100 Years of Ulbrich: The Biggest Little Mill

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Biggest Little Mill

To mark our historic 100th anniversary, we’re sharing stories from Ulbrich’s past that chart both the milestones, and missteps, of a century in business.

In the fifth post, we follow Ulbrich’s meteoric rise in the 1950s and 60s as the re-roller became “The Biggest Little Mill in the Country.”


Ulbrich was a small company and through the decades, it grew a reputation for reliable people and products. Starting in 1956, Ulbrich sought to improve business by revamping the hiring process and through retaining personnel. Consequential areas like the Annealing Department needed to be operational and staffed at all hours. Annealers began to work around the clock on three shifts. Any unplanned annealing furnace maintenance stymied production (just as it can today). The concept of several part-time workers was no longer feasible and the company wanted technical expertise.

1960s annealing

A perpetually running furnace became of the utmost importance because annealing softens steel, making it easier to roll. When rolling, the Sendzimir Mill reduced coils approximately 50% in thickness. If the material was 0.062” thick, then the mill reduced it to 0.031”. During the rolling process, coils are compressed and stretched to be twice as long. Great energy is imparted onto the steel, making it brittle and not easily workable.

Therefore, the annealing furnaces were used to heat coils at a snails pace — to the point at which metal atoms rearranged. After cooling at room temperature, the alloy became more workable. Furnaces were set to 1,950 degrees Fahrenheit (e.g. 304 stainless steel), and the metal was pulled through continuously. Then another coil after that and so on. The furnace ran 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, except for planned (and unplanned) maintenance.

To troubleshoot technical issues Fred Sr. called on Red Hill, a legend in the re-roll industry with Metals & Controls of Attleboro, Massachusetts. Hill recommended that Ulbrich hire some of his employees whose careers were hampered by individuals with more seniority. The Metals & Controls men came to Ulbrich along with an engineer, Paul Dubin, the first General Manager of Ulbrich’s Strip Mill. It was necessary for an engineer like Paul to oversee operations and to keep each machine in working order.

Fred Jr. - 1950s

In September of 1956, Fred Jr. entered the company on a full-time basis. He had worked part-time making knives, forks, and spoons ever since he was ten years old. When he was sixteen, Fred Jr. drove the scrap truck, and every summer he worked at the Mill which he sometimes called the shop. All of the Ulbrich children started at an early age, working alongside the men and in every department as a helper or trainee.

Fred Jr. was born, raised and educated in Wallingford. He graduated from Lyman Hall High School, and attended Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, for a post graduate year. He entered Brown University in 1949 and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Organic Chemistry. Fred Jr. served from in the United States Army (1953-1956) as a member of the Counterintelligence Corps. Dressed as a civilian with top secret clearance, he performed background investigations on individuals affiliated with the Army. His territory was New Hampshire and he enjoyed the peculiarities of the job.

After being honorably discharged in 1956, Fred Jr. returned to Ulbrich as a Management Trainee. After working in the plant on various machines, he worked in the Credit Department and then the Advertising Department. Up until then, there was no need for an Outside Sales Department, because all orders were coming from major Steel Service Centers like House of Stainless. However, the need for a professional salesforce was becoming apparent and Fred Jr. would lead the charge.

lunch meeting

When Fred Sr. decided to buy his first Sendzimir Mill, he invited Jan Tomczyki, an official of the Waterbury Farrel Company to lunch. He explained to Jan which alloys, gauges, tempers and finishes Ulbrich need to supply. Jan calculated the horsepower, tension controls and equipment needed for the mill. They shook hands and that was the official commitment for the new mill. The purchase order that followed stated, “To specifications as discussed between Jan Tomczycki and Fred Ulbrich Sr.”

The same thing occurred with Ulbrich’s first electric annealing furnace. Fred Sr. called John Volosin, an engineer of Electric Furnace Company to meet at Oakdale Tavern. Fred Sr. outlined what he was trying to accomplish. John calculated the dimensions and discussed the different types of furnaces available. They shook hands, and the purchase order that followed stated, “To specifications outlined between John Volosin and Fred Sr.”

This pattern happened over and over again for mills, furnaces, slitters, metal or trucking arrangements. Though a wrong recommendation by either Jan Tomczycki or John Volosin would have meant bankruptcy for Ulbrich, Fred Sr. had trust them and his eye for trustworthy people paid off. These luncheons were always general business meetings, Fred Jr., Dick and Dan often attend to learned about business matters within the steel industry.

Times were good for the family business, but 1960 ushered in a recession.

Large-scale producers like U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel ate serious losses. Ulbrich was also hurting for purchase orders. Where did the orders come from? And where did they go? Over 90% came from the Steel Service Centers who stocked metal to their customers. In many cases, Ulbrich neither knew who used the coils, nor what end products they were making. The Service Centers were not obliged to reveal their customers.

That same year, a major decision was made that forever affected Ulbrich Steel. The company planned to hire a world-class salesforce on a direct basis. Ulbrich would finally begin interfacing with customers, thereby skipping over brokers and middle men. Fred Jr. hired Bob Evasick from Edgecomb Milford. Evasick filled the General Sales Manager role and reported to Fred Jr. Four other direct salesmen came on board to service territories in New England and the Midwest.

