Wahl Clipper Corporation
Wahl Clipper Corporation
Sales: $200 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 335211 Electric Houseware and Fan Manufacturing; 333111 Farm Machinery and Equipment Manufacturing; 339999 All Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing
Wahl Clipper Corporation is a leading manufacturer of hair clippers, beard trimmers, and electric razors. The company successfully reacted to offshore competition by both setting up its own manufacturing facilities overseas and growing its international markets. At the same time, it broadened its sales appeal by developing trend-setting new products for consumers as well as the professional barbers and beauticians who have been its traditional focus. The company also makes animal grooming devices. Based in Sterling, Illinois, Wahl has operations in the United States and ten foreign countries; its products are distributed in 150 countries.
The history of the company may be traced to 1911, when Leo J. Wahl, still a high school student in Sterling, Illinois, invented a handheld massager with an electromagnetic motor. Wahl’s uncle, a doctor, started a company to market the massagers, and they soon found a receptive clientele in doctors’ offices as well as in barbershops. Wahl continued to experiment with the electromagnetic motor concept while he went on to study engineering at the University of Illinois.
His direct sales to barbers had made him aware of a need in that industry for a more practical hair clipper, and in 1919 he produced the first such electromagnet hair clipper. It represented a considerable improvement over the standard clipper model, the motor for which had to be operated remotely via a cable. Wahl had taken over Wahl Manufacturing when his uncle had been called to military service during the Mexican Revolution; the company began manufacturing the hair clipper. Orders rolled in.
After patenting his new clipper in 1921 and wresting royalties from competitors who had copied his design (specifically Andis, which had been Wahl’s supplier of clipper blades), Wahl bought the factory and incorporated the business as Wahl Clipper Corporation on January 29, 1924. By this time, he had sold thousands of the devices to barbershops across the country.
According to Jack Wahl’s History of the Wahl Clipper Corporation, the business had 40 employees and was expanding quickly. The popularity of Wahl’s invention spurred more imitators, and more infringement suits, in the 1930s. The company added other items such as a hair dryer.
INTO THE CONSUMER MARKET
Wahl began expanded its clipper sales into the consumer market in the 1940s. However, professionals remained its main emphasis for another 50 years. The company’s product line expanded to include hair dryers; a variety of hairstyling tools and accessories were added after World War II.
Wahl began the 1950s with about 60 employees at its Sterling plant. Another factory was soon established in Ontario, Canada. Leo Wahl took the title of board chairman in 1954 as three of his sons became responsible for operational management. Leo Wahl died three years later at the age of 63. In the same year, the company moved its headquarters from downtown Sterling to a new, larger facility just north of town.
Wahl eventually dropped the hair dryer business in the face of price competition from the Far East. However, there was a stream of new haircutting products, some of which introduced enduring technical advances to the industry. Disposable electric shaver blades appeared in 1965. The Clipper Vac, also introduced in 1965, combined a clipper with a vacuum attachment for a very tidy haircut. The next year, Wahl debuted a rechargeable cordless clipper for salon professionals, a precursor of a best-selling consumer item to come known as the Groomsman.
Revenues reached $3 million in 1960. It was a turbulent year, however, with a labor walkout lasting 11 weeks. In 1972, after a much longer strike lasting half a year, most of the plant’s 88 workers voted to decertify the union, making Wahl an open shop for the first time in 15 years.
Fashion also conspired to make the 1970s a difficult decade. The longer, shaggier men’s hair styles of the day did not bode well, recalled John F. (Jack) Wahl in his retrospective on the company. Thanks in part to the strike, by 1971 annual sales had stagnated at $3.3 million after reaching $4.5 million a couple of years earlier.
As a response, the company stepped up its efforts in the pet grooming market. In 1971 the company’s Electronics Division was launched on the strength of a new rechargeable soldering iron. Wahl also diversified its product range, adding heated foot and back massagers in the mid-1970s. By this time, the long hair fad was largely over, and sales reached $5.2 million in 1976.
A NEW GENERATION OF LEADERSHIP
Warren P. Wahl, oldest son of the company founder, retired as president and chairman in 1977 after two decades at the helm. (His brother Robert L. Wahl also served as chairman in the 1950s.) Warren Wahl was succeeded by Jack Wahl, who had become CEO three years earlier after heading the firm’s engineering activities for 20 years. (Warren and Jack Wahl also launched Mallard Plastics, Inc., which became a leading pallet systems supplier, in 1956.) Control of the company remained firmly with the family; it would not add an outsider to the board of directors until 1981.
Sales reached about $10 million a year in the late 1970s. The company would grow 20 times larger over the next couple of decades, buoyed by new products and increased attention to hair among society. Not all of the company’s innovations were immediately successful. The Twix home haircutting system never caught on. However, success was not far around the corner.
A MARKET-ORIENTED SHIFT
The battery-operated Groomsman Beard and Mustache Trimmer was introduced to the consumer market in 1984. It proved a runaway success, quickly becoming Wahl’s best-selling consumer item. Other new products of the mid-1980s included the E-Z Trimmer, for nose and ear hair; the Euroflex Electric Shaver; the Lady Wahl; and the What a Shaver, designed for the shaving needs of black men.
