W.A. Whitney Company
W.A. Whitney Company
650 Race Street
Rockford, Illinois 61101-1434
Telephone: (815) 964-6771
Fax: (815) 964-3175
Web site: http://www.wawhitney.com
Division of Esterline Technologies Corporation
Sales: $38 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 333990 All Other General Purpose Machinery Manufacturing
Located in Rockford, Illinois since 1907, W.A. Whitney Company is a leading international manufacturer of metal fabrication equipment. Other manufacturers use the systems and tooling made by W.A. Whitney to punch and cut sheet metal and thick metal plates. Some of the company’s cutting and punching systems involve thermal technology (plasma and lasers) to cut precisely through metals of great thickness. Although W.A. Whitney serves customers in a number of different industries, manufacturers of heavy construction and agricultural equipment comprise a significant share of its customer base. A division of Belle vue, Washington-based Esterline Technologies Corporation, W.A. Whitney has several international sales offices. W.A. Whitney of Canada Ltd. is located in Brampton, Ontario. As part of Esterline Technologies (HK) Ltd., Whitney’s China/HK Office is located in T.S.T., Kowloon, Hong Kong. Finally, W.A. Whitney de Mexico S.A., based in Tlalnepantla, Mexico, serves customers in Latin America.
Humble Beginnings: 1907-49
W.A. Whitney Corporation stems from the efforts of William Andrew Whitney, a distant relative of legendary American inventor Eli Whitney. Whitney was born in Burns, New York on June 9, 1863. In the 1880s his family relocated to Stillman Valley, Illinois. Whitney received his first patent—for a fold-up wheelbarrow—in the mid-1880s. His second patent was for a hand operated ticket punch used by train conductors. Whitney then developed a lock nut, which led to the establishment of the American Lock Nut Co. in approximately 1902. Based in Oregon, Illinois, this enterprise was a partnership between Whitney and CD. Etnyre.
Although his lock nut venture proved unsuccessful, Whitney’s inventive spirit remained very much alive. By 1906, he had patented another hand punch and relocated to Rockford, Illinois, where he established the W.A. Whitney Manufacturing Co. in August 1907. This new venture was a partnership with three other men: CD. Ballentine, William L. Keeney, and Frank VanderBogart. Using parts made by other manufacturing firms, William Whitney designed a series of punching hand tools (the No.l, No. 2, and No. 4 punches) and the company marketed them via direct mail.
Due to a variety of circumstances, by 1911 ownership of W.A. Whitney was completely in the hands of VanderBogart and a man named N.A. Merlin. After relinquishing his interest in W.A. Whitney, William Whitney established the Whitney Metal Tool Co., which later became known as Roper Whitney. However, he was more of an inventor than a businessman. By 1918, Whitney had exited the hand tool business and returned to Oregon, Illinois, where he ran a small machine shop until 1924. Following this, he entered into a period of semi-retirement.
In 1918, VanderBogart moved W.A. Whitney to 715 Park Avenue in Rockford. From this location, the company continued to assemble and market hand punches. Seven years later, VanderBogart retired and the George H. Spengler Co. acquired W.A. Whitney. The Spengler Co. actually had been granted a license to sell Whitney’s products in 1924 and had long supplied Whitney with many of the parts used in the assembly of its hand punches. By 1928, W.A. Whitney had moved to the Spengler Co.’s building at 636 Race Street. Remaining in the same general vicinity, Whitney would later move to 650 Race Street. These sites are located in the heart of the city’s old Water Power district, where a millrace used water from the Rock River to supply local industry with affordable electric power.
Aside from several new machines that were introduced in the 1930s—namely the #4B and 91 series press—the 1930s and 1940s constituted a relatively quiet period in W.A. Whitney’s history. However, it was during this time period that William A. Whitney passed away in Rockford at the age of 82. At the time of his death in July 1945, William Whitney had 19 different patents to his name. In addition to the folding wheelbarrow, lock nut, and various hand punching tools, Whitney’s inventions included ball bearings, universal joints, and check hooks.
