100 Years of Ulbrich: Another Great War & The Foundation Years

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To mark our historic 100th anniversary, we’re inviting you to read select stories from our century of precision metals excellence. In this fourth post, we explore how the Second World War impacted Fred Sr.’s burgeoning metals company and ultimately shaped what Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals is today.

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World War II changed everyone’s life, and yet it brought about the Ulbrich Steel that we know today. Not long after Pearl Harbor, Fred Ulbrich Sr. was awarded a “mess-kit knife” contract to supply the United States Army. This government-issued knife would be deployed all over the world to military personnel in all types of environments. The Army contract called for an all-purpose knife with utility and durability.

Back then every government contract had a priority rating. The knife was not a high priority compared to ammunition, tanks, airplanes and other weapons of war, but the Department of Defense demanded a quality product nonetheless. Fred Sr. and his brother Henry made machine upgrades to fulfill the knife orders, and they were proud to support America’s saving of Europe. The work needed to be exact, and Fred Sr. felt his countrymen deserved nothing less than precision.

Meanwhile their other brother Frank Ulbrich was an executive at H.L. Judd Company. Another brother, William Ulbrich was working in Wallingford’s Water Division — for whom Ulbrich Reservoir was named on the east side of town. Against considerable odds, the Ulbrich’s were thriving. Fred Sr. in particular was fortunate to have relationships with local manufacturers that aided his business. For the knife contract, he called on Schiavone and other suppliers for raw material stainless steel.

1940s mess kit

However, the steel was rarely the right-sized gauge (thickness). Fred Sr. accepted the steel at various sizes, knowing that he could re-form the raw material. With extensive knowledge of rolling mills, he planned to re-roll these relatively small quantities of steel to the correct size and shape. To meet the exacting specifications of the United States government with nonconforming starting material in hand, Fred Sr. had to piece together the company’s first rolling mill.

He found an old mill housing and had steel rolls fabricated. Motors and electrical controls were purchased in addition to reels that would roll the metal on and off the machine. He had developed a crude but effective rolling mill. Cold rolling operations reduced the material to the correct gauge - though not without errors. Then Fred Sr. bought another machine called a slitter to sheer the steel into coils with smaller widths. These narrower coils were stamped into the mess-kit knife.

All throughout, technical issues persisted. Camber or arched imperfections in the metal sometimes occurred in the rolling process. Fred Sr. contacted Glenn Machine Company of North Haven, Connecticut, to make a roller-leveler which uniformly flattened the material. This allowed Ulbrich to consistently produce the same knives, with the same measurements nearly every time. From that moment on, Glenn Machine Company acted as Ulbrich's outside maintenance and did so for over fifty years.

manufacturing us army mess kit knife

Fred Sr.’s family business was finally prepared to handle the army knife order. Contracts were assigned by the military in those days - instead of today’s bidding process. A representative from the United States Department of Defense came all the way from Washington D.C. to Wallingford to survey Ulbrich’s machinery and capabilities. After a testing phase, Fred Sr.’s cutlery operation was officially given the stamp of approval from the government to manufacture the mess-kit knives for the army. Together with his brother Henry and a handful of co-workers, Fred Sr. fulfilled the cutlery orders on-time in support of the war effort.

The company was able to convert steel to the right sizes and within acceptable tolerances - then repeat the process thousands of times. This was something that many other steel companies could not do, and it was the beginning of Ulbrich as a specialty re-roll mill. Metalworking, rolling, slitting and leveling would become Ulbrich’s core competency.

Along with the war years came a new appreciation. Fred Sr. cherished his country and the American Dream. He was living proof of the concept, and his hard work had paid off. Additional contracts were incoming and Ulbrich was a major supplier of knives, forks and spoons to the United States Military during the world’s most horrific conflict. A sense of urgency and a thankfulness motivated Fred Sr. to do more, so he organized “scrap drives” throughout the Town of Wallingford.

Fred Ulbrich scrap ads

The more scrap Fred Sr. collected, the more he could help American troops overseas. His responsibility was to pick up every conceivable kind of scrap: iron beds, fencing, used refrigerators, broken electronics and more. Material was driven to his scrapyard, dismantled, cut up by torching and divided by grade and alloy. In 1942, three regular employees and about ten part-timers were working for Ulbrich. It was difficult, dangerous and dirty, but Fred Sr. would work right along with his men, while his wife Ada was the sole secretary and bookkeeper.

Fred Sr. already owned two businesses in cutlery and scrap metal, when he made another attempt at public office. In 1942, he campaigned for the General Assembly as State Senator of Connecticut ’s 12th district. Once again, he lost the race. Finally, in his fourth political campaign, Fred Ulbrich Sr. was elected Warden of Wallingford, effective January 1, 1944. He ran for re-election twice, winning by more votes each time. As Warden for six years, his major accomplishment was leading the town through wartime. He wrote reassuring editorials in the Meriden Record newspaper and gave public speeches to lift spirits.

