Suhner Manufacturing Inc. at 43 Anderson Road is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Otto H. Suhner, president of Suhner Holdings, said his great-grandfather owned the electrical cable and wire rope company in Brugg, Switzerland, but lost majority in 1908 when it became a public corporation. Six years later, in 1914, Otto Suhner Sr. decided to re-enter the wire business, manufacturing flexible shaft drives to transmit rotary power.
Suhner was the first Swiss company to open a manufacturing plant in Georgia. Groundbreaking for the first plant occurred in 1976 at a location on Shorter Industrial Boulevard in Rome. Production began in January 1977.
A few years earlier, young Otto H. Suhner had been working in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He found his way to Emory University in Atlanta for some specialized management courses where he made friends with Georgia Power executive Andy Speed. The utility executive told Suhner that if he ever decided to open a plant in the U.S. to call him, and that’s precisely what happened.
Suhner was flown around the state in a Georgia Power helicopter to look at various sites and then joined the Red Carpet tour, which made a stop in Rome. Suhner’s connection with Bekaert, the Belgian-owned steel wire manufacturer, helped seal the deal for Rome.
Paul Luthi joined the company and took over management of the Rome plant in September 1979.
“We found out early that the technology transfer and language issues were more difficult than we thought,” Luthi said. “Mr. Suhner himself spent a lot of time here the first year and a half. He would come every month for a few days.”
A second building was added to the company facilities on Shorter Industrial Boulevard as business in the U.S. grew rapidly. Bekaert, on Darlington Drive, was a supplier of the steel wire and has remained a major supplier through the years.
“Initially we only produced automotive cable that was primarily (speedometer) cable,” Luthi said. “We got Ford approval early on, which was a big trophy for us. At that time Ford had the toughest specs, and if you had Ford approval you could sell to the other guys.”
As business continued to grow, Suhner decided it was time to stop leasing space and build his own plant.
“We looked all over the place,” Luthi said. “We looked at the lot where they later built the Skytop Holiday Inn, but it wasn’t practical for us on top of that hill.”
Initially Suhner preferred the 25 Anderson Road site that Brugg Cables is now on, but that was a Georgia Power lineman training center and they weren’t willing to sell at the time. He settled on a nearby tract for the new plant.
Brugg Cables and Brugg Pipesystems are affiliates of Suhner Holdings. Suhner was able to bring majority interest in the Brugg companies back under the Suhner flag about 25 years ago.
Otto H. Suhner lives in Switzerland, but he visits Rome several times each year. He was in the community this past week along with Brugg Pipesystems CEO Urs Bollhalder.
Suhner said the fact that the company brought two of its affiliates to Rome indicates he is happy with the manufacturing climate locally.
Since building their plant, Suhner has made two additions to the production facility and another addition for office and engineering space.
“We don’t like to talk about that one too much,” Luthi said. “Office desks don’t make flex shafts, that’s only overhead.”
Suhner was able to diversify its product lines and, before long, the company added lawn and garden equipment vendors — weedeater manufacturers — to its client base. Homelite, Poulan, Stihl, Husqvarna, Echo and MPD are all customers.
Luthi said he was particularly proud of the deals with Stihl and Husqvarna because it meant the quality of the product made in Rome was exceeding competitors in Germany and Sweden.
Then along came NASA. Suhner-manufactured flexible shafts are on the International Space Station and were on the Mars Rover.
“That’s low-volume business, but it’s high-price,” Luthi said with a smile.
Otto H. Suhner said that he is very pleased with the growth within some divisions of his companies, not so much with others.
“As CEO, if you’re always happy with how things go then something is not correct,” he said.
Guido Broder joined Suhner in May 2006 and currently is general manager of the plant. Broder, who just gained his U.S. citizenship in December, said the company was able to come out of the recent recession even stronger than it was before the downturn.
The company did take an initial sales hit but was able to reduce production costs and continued to report a bottom-line profit. Broder said the Rome, Georgia, operations didn’t suffer many of the long-term recession pains like facilities in Europe.
Reputation for precision
Luthi said there are some differences between the typical manufacturing workers in the U.S. and Switzerland.
A machinist in Switzerland will do a three- or four-year apprenticeship.
“They work three or four days in the company and the other time they go to school, a trade school,” Luthi said. “At the end they have to do an exam, both practical — working on the machine — as well as the theoretical part. Typically, those are very good craftsmen.”
In the United States, the company uses a training program through Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
“It has worked fairly well. We have some people who have been through the program and are good machinists,” Luthi said. “We do have good workers here, but they are trained a little different.”
Luthi said he feels the Rome plant has some operators who are better than the company has in Switzerland, particularly when it comes to manufacturing the stainless steel flexible shafts.
“We have more experience and have developed the market better in stainless steel than our Swiss friends,” Luthi said. “We have at times shipped stainless steel from here to our Swiss affiliates.”
The stainless steel shafts are used largely in medical and aeronautical applications.
A good workforce is important to any industry, but it may be even more important to the Swiss company because of the Swiss tradition of precision manufacturing.
“In Switzerland there are no natural resources, no oil, no coal, no iron ore,” said Otto Suhner.
That’s made workmanship the country’s signature. Over the centuries, industries in the tiny nation have developed a reputation for precision — whether it’s used in crafting a delicate timepiece or a flexible shaft used to waggle the solar arms of the space station.
“Today we are running six and a half days, three shifts, around 150 people,” Broder said. “We have a small pool that turns over, but the top 130 or so have been here for a long time, which has really helped with the quality of our products.”
Luthi said one of the five original employees at the plant stayed with the company 25 years before retiring.
Looking toward future
Broder said the Suhner plan is to double business out of the Rome plant over the next four to five years. He indicated that much of it would likely come from the automotive industry, and he hinted that Suhner may need to make additional investments in the Rome plant in the future.
“Whether it’s another add-on to the manufacturing building, I don’t know. We will see,” Broder said.
Otto H. Suhner backed Broder’s statement during his visit to Rome last week.
“We have a lot of business which we accepted which we cannot handle with the present workforce, so we are in the process of increasing and possibly have thoughts of expanding,” Suhner said.