As the July 20, 1945, Rockford Morning Star explained, Whitney’s punches were used “in nearly every shipyard and aircraft factory in the country. He also had patented several types of shears. His inventions ranged from machinery to a folding baby carriage. Some of his inventions were used in the construction of the Chrysler building and other skyscrapers.” According to an early historical profile, Whitney “was remembered by his grandchildren as a very happy-go-lucky type of individual with the cares of his past life behind. Even in his old age he would spend many hours at a drawing board in his barn just trying out ideas.”
Transition and Preparation: 1950-59
As early as 1954, W.A. Whitney remained a very small company with only three part-time employees. That year, sales totaled approximately $150,000. However, things would soon change. In the mid-1950s Robert H. Spengler, grandson of George H. Spengler, was looking to hire an entry-level manufacturing engineer. During a meeting with Harry Conn, then chief engineer at Chicago-based Scully-Jones and Co., Conn recommended that Spengler hire one of his own employees for this position—a young man named Ted Brolund. As Spengler once recalled, Conn described Brolund as “one of the three best young engineers that I have ever had work for me.” Brolund was interested in returning to his native city of Rockford and Conn allowed him to leave Scully-Jones and work for the George H. Spengler Co. and W.A. Whitney.
Brolund would go on to become the company’s leading engineer. He was instrumental in making W.A. Whitney the first company to incorporate the use of hydraulics in punching tools. Registering 19 patents during his first 13 years with the company, Brolund designed a number of products including coper-notcher-benders, duplicators, gang punches, large panel presses, portable hydraulic punches, and shears. Brolund’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed. In approximately 18 years time, he was successively promoted to vice-president of international operations, vice-president of manufacturing, and finally executive vice-president in 1973.
In 1957, Robert H. Spengler, grandson of George H. Spengler, was appointed president and treasurer of W.A. Whitney. The following year, the company constructed its very first manufacturing plant. This was an important step toward making W.A. Whitney an independent company. Although plans were first established to separate W.A. Whitney from the George H. Spengler Co. during the mid-1940s, manufacturing and sales continued to operate as two separate companies under the same ownership until January 1961, when W.A. Whitney officially became its own, self-sustaining organization. At this time George E. Spengler and George P. Spengler, son and grandson of founder George H. Spengler, assumed ownership of the George H. Spengler Co. Harold C. Spengler and Robert H. Spengler, also son and grandson of George H. Spengler, took control of W.A. Whitney.
Expansion and Modernization: 1960-69
Through the late 1950s, W.A. Whitney had focused mainly on the marketing of small hydraulic punches and hand tools. An important development took place in 1961 that set the stage for a different future. Harry Conn, who had recommended Ted Brolund to Robert H. Spengler several years before, joined W.A. Whitney as its vice-president and general manager. He possessed sales ability, management skills, engineering know-how, and the vision to achieve great things. Conn received his formal education in mechanical engineering from the Lewis Institute and Armour Tech. Early in his career he worked as an engineer for a number of companies, including Buick, Harvester Co., International Harvester, John Deere, and Studebaker. Prior to working for W.A. Whitney Conn served as methods engineer and tool designer for the LaSalle Engineering Co. of Chicago, chief engineer of LaSalle Engineering Co. of New York City, and chief engineer for Scully-Jones and Co.
Together, Brolund and Conn had a major impact on W.A. Whitney’s future. The company introduced new products, including a sheet metal duplicator in 1962. A number of portable metal working tools followed in 1963. Customers were able to take these to remote job sites like bridges, where it was necessary to punch great numbers of holes. One of these products was a hydraulic, 70-ton Web punch that, according to the March 20, 1963, Rockford Morning Star was capable of punching “a 1-inch diameter hole through Vs-inch thick plate of mild steel.” These developments benefited the company considerably. By 1963, sales had mushroomed to $1 million and the company’s employees numbered 50. That year, Harry Conn was appointed president of W.A. Whitney. Robert H. Spengler was named W.A. Whitney’s chairman, and also president of W.A. Whitney Canada.
We will achieve our vision (to be the leader in plate technology) by supplying the most innovative thermal cutting and punching equipment; by offering superior return on investment; by providing efficient “hassle-free” support and services to our internal and external customers; by conducting business with integrity, honesty, trust, and respect; and by continually improving the well being and quality of life for our customers, employees, owners, suppliers, and community.
