Thursday, March 21, 2002

Firm works to maintain edge


Millvale firm marks 80 years of gadgets

By Mike Boyer, mboyer@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mathilde Heuck would probably be amazed to see what she has wrought.

        In 1922, the Cincinnati cook and homemaker, tired of sewing her poultry dressing inside roasting turkeys by hand, created the No-Sew Turkey Lacer with string and six common nails.

[photo] Ramesh Malhotra, chairman and CEO of M.E. Heuck Co. (left to right), Timothy M. O'Melia, executive vice president, and Paul Witte, executive vice president/sales and marketing, show some of the company's products in its display room.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        Today, 80 years later, the business she hatched, M.E. Heuck Co., has sold more than 50 million of the turkey lacers, complete with her stuffing recipe on the back, around the world.

        Over the decades, the company, which was passed down to her son and grandson, diversified into dozens of other household kitchen gadgets, from can openers to potato peelers. Its products can be found in the stores of big-name retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.

        But time and foreign competition also has taken its toll on the housewares industry and Heuck, which has about 40 full-time employees at its plant at 3274 Beekman St., Millvale, thinks that it is the last U.S. manufacturer of everyday kitchen gadgets.

        “Our overseas competitors have newer equipment, cheaper labor and government subsidies, which makes it tough,” said Ramesh Malhotra, a Mason businessman who bought M.E. Heuck two years ago from Roger Heuck, Mathilde's grandson.

        But for Mr. Malhotra, who came to the United States from his native India in 1968 with $35 in his pocket, preserving M.E. Heuck is about more than making money.

        “I saw this as a way to pay back society,” he said.

        Mr. Heuck, who was looking to retire, originally asked Mr. Malhotra, a long-time friend, to help him check out a potential buyer.

        When that deal fell through, Mr. Malhotra said it was clear the company, which had been losing money, would either have to find a new buyer or face closing its doors.

        The latter would be a shame, Mr. Malhotra said because of the company's history and the loyalty of its employees, some of whom have worked there for decades.

        Many live nearby and walk to work, he said.

        “The employees here are very close-knit and very loyal,” he said. For many years M.E. Heuck has supplemented its work force with handicapped workers from the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, Clovernook Center for the Blind and the Ohio General Assembly.

        “What makes this place special is the people. They're very conscientious and caring,” said Bill Dieckmann, vice president of manufacturing. He has worked at M.E. Heuck for nearly 35 years, starting as truck driver shortly after graduating from St. Bernard High School.

        He met his wife of 23 years, Debby, at M.E. Heuck. She works a few feet away from his office as customer service manager.

        But Mr. Malhotra, an entrepreneur who owns a coal brokerage and a Connecticut metal-cutting supplier, said M.E. Heuck has had to make some changes to survive.

        To increase sales and profit margins, the company has stopped making some low-selling items and begun importing and reselling other items that can be produced more cheaply overseas.

        The company has also looked at ways to increase productivity and efficiency.

        Finally, the company has begun looking for new products and other ways to use its metal-stamping expertise for items other than housewares.

        One new item, as sort of the centerpiece of its 80th anniversary, is a three-piece barbecue tool set with wooden baseball bat handles carrying the Louisville Slugger logo.

        The barbecue tools are sold at the Louisville Slugger museum store, and the company hopes to line up other Louisville outlets.

        The company is also marketing its metal bending and stamping expertise for more general manufacturing applications.

        For example, the company is making metal fabric stays for Batesville Casket Co. and air vanes for a military tank manufacturer.

        “We refuse to die,” Tim O'Melia, executive vice president, says.

        After a couple of difficult years, Mr. Malhotra said the company, which has annual revenues approaching $6 million, expects to turn a small profit this year.

        Somewhere, Mrs. Heuck is probably smiling.
       



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