scovill blossomed into the partnership’s leader. According to the best estimate, Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill was earning $5,000 a year when the three-man partnership was dissolved in 1827. To fill its place, a new partnership was formed between Lamson Scovill and his younger brother, William Henry (W. H.) Scovill. Operating under the name J.M.L. and W.H. Scovill, the partnership comprised two individuals with distinctly different yet complementary personalities. Lamson Scovill emerged as the salesman, traveling the circuit as Leavenworth had done, while W.H. Scovill was described as “the planner, the organizer, the man-at-home.”
Under the stewardship of the Scovill brothers, the company made a name for itself as a producer of buttons, hinges, and other goods, some of which were sold in the company’s general store in New York. Their business interests were diverse and loosely organized, but the heart of their interests—the business that would survive and thrive for two centuries—received a new button factory shortly after a fire destroyed the original structure in 1830. A second manufacturing facility was constructed in Oakville, Connecticut, in 1833, leading up to major investments in capital improvements midway through the century. In 1850, when the company was averaging $300,000 in sales per year, the Scovill brothers incorporated the core of their business pursuits as Scovill Manufacturing Company, which was 60 percent owned by the pair, and kept J. M. L and W. H. Scovill as a partnership to handle their other business activities.
When the brothers died in the mid-1850s, neither left any direct descendants able or willing to take over the business. Consequently, their shares were distributed to others, but control of the company was restricted to a limited group of individuals predominated by members of the two branches of the Scovill families. A nephew of the brothers, Scovill Merrill Buckingham, succeeded W. H. Scovill as treasurer, while Samuel William Southmayd Hall replaced Lamson Scovill as president, but their influence over the company’s progress was widely considered ineffective. During their era of control, Buckingham and Hall did little to move the company forward, despite the energetic growth of the brass industry in Waterbury during the time. Consequently, the company did not enjoy the dynamic leadership it had enjoyed under the hands of the two Scovill brothers until the Kingsbury, Goss, and Sperry era began in 1868. For nearly a half-century, Chauncey Porter Goss and Mark Leavenworth Sperry exerted considerable influence over the direction of Scovill Manufacturing, but for nearly three decades of their tenure they held junior offices under F. J. Kingsbury, Buckingham’s cousin and the son-in-law of Frederick Leavenworth, Lamson Scovill’s partner from 1811 to 1827.
Nearly two centuries after we made our first button, our product line now includes a wide range of apparel and industrial fasteners. But our goal remains the same —to provide the fasteners and expertise that best enhance your products.
Late 19th-century Growth
Kingsbury became president of Scovill Manufacturing beginning in 1868, but his true position at the company, despite its length, was largely ceremonial. Kingsbury was a figurehead, never closely in tune with the day-to-day activities at Scovill Manufacturing. His business interests were too scattered, according to a company historian, “to permit of his leading (Scovill) anywhere, except into a merger with its rivals and to the loss of its individuality.” With the roving Kingsbury attending to his variegated endeavors, direction of the company’s development fell to his two underlings, Chauncey Porter Goss and Mark Leavenworth Sperry, who represented “the drive, the true entrepreneurship” of Scovill Manufacturing, according to a company historian. Goss and Sperry joined the company as clerks and forged a business relationship that was reminiscent of the complementary style of Lamson Scovill and his brother W. H. Scovill. Goss was like Lamson, while Sperry, the “stay at home in Waterbury,” was similar in personality to W. H; one the outside promoter, “a keen buyer and seller, and the other the “patient administrator.” Under their command, which lasted until 1918, Scovill Manufacturing achieved great strides, growing and expanding during the last quarter of the 19th century and gaining great financial gains during the first decades of the 20th century.
Goss and Sperry invested heavily in capital improvements during their decades of control, following the trend toward mechanized industrial development that characterized the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States. During this era of industrial progress, Scovill exceeded the pace of growth recorded by both the copper industry and the United States as a whole, outstripping the increase in production output registered by both broadly defined sectors. The company entered new business areas, including the production of electrically-conductive wire, the rolling of aluminum sheet, and the production of lamb burners, adding to the already diverse metal manufacturing talents of the company. By the beginning of World War I, after decades of dynamic growth under the tutelage of Goss and Sperry, Scovill Manufacturing was generating annual sales of between $7 million and $8 million and averaging 15 million pounds of output per year at its mill. Although these figures represented meaningful growth in comparison to the company’s financial stature before the arrival of Goss and Sperry, Scovill Manufacturing was still a relatively small organization when compared to others in its industry. The war years, however, proved to be a financial boon, lifting the company’s financial totals in great, unprecedented leaps. By 1915, Scovill Manufacturing’s annual sales total had jumped to $34 million. Two years later, as the Goss and Sperry era was coming to an end, annual sales towered at $58 million, more than eight times the total collected in the decade before World Warl.