A number of industry firsts were achieved at W.A. Whitney during the mid-1960s. In 1965, the company pioneered the application of numeric controls to sheet metal punching machines. In 1968, Whitney developed the Beamline Punching Unit—a machine capable of punching angle iron, I-beams, and structural steel. In order to obtain much needed capital for expansion, the Spengler family sold W.A. Whitney to New York-based Esterline Technologies Corp. in October 1969. At the time, Esterline was a $70 million firm involved in the areas of atomic energy, instrumentation, and metalworking. As part of the acquisition, Conn agreed to remain as Whitney’s president for five years. Whitney became a subsidiary of Esterline, organized under the company’s Machine Tool Group. At the time of the acquisition, Whitney employed 267 workers and had expanded its international reach with branches in Birmingham, England; Mexico City, Mexico; and Torino, Italy.
On The Cutting Edge: 1970 to the 21st Century
During the early 1970s, W.A. Whitney rolled out a number of new products, including the 6115 N-C Platemaster, which was “the largest single station numerically controlled plate punching, notching, and nibbling machine on the market,” according to an article in the August 1, 1971, Rockford Morning Star. The 6115 N-C Platemaster was built for a market that included bridge builders, construction equipment manufacturers, perforators, railroad equipment companies, ship builders, manufacturers of steam power equipment, structural steel fabricators, and utilities. In 1972, the company unveiled more products that were designed to save employees in the machine tool and metalworking industries time and effort. Among these were the 838-CP-N-C Contourmaster and the 845-A Clipmaster.
In 1974, several noteworthy things took place at W.A. Whitney. Ted Brolund replaced Harry Conn as president. Conn remained with the organization as chairman. In addition, the company reached a milestone by giving its Numerically Controlled Punching Unit the ability to perform plasma cutting. In 1978, Conn retired from W.A. Whitney. Once again, Brolund was Conn’s successor. In addition to becoming W.A. Whitney’s president and CEO, he also became group executive of Ester-line. In the latter role, Brolund assumed responsibility for five Esterline companies. At the time of the leadership change, Conn affirmed what he had told Robert Spengler in 1955. Of the more than 3,000 scientists and engineers he had employed over the course of his career, Conn named Brolund as the best in a local news article.
In 1976, W.A. Whitney made plans to spend $1 million on the construction of a new assembly building and the renovation of an existing facility. In addition, a number of older structures on its property were demolished and additional space for parking was added. By the late 1970s, W.A. Whitney’s products had evolved considerably. Leading the way was its numerically controlled hydraulic plasma arc fabricator. Reaching temperatures of 42,000 degrees Fahrenheit, this device was capable of cutting “half-inch-thick stainless steel on a contour at 400 inches a minute,” according to a news article by Dean Todd.
Similar innovations continued in the 1980s. In 1980, the company began using plasma to cut sheet metal and unveiled its 661 Punch/Plasma Combination machine. In 1982, W.A. Whitney celebrated its 75th anniversary. The company had exploded in size since 1907, occupying manufacturing space in excess of 450,000 square feet on an 11-acre campus. During its anniversary year, Whitney continued to improve its product offerings. That year the company added a robotic tool changer to its punching units. In addition, the National Machine Tool Builders Association recognized W.A. Whitney’s sales and promotional efforts by presenting the company with two awards in its marketing communications competition. W.A. Whitney ended the decade by selling two machines to the government of India for almost $2 million. The machines were to be used for the production of railroad cars by New Delhi-based Rail Coach Factory.
Things continued to go well at W.A. Whitney during the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1993, the company’s sales rose 20 percent, according to Ted Brolund in the April 21, 1994, Rockford Register Star. That year, Whitney was marketing its TRUECut Oxygen Plasma Cutting System, which used oxygen to make cuts in sheet metal that rivaled laser technology. At this point in history, Whitney’s top customers included the likes of J.I. Case and Caterpillar.
- Inventor William Andrew Whitney—along with CD. Ballentine, William L. Keeney, and Frank VanderBogart—starts W.A. Whitney Manufacturing Co. to manufacture punching hand tools for which Whitney holds various patents.