To maintain our leadership position in the personal care categories we serve, we must have vision. Vision to continually improve our existing products. Vision to bring new products to market which meet the wants and needs of consumers. Vision to stay innovative and ahead of our competitors, and vision to support our customers, the retailers, with sales and marketing programs that make it easy, fun and profitable for them to sell more Wahl products. Leading with Vision means constantly being alert to new opportunities. By sharing the vision, we can make tomorrow absolutely extraordinary.
Wahl launched a media campaign to increase its name recognition in 1984. Demand soon forced the company to expand its Sterling plant, a pattern that would be repeated in the future. Sales of some products, such as massagers, were deeply affected by cheap competition from Asia. Wahl, too, was importing in a small way, adding the Japanese-made Bravo cordless trimmer to its professional line.
With its new emphasis on determining consumer preferences, the company was proving adept at following, and shaping, trends. A “stubble device” for the Groomsman, introduced in 1986, offered men a less-than-close shave for achieving a look made famous by Don Johnson of the hit television show Miami Vice. Wahl was bringing out new products for women as well. Its flat-barreled Zee Curling iron gave hair stylists option of Z-shaped curls beginning in 1987; a consumer version called the FrenZee debuted the next year. These were among the first Wahl products designed in the United States and manufactured in Asia for price reasons. Though an instant success, the Zee Curling business was hurt by a large discount chain’s decision to carry cheap knockoffs instead.
EMBRACING THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
An increased emphasis on international sales also contributed to the rapid growth. In 1988 Wahl established a subsidiary at Herne Bay in the United Kingdom, then bought out its distributors Marchant Hills and Throssle Suppliers, Ltd.
Wahl started the 1990s strong; revenues leapt by one-third to $58.2 million in 1990. The company then had almost 400 employees. New DynaFlex electric shavers entered mass production in 1991. These featured interchangeable foil heads allowing the user to choose the best feel.
Most of the company’s production was still handled at its Sterling plant. This plant had been expanded multiple times to keep up with increased global demand. Sales exceeded $100 million in 1994, roughly one-quarter of which were generated by exports to more than 70 countries. Growing very quickly, Wahl employed about 1,100 people worldwide and was adding more.
Wahl oversaw several overseas initiatives in the mid-1990s. In 1995, the company bought a controlling interest in a clipper factory in China, which was soon employing 300 people. This proved successful from the beginning; most of its products were for export. However, a new distributorship set up in Japan initially had difficulty getting a toehold in a market dominated by Panasonic, according to Jack Wahl in his history of the firm. He also explained that the company preferred to own its overseas plants outright in order to protect its intellectual property.
Wahl bought Germany’s Moser Elektrogerate GmbH in October 1996. The two had been rivals, and Moser expanded Wahl’s product range with a much stronger pet grooming lineup, including the Electric Detangling Comb, as well as a series of oral-hygiene offerings. The acquisition brought with it a plant in Hungary. A few management adjustments brought the newly acquired German business back to profitability with annual revenues at about $40 million.
After 27 years of sales growth, in 1998 net revenues slipped a little, by 2 percent, to $169.9 million. That year the company bought California pet clipper manufacturer Kim Laube & Company, Inc. Wahl was still profitable, and still well-positioned in the world marketplace. The company had grown to 1,600 employees, more than half of them outside the United States.
Sales had more than rebounded by 2002, reaching nearly $200 million. Only one-third of the company’s 2,100 employees were based at its Sterling plant. Also during this time, Wahl bought a U.K. sheep-shearing equipment manufacturer called Lister Shearing, a Bristol-based concern dating back to 1867.
- Leo J. Wahl invents the first practical clipper with integrated motor.
- The Wahl clipper is patented.
- The company begins manufacturing clippers for export to foreign countries.
- An Electronics Division is started on strength of new rechargeable soldering iron.
- Battery-operated Groomsman facial hair trimmer is introduced to consumer market; several new products follow.
- New DynaFlex electric shavers enter mass production.
- Sales exceed $100 million and the company employs a workforce of 1,100.
- After acquiring a factory in China, Wahl buys German rival Moser Elektrogerate GmbH.
- Sales reach $200 million following several years of international growth.
Gregory Wahl, grandson of the company founder, succeeded his father as CEO after his retirement in 2001. Jack Wahl died five years later. By working out a balance of production facilities and distribution in the United States and abroad, Wahl Clipper stood in marked contrast to the other once-mighty hardware manufacturers of Sterling and other midsized manufacturers, which had succumbed to the challenges of the globalizing economy. In 2006, the company displayed its market awareness in its Wahl Outdoors marketing campaign, which targeted outdoorsmen, who were likely to both sport facial hair and to own dogs.
Frederick C. Ingram
Kim Laube & Company, Inc.; Moser Elektrogerate GmbH (Germany); Ningbo Wahl Knives and Scissors Company (China); Nippon Wahl (Japan); Wahl Clipper Corporation of Canada; Wahl Europe, Ltd. (United Kingdom); Wahl USA.
Consumer; Professional; Electronics; Export; Animal; Industrial.
Andis Company; Braun GmbH; Jarden Consumer Solutions; Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V.; Matsushita Electric Industrial Company; Remington Products Company.
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——, “Wahl Spotlights Pet Grooming,” HFN, January 13, 1997, p. 124.
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