By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PIQUA, Ohio - Eighty-six years after Orville Wright approached a local hardwood lumber company about making propellers for his aircraft company, Hartzell Propeller Inc. is still spinning.
The company, which stopped making hardwood propellers decades ago, has undergone a couple of ownership changes; the evolution of flight from novelty to necessity; and the loops and barrel rolls of the marketplace. It has become a leading supplier of propellers to the general aviation market.
That's everything from small two-passenger planes generating 150 horsepower to small regional carriers of about 2,000 horsepower.
Hartzell is one of the last remnants of the aircraft industry that blossomed around the Wright Airplane Co. in Dayton.
"There are other aviation companies in the region, but none with the history we have," said Michael Disbrow, senior vice president/marketing, applications and customer support whose father was once president of Hartzell Propeller.
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The Hartzell family operated a hardwood lumber business in west-central Ohio from about 1875, exporting walnut and oak to England and Germany. When World War I interrupted exports to Europe, the company cast about for other opportunities.
Orville Wright lived near the Hartzell family and suggested that the company craft propellers for his airplane company in nearby Dayton.
With Orville's encouragement Robert N. Hartzell, grandson of the lumber company's founder, left the University of Cincinnati in 1917 to start the propeller business.
Over the ensuing decades, Hartzell developed a reputation as an innovator.
"There were some very creative guys who worked here in the 1940s," Disbrow said.
For example, David Biermann, who joined the company as general manager in 1945, was an expert in propeller research at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, forerunner of NASA.
In 1946, Hartzell developed the first reversible propeller for the Republic Seabea seaplane to control the craft in the water.
In 1952, Hartzell designed the first full-feathering propellers for general aviation, a key component in the first light twin-engine planes from Aero Commander, Piper, Beech and Cessna.
The company stayed in the family's hands until 1981, when it was sold to Cleveland-based TRW Inc.
TRW subsequently sold the business in 1987 to James W. Brown Jr., a Cleveland entrepreneur and former Navy pilot who is now semi-retired. His sons, Joseph W. Brown and James W. Brown III are co-presidents of Hartzell Propeller today.
The original Hartzell lumber business, now part of Hartzell Industries Inc., is still owned by the family and based in Piqua. The company, which includes an Arkansas veneer business and an industrial fan company as well as the hardwood lumber business, employs about 265.
Having two separate companies named Hartzell in a small town like Piqua can be confusing, Disbrow said.
The propeller company, employs 300 in four Piqua plants. It doesn't disclose revenues but produces about 3,500 aircraft propellers annually, either machined from aluminum or crafted from lightweight composite materials.
A major part of the company's business today is repair and maintenance of the thousands of propeller-driven aircraft all over the world. About 30 percent of the company's business is overseas.
The Hartzell family's decision to sell the company in 1981 was impeccable timing. The general aviation market peaked around 17,000 units in the late 1970s and was in a tailspin by the mid-1980s.
To survive, Hartzell expanded into the then-emerging regional carrier market.
For example, Hartzell supplied propellers for Dornier's 328 turbo-prop, a 33-seat carrier.
"That was a very, very demand program for us," James W. Brown III said. "It caused a lot of internal change, because we weren't as well-positioned at the beginning as we were at the end in terms of internal infrastructure and capability."
But that program never really took off as the regional carriers such as Comair in Cincinnati quickly moved to regional jets instead of turboprops.
Dornier built about 100 of the 328s.
"We had expected they would build 400," James said.
"Normally, you try to win every program you can, because you don't know which will sell two and which will sell 2,000," he said.
But the transformation Hartzell undertook to tap the regional carrier has made it more efficient and competitive as the general aviation market rebounded in the 1990s.
When their father acquired the company in 1987, the company still used manual metal-cutting equipment and the plant had difficulty building products that were designed outside, Joseph Brown said.
"In the 1990s, we recapitalized the company, upgrading our machine tools," he said. "We bought something like 43 computer-controlled machines in six or seven years."
The company also implemented a lean manufacturing approach, dividing machining into six different cells where components are made for final propeller assembly.
"We don't have a single customer who represents more than 5 percent of our revenue," said James, who over sees engineering and customer service while Joseph manages the manufacturing.
Right now, general aviation is suffering like the commercial market, and Hartzell's sales are off about 25 percent from 2000.
But Hartzell's broad array of customers from lightweight aerobatic planes and aircraft rebuilders to corporate business aircraft should pay dividends when the market rebounds, James said.
For example, the company has round-the-clock customer support and rapid shipment of repair parts. In the manufacturing plant, the company has implemented lean techniques to cut costs and speed production.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, the change in manufacturing is a 10, nothing is the same," Joseph said.
Employee teams now direct most of the manufacturing decisions.
"In 1995, it took 21 machinists on 21 machines on three shifts to make same (propeller ) hub volume today that we now make with three guys on one shift," Joseph said. "Even I can't believe that."
Added James: "We have a great work force, with a great work ethic.
"It's not unusual to have fathers and sons working in the company at the same time. It's a great source of strength for us."
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