- By this time, Whitney has exited the hand tool business and opens a small machine shop, which he operates until 1924.
- George H. Spengler Co. acquires W.A. Whitney Manufacturing Co., which had come under the ownership of Frank VanderBogart and N.A. Merlin around 1911.
- William A. Whitney dies at the age of 82, having 19 patents to his name, including those for the folding wheelbarrow, lock nut, ball bearings, and various hand punching tools.
- Ted Brolund is hired as manufacturing engineer for W.A. Whitney; Brolund registers numerous patents vital to the company’s growth.
- The company builds its first manufacturing plant.
- W.A. Whitney separates from the George H. Spengler Co.; Harold C. Spengler and Robert H. Spengler, son and grandson of George H. Spengler, are given control of the company.
- Sales reach $1 million; Harry Conn is appointed president.
- W.A. Whitney is sold by the Spengler family to New York-based Esterline Technologies Corp. and operates as a subsidiary of Esterline’s Machine Tool Group.
- Ted Brolund replaces Harry Conn as president, becoming president and CEO in 1978.
- The company begins using plasma to cut sheet metal and unveils its 661 Punch/Plasma Combination machine.
- Sales increase by 20 percent.
- Dr. Joe Mayer assumes the leadership position at Whitney upon Ted Brolund’s retirement.
- PartHANDLER load/unload system is launched.
A number of new product introductions took place in the mid- to late 1990s. Whitney introduced its 3400 RTC (Rail Tool Changer) in 1996. The following year, it unveiled its 1524 CNC Fabricator with Panelgage 1000 Series Control and received ISO 9001 certification. In 1998, Whitney introduced its new PlateLASER cutting machine for plate more than five-eighths of an inch thick. In March 1998, W.A. Whitney announced a $3 million, 250,000-square-foot expansion effort. The project included an addition with classrooms and a technical/demonstration center where Whitney customers and employees could learn about the company’s products.
Another major development took place on June 30, 1998. On that day, Ted Brolund retired from W.A. Whitney and became the company’s senior consultant for a period of two years. Dr. Joe Mayer, who formerly served as vice-president of operations at Hartford, Connecticut-based Trumpf (a competitor of W.A. Whitney), succeeded him. In the August 1998 issue of BusinessProfile Magazine, Mayer commented: “I don’t think the customer will see any radical changes in how the company operates. Ted and I share a lot of the same values, like quality, teamwork, the integrity with which we would like to do business, a focus on goals and the vision.”
Building on the successes of Ted Brolund, Joe Mayer continued to lead W.A. Whitney in a positive direction. In 1999, the company unveiled its PartHANDLER load/unload system, as well as its PlateLASER 6000. As W.A. Whitney entered the 2000s, its latest products included the PlateLASER-II and the Model 3400 RTC-60 Punch/Plasma Fabricating Center. Beginning with simple hand punches, W.A. Whitney’s products have continually evolved over the years, providing customers with better ways to cut and punch metals with more speed, precision and accuracy.
Principal Operating Units
W.A. Whitney de Mexico S.A.; W.A. Whitney of Canada Ltd.
“Conn Named Head of W.A. Whitney,” Rockford Morning Star, March 20, 1963.
Kleczkowski, Linda, “W.A. Whitney … Innovators in Metal Fabricating Machinery,” BusinessProfile Magazine, August 1998.
Marshall, Ruth, “George E. Spengler Dead After Illness,” Rockford Morning Star, August 19, 1970.
“New York Firm Buys W.A. Whitney Corp.,” Rockford Register Republic, October 23, 1969.
Rogers, Cathy, “Whitney Survives as a Diamond in Rough Times,” Rockford Register Star, August 29, 1982.
“Ted Brolund … President of W.A. Whitney: Forty-One Years of Innovative Contributions,” BusinessProfile Magazine, June 1998.
“W.A. Whitney Corp. 60th Anniversary,” Rockford Register Republic, February 15, 1968.
“Whitney Begins Expansion Work,” Rockford Register Star, March 10, 1998, 1C.
“Whitney Observes 75th,” Rockford Journal, September 1, 1982.
“Whitney Rites on Saturday,” Rockford Morning Star, July 20, 1945.
—Paul R. Greenland