Fred Ulbrich Sr. Elected Warden of Wallingford
Fred Ulbrich Sr. sworn in as Warden of Wallingford on January 1, 1944

His administration was credited with paving roads in the Shupack district on the west side of town. Each springtime International Silver Company and Wallace Silversmith Company emptied buffing compounds on the streets, and if a motorist threw a lit cigarette on the road, the asphalt would catch fire. Robert Ripley’s column “Believe It Or Not” featured Wallingford as the only town in America with flammable roads. Under Warden Ulbrich, dumping chemicals was banned and safer roads were assured.

Fred Sr. was a dynamic leader and served as a champion for his town. He contributed greatly to its safety and progress by working with the Wallingford Police Department to Wallingford Public Schools to upgrade their facilities. Perhaps the most consequential action happened in 1948 when Fred Sr. approved a new power plant in Wallingford — still in existence today. As a result, Wallingford has become known for its relatively inexpensive electric rates.

In the 1940’s, Wallingford’s population was less than 15,000. Today it’s about 45,000. There were fewer than ten policemen, and nowadays there are approximately eighty. Ulbrich’s growth and that of its hometown are historically inseparable. This symbiotic bond between Ulbrich and the Town of Wallingford has benefitted many people, near and far.

When World War II ended, America gradually changed back into a consumer-driven economy. Millions of military personnel re-entered the commercial labor force. In 1945, Ulbrich had twelve employees involved in the industrial scrap business and twelve employees making cutlery.

victory cutlery ad

With military knife and cutlery experience, Fred Sr. officially incorporated his utensil business: Victory Cutlery Company.

The venture rolled out two varieties of flatware. The first product-line was expensive and high quality. It was a carving set of steel blades adorned by elk horn stag handles for preparing turkeys and roasts. It was numbered, serialized, and sold through the leading New York City department stores. These stag elk horn handles came from India and were bought by an importer. Fred Sr. used a broker to sell his high-end sets to the largest department stores in New York.

The second was “Diner-quality” cutlery. This set was marketed through another broker in New York City who handled the Wallace Silversmith Company line of cutlery products. Wallace Silversmith produced only the highest quality cutlery made from stainless and sterling silver and sold them nationally and internationally. They were the gold standard. Fred Sr. wanted to partner with the place that gave him his first desk job. However, he knew they did not want the Wallace name associated with diner-quality utensils.

Instead, Wallace Silversmith made an arrangement with Fred Sr. They designed the pattern, they made the dies that stamped the products, they transported the dies to Fred Sr.'s factory and they arranged for a broker to sell them. The cutlery was made and sold by Victory Cutlery Company, and the Wallace name was not associated with the end product. The simple stainless steel flatware sold extremely well to diners, restaurants and families. It soon accounted for more business than Ulbrich’s scrap sales and auto part sales combined.

It was around this time that Fred Sr. welcomed his children at work in the Strip Mill. They wanted to be around their father more and to learn the family business. Dick Ulbrich recalled working for his father stating, “At the age of ten I remember sitting on a bench inserting blades into red handles and hammering them into place with a wooden mallet. My father was concerned about the possibility of a labor inspector seeing a child working, but I was his son learning the ropes. We learned young and we were grateful to be involved.” Dick, Fred Jr. and Dan Ulbrich would contribute to the family business for rest of their lives.

Fred Jr. and Dick operating a leveling machine
Fred Jr. and Dick operating a leveling machine

By the late 1940’s the original business of collecting old farm equipment, junking cars and selling auto parts had gone defunct. Later in his life, Fred Sr. wished he had kept a few of the cars because they had become collector's items. The two cutlery lines now paid the bills and Fred Sr. still had six industrial scrap accounts. The prime account remained Wallingford Steel Company, located less than a mile west of Ulbrich.

Fred Sr. always maintained a close relationship with Wallingford Steel. He said many times that, “If Wallingford Steel had been the Wallingford Rayon Company, then Ulbrich would’ve become the Ulbrich Rayon Company." This relationship was based not only on business, but also on friendship — he liked Wallingford Steel’s management and staff, and they liked him. Many Wallingford Steel employees also worked at Ulbrich part-time.

From his dealings with larger steel companies, he learned that most of them were too focused on heavy volume purchase orders. They were too busy and incorrectly configured to fulfill small orders of stainless steel and specialty alloys. Meanwhile, Fred Sr. had metal processing equipment at his disposal: a rolling mill, a slitter and a leveler. He knew there was unforeseen value in using these machines to convert metal into thinner coils — thereby fulfilling massive demand for steel at low volumes.

