400 Washington Street
West Bend Co. is a major manufacturer of small electric appliances, water-purification systems, and high-quality stainless-steel cookware. Its appliances include breadmakers, electric skillets, slows cookers, woks, corn poppers, beverage makers, and electronic timers, primarily under the West Bend trademark. In the mid-1990s it ranked among the top five small-appliance manufacturers in the United States.
When a pocketbook manufacturing company burned down in 1911, many residents of West Bend, Wisconsin, were thrown out of work. Young Bernhardt C. Ziegler, a local entrepreneurial dynamo who had organized his own full-fledged fire-insurance company while still in high school, set out to find a substitute industry for the townspeople. Impressed by the growth of aluminum novelty and cookware companies in eastern Wisconsin, he recruited six other men who, with himself, each put down $1,000 to incorporate the West Bend Aluminum Co. on September 27, 1911. Five of the seven founders were businessmen. The other two, Carl and Bob Wentorf, were skilled tool-and-die makers who had been working for an aluminum cookware company but had been threatened with dismissal because a third brother had left the firm to join another Wisconsin aluminum cookware company. They immediately began work on the tools and dies needed by West Bend.
The founders rented an old button factory on the west bank of the Milwaukee River for $8.50 a month and three weeks later had a lathe, shaper, and drill press in place. A draw press capable of turning out about 15 kinds of utensils was ordered from Brooklyn, New York, and 3,000 pounds of aluminum from a firm in Pennsylvania. Six to ten men were employed in the factory initially. The first items to bear the West Bend name were saucepans in four sizes, a frying pan, a pie pan, and a water dipper. The company first exhibited its products at a 1913 hardware association meeting in Milwaukee.
Ziegler was named general manager of West Bend in 1914. He immediately put into effect a perpetual inventory and cost system. Also in that year, the company moved across the river to a new 14,000-square-foot plant on filled land. Net sales, which came to $73,244 in 1913, climbed to $124,304 in 1914 and $241,160 in 1915. Growth continued in the following years, and in 1918 a large three-story addition to the plant was completed. In 1920 sales passed the million-dollar market, reaching $1,598,562.
West Bend's anchor customer during these early years was Sears, Roebuck and Co., which until 1926 was wholly a mail-order firm. Up through 1919 Sears purchased between 40 and 50 percent of the company's production. Most of the rest was sold to different jobbers under their brand names. During World War I, West Bend won a contract to produce army mess kits, but just as production began, the war ended. After the war West Bend introduced its line in department stores, but the market was dominated by two bigger companies.
A new product emerged in 1921 at the suggestion of a West Bend salesman. Called the Waterless Cooker, this large pot with inset pans was stamped out of heavyweight aluminum and sold with a cast-iron base for cooking on a wood or coal stove. The lid of the cooker was fitted with clamps that prevented the escape of steam during cooking, making the addition of water unnecessary. The Waterless Cooker was advertised as a utensil in which a complete meal could be prepared in one pot. It was sold through commissioned house-to-house salesmen.
By 1929 West Bend ranked third in the nation in sales of aluminum cookware. In 1932 it introduced a "Flavo-Seal" line of heavy-gauge cookware made of up roasters, saucepans, and skillets and designed, like the Waterless Cooker, to cook foods without adding water. Two years later the company began to sell the Flavo-Seal line through retail stores as well as commissioned salesmen. These utensils were successful, and a new three-story addition had to be added to the factory in 1937 to handle increased demand.
Another successful product was a copper stein West Bend introduced for a Milwaukee brewery in 1932. Soon the company was meeting orders for copper steins from other breweries and giftware orders from other accounts for ashtrays, serving trays, and lamps. Copperware sales were stimulated by the low price of the metal--only one quarter that of aluminum in the depths of the Great Depression. West Bend's net sales, which had passed $3 million in 1928, dropped below $1 million in 1932 (for the first time since 1921). Sales did not again reach the $3-million mark until 1940, but West Bend made a profit every year, including 1932.
West Bend developed a new drip coffeemaker, which did not require filter paper, in 1922. The popularity of the "Flavo-Drip" led to the development of a rangetop percolator called the "Flavo-Perk." The company also introduced various sizes of portable coffee urns to its coffeemaking line. In 1949 the Flavo-Perk became electric, and the following year it was converted to fully automatic operation under the name "Flavo-matic." Among its other early electric appliances, West Bend unveiled a portable drip coffee urn, the Speedmaster electric teakettle, Aluminum Glo lamps, and the Cadet water heater for automobiles.
In 1941, as the United States was being drawn into World War II, aluminum was earmarked for military production only, threatening West Bend's production. However, West Bend won a naval contract to produce 20mm brass antiaircraft cartridge cases. During the war the company produced more than 300 different items under defense contracts, including powder tanks and rocket containers. By the end of the war it had earned six Navy "E" awards for outstanding achievement.
During the war West Bend executives purchased the Kissel automobile plant in nearby Hartford, Wisconsin. After the war the plant was converted from military production to the manufacture of the first air-cooled outboard motor. It was sold, beginning in 1947, exclusively through Sears under the "Elgin" name and by West Bend under the "West Bend" and "Shark" names. A factory was added in Barrie, Ontario, in 1957 for Canadian distribution. Chrysler Corp. bought West Bend's outboard-motor and industrial-engine division in 1965 for an undisclosed sum. West Bend of Canada then became strictly a distribution center for the company's Canadian sales rather than a production facility.
Meanwhile, the West Bend plant also returned to civilian production and resumed its refinement and development of home appliances. It developed a color finishing process for aluminum and introduced new products like popcorn poppers. However, when the Korean War broke out in 1950, aluminum, as well as copper and steel, again became a restricted material. Although West Bend continued limited manufacture of products for civilian consumption, it also produced such military items as cartridge cases, powder tanks, rocket containers, and gas-mask canisters. After the war ended in 1953, West Bend continued defense production, notably with an army contract to make ammunition. In 1961 it dropped "Aluminum" from its name to reflect its use of a variety of materials, such as plastics, copper, steel, and brass.