By virtue of the lucrative war years and the strong business foundation entrenched by Goss and Sperry, Scovill Manufacturing entered the 1920s on solid financial footing and in a position to strengthen its market position by inaugurating an acquisition campaign. During the decade, the company embarked on its first large-scale expansion program by purchasing several of the firms that used the products manufactured at its brass mills. Scovill Manufacturing, in short, began acquiring its customers. The strategy bred vertical integration, giving the company a number of brass-using subsidiaries that heightened its control over the otherwise capricious nature of its business. In 1923, Scovill Manufacturing acquired American Pin Company and the Oakville Company, purchasing the two companies in a transfer of Scovill stock. Both American Pin and Oakville had contributed meaningfully to the development of Waterbury as the brass center of the United States; their inclusion as subsidiaries within Scovill’s fold bolstered the might of an already formidable competitor. Also in 1923, the company acquired Racine, Wisconsin-based Hamilton Beach Company, a producer of domestic appliance and small electric motors. Two years later, Scovill Manufacturing acquired Gilchrist and Company, a maker of soda fountain equipment and another heavy brass user.
Thanks to the company’s aggressive progress during the 1920s, it entered the Great Depression in a financially strong position, enabling it to parry many of the blows delivered by the decade-long economic turmoil touched off in 1929. Although the company suffered its share of the devastation wrought by a moribund economy, Scovill Manufacturing emerged from the 1930s with its physical assets intact and its organization, seasoned by more than a century of business, relatively unscathed. During World War II, the raw materials Scovill Manufacturing used fell under wartime restrictions, which forced the company into new business areas. It began manufacturing fuses and cartridge cases for artillery shells during the war years, and continued to record meaningful growth as a result. By the time the postwar economic boom period began, the company occupied an enviable market position, holding sway as a fastener manufacturer able to reap the full rewards generated by a national economy on the rise. In the decades to follow, the company never relinquished its lead over other competitors. The latter half of the 20th century witnessed the venerable leader solidify its position and sharpen its business focus.
Late 20th Century
The wide-ranging, multifarious business interests that had occupied the company’s attention throughout its history were stripped away during the second half of the 20th century. What remained was the company’s fastener business, its sole business area during the 1990s. During the 1990s, much was done to strengthen and to organize its fastener business, including the addition of an industrial fastener manufacturer early in the decade. In 1991, Scovill acquired the DOT line of industrial fasteners from Cambridge, Massachusetts-based TRW, Inc. and consolidated all of DOT’s manufacturing operations into the Scovill plant in Clarkesville, Georgia, established during the 1950s. A series of acquisitions followed five years later, but first the company sold its Clarkesville-based zipper division to Ideal Fastener Corp. After this 1996 divestiture, Scovill acquired Daudé of Paris, France, which manufactured eyelets and grom-mets. Daudé’s manufacturing operations were subsequently moved to Braine-le-Comte, Belgium, where Scovill had previously established manufacturing facilities. Further acquisitions followed in 1996, including the purchase of New Bedford, Massachusetts-based PCI Group, a manufacturer of eyelets, grommets, and automatic insertion machinery. As with the DOT acquisition, PCI’s manufacturing operations were relocated to Scovill’s Clarkesville plant. Next, the company acquired RAU Fasteners, makers of Klikit brand snaps.
With these additions, Scovill was positioned in two sectors of the fastener industry through its two divisions: apparel and industrial. Its apparel division manufactured “Gripper,” “Maxi Snap,” and “Mighty Snap” snap fasteners, which were used in more than 80 percent of the garments produced by the 14 largest sleepwear manufacturers, and “Duramark” tack buttons, rivets, and burrs, which were metal reinforcements used in denim apparel. The company’s industrial division comprised the DOT and PCI product lines, which were sold in a variety of market segments, including marine, luggage/leather, footwear, automotive, safety, and medical.
In 1997, two important developments changed the face of Scovill as it prepared for its third century of business. First, in July, the company moved its corporate headquarters, leaving its nearly two-century-old base in Waterbury and relocating in Clarkesville. Next, in November, company management effected a buyout of Scovill, acquiring the company with the help of a private investment group named Saratoga Partners, based in New York City. Scovill managers and Saratoga acquired the company from Kohlberg & Company, a merchant banking firm based in Mt. Kisco, New York. Following the announcement of the deal, Scovill’s president and chief executive officer, Dave Barrett, proclaimed, “Scovill is a classic American company with a proud heritage of service excellence that has been honed over nearly two centuries. With the financial expertise and consistent strategic view of Saratoga, we look forward to capitalizing on the initiatives that we have worked hard to put in place over the last two years.” On this note, Scovill entered the late 1990s and prepared for the century ahead, confident that two centuries of stability would provide firm footing for the company’s future course.
Industrial Division; Apparel Division.
Clune, Ray, “Scovill Fasteners Inc.,” Daily News Record, November 26, 1997, p. 9.
“Scovill in Deal to Purchase Dot from TRW,” Daily News Record, July 31, 1991, p. 8.
—Jeffrey L. Covell