Confident of his plan, Fred Sr. bought various thicknesses of stainless steel in quantities of 10,000 pounds from Wallingford Steel Company, U.S. Steel, Armco Steel and others. Then he supplied quantities of 2,000 pounds or less to two dozen customers within trucking distance of Wallingford. Most customers were former scrap accounts who knew Fred Sr. and his good reputation. If he didn't have the gauge in stock, they trusted him to re-roll it to the accurate size.

coils at the strip mill

A postwar boom and technological advances overloaded steel suppliers with orders. Because of rising demand and limited sources of material, American equipment manufacturers had difficulty obtaining 10,000 pounds or less of metal per order. It was even more difficult to buy quantities of less than 2,000 pounds. The makeup of the steel industry favored big business; not the small players. Practically no suppliers of stainless steel were willing to spend time and resources on low-volume orders.

Fred Sr. observed this niche of small quantities at thinner gauges, and he pursued it vigorously. Word soon got around that there was a company in Wallingford, capable of supplying quality stainless steel at low volumes — even down to ten pounds of material. Word-of-mouth helped tremendously. Ulbrich had no sales force, as it didn’t need one yet. Companies in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states who were seeking metal, contacted Fred Sr. through the mail. His precision steel was selling itself. The only problem was processing all of the orders coming in.

Then came a major development in the late 1940’s. The steel industry became dominated by two groups of companies: steel melting mills such as U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel and Armco Steel and the sudden advent of Steel Service Centers. These Service Center companies were ordering large quantities from melt mills and warehousing metal on shelves. Service Center inventories backed hundreds of different coiled products in smaller quantities to customers within a defined geographical area.

The big player in Service Centers within New England was Industrial Stainless Steels Co. of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The President was John Curley — an acquaintance of Fred Sr. One day, John telephoned Fred Sr. and asked him to come to Cambridge. He offered to warehouse every order that Ulbrich could provide. Mr. Curley would receive a nominal discount from the normal “book price" for providing these orders with shelves in a warehouse.

inventory on shelves

Fred Sr. agreed to supply Industrial Stainless Steels Co. on a non-exclusive basis. The orders were less than 2,000 pounds and the majority of shipments weighed under 500 pounds. Thanks to Ulbrich, Industrial Stainless Steel Co., with dozens of salespeople, could solicit product in small quantities while retaining the ability to sell large quantities rolled by melt mills. Several large Steel Service Centers became aware of Ulbrich’s operation.

Peter A. Frasse & Company in New York City and the House of Stainless in Chicago called on Fred Sr. and the gang for hundreds of low-volume orders. Both companies received the same terms as Industrial Stainless Steels Co. Ulbrich had a one-man sales department in Fred Sr. He personally took every order in the early days of the re-rolling business.

The company was busy and growing, until one day in 1948, Fred Sr. suffered a heart attack. He had taken on much too much by living two lives; one as a businessman and another as a politician. His doctor told him to focus on one or the other, and he chose business. Fred Sr. was 47 at the time. He made a quick recovery, finished his third term as Warden of Wallingford, retired from politics in 1949 and went back to work at the Strip Mill.

Ulbrich began to grow exponentially.

With Fred Sr. healthy again, the company sought to fundamentally improve its financial performance. Total sales during the calendar year of 1952 were $192,000. There were a tremendous amount of orders and Fred Sr. was hard-pressed to satisfy them. In order to increase production, he hired more workers from Wallingford Steel on a part-time basis. These men would finish their shifts and then walk over to Ulbrich on a flexible schedule. Many of them became full-time employees.

May Ulbrich Warchoza

In 1953, sales amounted to $429,000 and more work was piling up. Records were scantily kept, and the telephones were constantly ringing. This led Fred Sr. to offer his sister, May Ulbrich Warzocha, a temporary job to manage the office. May was orderly and intelligent. As business rapidly increased, Ulbrich required more staff. She helped to hire new people and to oversee day-to-day office functions. After a promotion to Inventory Control Manager, May finally settled into the role of Purchasing Director. This was a feather in her cap, as the steel industry was considered a man's world.

According to one of Ulbrich’s first company brochures, May was, “responsible for obtaining the large stocks of steel we use to convert to your specifications. Her constant surveillance in maintaining adequate inventories on all of our metals assures the fastest possible processing of your requirements." As a female trailblazer in the steel industry, May was the first woman president of the 25,000 member National Association of Purchasing Managers. Her temporary job at Ulbrich turned into a thirty year career until her retirement in 1980.

The family business of the early 1950’s, now called Fred Ulbrich & Sons, was devoted to selling small quantities of stainless steel. For the time being, the business retained its scrap accounts and continued to dabble in cutlery. International Silver Company was the dominate cutlery manufacturing in the Wallingford-Meriden area, having several plants and longevity spanning a century. The company made all types of cutlery products at their facility on Broad Street in Meriden, Connecticut.