West Bend expanded both its product lines and plant capacity during the 1960s. It introduced Gem Coat- and Teflon-finished cookware products; buffet appliances, including the Kabob 'n Grill, the Automatic Buffet Chef, and the Smokeless Broiler-Rotisserie; and a new line of decorative pantryware and insulated serveware. The company expanded its West Bend facility and added a new plant in Sheridan, Arkansas. It also acquired NFC Engineering Co., manufacturer of Thermo-Serv insulated plastic dishes, in 1965.
West Bend remained privately held until it was acquired in 1968 by Rexall Drug and Chemical Co. In its last 12 months as an independent company, from mid-1967 to mid-1968, West Bend earned $4.3 million on sales of $69 million. In payment Rexall issued to West Bend stockholders common and preferred shares valued in October 1968 at more than $80 million. Rexall later changed its name to Dart Industries and, after a 1980 merger with Kraft, Inc., to Dart & Kraft Inc.
During the 1970s West Bend introduced a new line called "specialty electrics," which included such appliances as an electric pizza baker and grill, an electric yogurt maker, an automatic egg cooker, and the "Fryette" electric deep fryer. Other products included drip coffee makers, an electric wok, microwave-oven cookware, and vertical-wheel humidifiers. The drip coffee makers were endorsed and promoted by the Pat Boone family and were manufactured for JC Penney, Sears, and Montgomery Ward, as well as under the West Bend name.
In 1982 West Bend dropped its original product line, retail cookware, although it continued to manufacture cookware for distributors and door-to-door sales. It also discontinued its humidifier line. The company expanded its scope the following year, however, by acquiring the rights to the Total Gym exercise system of home-fitness products, constructed of chrome-plated heavy-gauge steel tubing. Other fitness companies were purchased shortly thereafter. West Bend also bought the Borg-Erickson Corp.'s Borg Scale bathroom-scale business in 1985 for less than $15 million. Tom Kieckhafer, vice president for sales and marketing, explained these actions to HFD, a trade weekly, in October 1985 as "redeploying our assets into areas where there is a better return." Industry estimates put West Bend's annual sales volume at $200 million.
The company's big success story of the early 1980s was the introduction of its cordless iron, which proved to be its top product in sales dollars and units during 1984. In 1985 the iron again was West Bend's top product in dollars, although corn poppers were first in units sold. Typically, the company was seeking niches, generally smaller than the iron market, in which it could gain a dominant share. "We're number one in woks," Kieckhafer (a West Bend long-time employee who became president of the company in 1989) told the HFD interviewer, "we're number one in the corn popper category when you combine hot air and oil units, we're number two in slow cookers, and number one in party percolators and coffee urns." The company also had developed a family of electronic timers that had become steady volume producers.
In 1986 West Bend became part of Premark International, Inc., a corporation split off from Kraft, Inc. In the following year the home-fitness and bathroom-scale businesses were placed in a new Premark unit called Precor. West Bend Water Systems was created in 1989 to meet increased demand for quality water-treatment devices. The company purchased a water-distillation company, Environmental Products Corporation, of St. Catharines, Ontario, and introduced its high-grade, stainless-steel water distillers direct to the home under the Lifetime and Dol-Fyn brand names.
Meanwhile, West Bend continued to be active in the small-appliance market. In late 1991 it introduced Curl Crazy, an electric vegetable cutter that automatically sliced potatoes, zucchini, apples, and other foods in curly or spiral shapes. Introduced in 1993, West Bend Automatic was the first breadmaker manufactured in the United States, according to the company. The company had moved quickly to enter this hot new niche, completing the Automatic project in only 35 weeks, from concept to shipping. The company still managed to incorporate many desirable features in the breadmaker, including a choice of six bread settings, a programmable timer to delay baking up to 13 hours, a pan with a nonstick coating, and temperature indicators meant to avoid the common problem of killing the yeast.
Also in 1993, West Bend introduced a three-speed hand mixer. This appliance, established at the urging of Wal-Mart, exemplified the company's willingness to collaborate closely with leading retailers in introducing products to the marketplace. Like West Bend's three other most recent appliances, the mixer was manufactured in the company's own factory. Defying the conventional wisdom, West Bend was increasingly making its own products domestically rather than overseas for greater flexibility in adjusting to the volume of sales orders.
Industry sources estimated the company's annual sales at about $175 million in 1993 and its share of the electric small-appliance market at about 12 percent. During 1994 West Bend expanded its breadmaker, drip coffeemaker, and mixer lines. The company enjoyed record sales and segment profit in 1994. Sales of breadmakers were particularly strong.
In 1995 West Bend belonged to Premark's Consumer Products Group. The company's main manufacturing facility was its 1.5-million-square-foot plant in West Bend. The firm also operated manufacturing facilities in Barrie and St. Catharines, Ontario. West Bend de Mexico, a Premark subsidiary, operated a factory in Renosa, Mexico. A 210,000-square-foot distribution center was located near the West Bend plant, and two other centers were being rented in Sparks, Nevada, and Jackson, Mississippi. Its small appliances were being sold primarily in the United States and Canada, directly to mass merchandisers, department stores, hardware stores, warehouse clubs, and catalog showrooms. West Bend's stainless-steel cookware was being marketed under 23 separate product lines and several brand names, including Lifetime, Inkor, Kitchen Craft, Lustre Craft, Royal Queen, and European Lady. It was also being sold to consumers in 31 countries by independent distributors through dinner parties and other direct-sales methods.