In 1955, International Silver Company built a brand-new facility with the most modern machinery available. The grand opening was attended by notable dignitaries from Connecticut as well as out-of-state. Fred Sr. and Fred Jr. were present for the open house and witnessed cutlery products moving from station to station by automatic conveyor belts. Assembly line innovations were introduced, which until this time had only been utilized by the automobile industry in Detroit.

Fred Sr. Visits International Silver Company
Fred Sr. Visits International Silver Company

Fred Sr. returned from the open house crestfallen. He announced that Victory Cutlery Company was finished. Expensive and sophisticated machinery could produce diner-quality flatware much quicker and cheaper. Fred Sr. lacked the capital for new automated equipment, and he would be unable to compete. He sold the Victory Cutlery to a businessman in Brooklyn, New York. The proceeds were invested in purchasing a cold rolling mill, other machines and a new building to house this equipment.

In the mid-1950's, the stainless steel market came into its own, and this time, Ulbrich would be on the cutting edge of technology. Fred Sr. had installed one of the first Sendzimir Mills to be used in the metals industry. New uses for bright metals created a demand for annealed materials, which precipitated the installation of Ulbrich's first atmosphere-controlled annealing furnace. Additionally, demand for rare earth metals and exotic alloys led Ulbrich to stock new alloys in inventories as rapidly as they became available.

The Sendzimir Mill made cold rolling an exact science.

Ulbrich’s entry into precision re-rolling could not have occurred without the invention of the Sendzimir Mill. A Polish engineer and inventor of international renown named Dr. Tadeusz Sendzimir created a new version of a cold rolling mill. The Sendzimir family business obtained technology capable of rolling metal to extremely close tolerances and at unprecedented speeds. The first American manufacturer to buy a Sendzimir Mill was Thomas Fitch of Washington Steel Company. Fred Ulbrich Sr. used to sell scrap to Fitch when he was president of Jessop Steel. Thomas Fitch advised Fred Sr. to purchase a Sendzimir Mill — also known as a Z-Mill.

When Fred Sr. learned that a Z-Mill was on order for Wallingford Steel, he became determined to purchase the new machine. In 1955, Ulbrich contracted Waterbury - Farrel Company to build the third Sendzimir Mill in the United States. The Z-Mill, its equipment and a building renovation would cost the business more than $1 million. The only quandary was that Fred Sr. did not have enough money. Selling off Victory Cutlery Company provided a tiny amount of the funds needed.

First Sendzimir Mill

However, he did have credit, and he received credit extensions from major steel companies. Then he received a loan from The Wallingford Bank and Trust Company. Fred Sr. was “betting the farm” on the Z-Mill. He knew it would be successful if Ulbrich could remain solvent. The mill project required more than a year to execute. Progressive payments were required throughout this period. This was a major problem because the orders required upfront payments. $1 million was tied up for more than a year. It was a massive capital investment for the company and major gamble. In addition to the Z-Mill, it was necessary to purchase complementary machines like a new annealing furnace made by the Electric Furnace Company of Salem, Ohio. Other equipment was needed: two more slitters and two high rolling mills to reduce incoming material with higher gauges.

He bought used machinery (as usual) to be overhauled and modernized by the Glenn Machine Company. Also, racks and storage equipment were needed so a building was constructed.

The purchase of the Z-Mill and the equipment put Ulbrich in a completely new category — the old category being a supplier of stainless-steel strip, and the new one being a supplier of custom precision stainless steel. Ulbrich now possessed the ability to roll to the tightest tolerances in world — and not only stainless steels but also special metals and high temperature alloys produced by melt mills.

1 Z-Mill

Ulbrich became a high-tech rolling mill interested in small quantity orders of 2,000 pounds or less. The Sendzimir Mill was a breakthrough, and Ulbrich grew rapidly: sales in 1954 were $380,000 but in 1956, the first year of operation of Ulbrich’s Z-Mill, sales were $1,334,000. Fred Sr.’s gamble had certainly paid off handsomely. Ulbrich was able to pay off the bank loan and the funds owed to suppliers. The family business now served a specialty product at a premium.

Ulbrich Stainless Steels, Inc. officially filed to become a registered corporation in 1955. Fred Sr., his wife Ada and an employee named Mary Fassio were the incorporators. They also created a real estate company called Ulbrich Realty, Inc. The total market capitalization of the companies was $650,000. At this time, Ulbrich had thirty part-time workers and eight full-time employees. These included Henry Furs in Production, May Warzocha leading four women in the office and Frank Sabota in Sales.

Want to learn more about Ulbrich’s century of excellence?

Visit our Centennial website for a company timeline, treasured memories, and more!
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