First sales department 1960

By soliciting to customers directly, Ulbrich went from supplying two dozen customers to 50 in a short period of time. Fred Jr. also devised a four-year plan to transform the customer base from 90% Service Centers to 90% direct sales. However, many new customers needed to supply metals that Ulbrich did not carry — specifically, nickel alloys such as Monel®¹ and Inconel®¹ and high temperature materials like Haynes Alloys like A-286™², Hastalloy®³, Hastalloy® C³ and others. Ulbrich began stocking more specialty alloys and selling them to customers located in metalworking states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

Ulbrich learned that these specialty alloys were being sold to the aircraft industry on the West Coast where they had no representation. Because of the aviation industry, the family business had to become nationwide to compete with other re-rollers. Ulbrich’s sales in the western United States was only $20,000 per year. Then the business entered into an arrangement with Charlie Brenner of Brenner & Company, whose territory was west of the Rockies. Fred Jr. also recruited Charles Zimmerman to cover the entire Southeast of the United States from North Carolina to Texas. These territories earned $123,000 in 1961.

Eventually Ulbrich caught wind of a new project for the United States Air Force: a six-engine, high-altitude B-70 Bomber armed with nuclear bombs. North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, won a major federal contract for the bomber. Designed by Harrison Storms Jr., construction of the plane called for exotic alloys used to make honeycomb sandwich panels throughout the fuselage of the plane. The project needed Armco’s PH15-7 Mo® and 17-7 PH® at only 0.001”, 0.0015” and 0.002” in thickness. These precipitation hardening alloys were chosen for their high-strength, excellent fatigue properties and corrosion resistance. North American Aviation surveyed seventeen re-rollers including Ulbrich.

North American Aviation unveils XB-70

The major steel mills and the re-rollers were initially unable to provide the alloys at those minuscule sizes. When Ulbrich received the survey questionnaire, a representative of North American Aviation visited the Strip Mill in Wallingford. He inspected equipment and evaluated the company’s capabilities. Up until this time, Ulbrich could roll metal down to 0.005” in thickness. The difference between rolling metal to 0.005” versus 0.002” and thinner is analogous to playing baseball on a high school team as opposed to playing on a major league team. As a point of reference, a page of a book is usually 0.003” thick and a human hair is about 0.002” thick. Ulbrich was promised a significant order if it could produce three small gauges: 0.001”, 0.0015” and 0.002” to North American Aviation’s rigorous specifications.

Even though Ulbrich had a Sendzimir Mill, that did not mean an operator could uniformly roll metal thinner than ever before. Back then, not many Z-Mills could compress material to 0.001” - but Ulbrich’s might with the correct modifications. Fred Sr. made another high stakes decision to supply North American Aviation with light gauge material. The Sendzimir Mill was modified immensely, additional equipment was installed, inventory was ordered and a co-workers mustered a companywide rush. It took six months for Ulbrich to produce the first thousand pounds of 0.001” gauge 17-7 PH. This exacting capability jettisoned Ulbrich into the arena of ultra-light gauge metals and the company became among a select group of re-rollers.

Many manufacturers were developing electrical and industrial uses for light gauge specialty metals.

The potential profit was enormous. The B-70 Bomber project demanded alloys that sold for about $25 per pound but Ulbrich paid a starting price of $1.50 per pound. Though it would be a complicated supply chain. The contract was awarded by the Department of Defense to North American Aviation, who placed the order with a honeycomb manufacturer, who in turn, placed the order with a steel Service Center, who placed the order with Charlie Brenner, who placed the order with Ulbrich.

It took Ulbrich six months to produce the first thousand pounds of 17-7 PH alloy. Less than one week later, the Strip Mill rolled another 1,000 pounds, and then over 2,000 pounds in the following day. Out of the seventeen surveyed re-rollers, only Ulbrich and five other suppliers could satisfy the requirements of North American Aviation. Ulbrich Steel had made thrilling advances! Yet, the order would prove too good to be true, because a day later the order was cancelled on the second day of production!

Unfortunately, large-scale production of the B-70 Bomber was mothballed overnight without warning. President John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara were advised that the plane was vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles. The United States Air Force downsized the project into an experimental research and development program called XB-70 Valkyrie. Though only two XB-70 Valkyrie jets were ever made, they were the world’s most advanced aircraft and the first to reach Mach 3 speeds at an altitude of 70,000 feet.

1960s coil handling

Because of the cancellation, Ulbrich’s most coveted purchase order had to be renegotiated. Shipped material was returned for $6 per pound. The fact that a small company earning $2 million in annual sales could suddenly impact the defense of the nation was an important morale boost for Ulbrich employees — but morale didn’t pay the bills. The company still owed large payments for new equipment and it lost a great deal of cash on the B-70 project. The viability of the business was in question for nearly two years. Every re-roller involved in the B-70 Bomber declared bankruptcy within a couple of weeks, and Charlie Brenner sold his company several months later.

Ulbrich hung in there, but just barely. The company was fortunate enough to win another North American Aviation order. Fred’ Sr.’s Strip Mill was selected to roll DuPont’s D-36 Columbium — another precursor to the NASA Space Shuttle. The undertaking was crucial for NASA and it placed Ulbrich on the technological forefront of rolling metals for space exploration. It was also an especially profitable order. The business recouped some of its prior losses and Ulbrich became involved with the origins of the aerospace industry.

Representatives of the aerospace companies visited and were shocked to learn that Ulbrich had no testing laboratory. In those years, the Strip Mill only had a few tools to measure hardness or strength. New quality standards had been imposed by the aerospace companies, such as Pratt and Whitney, Boeing, Rohr and North American Aviation. Their inspectors studied Ulbrich’s facilities and made costly technical recommendations. To participate in military-grade programs, management had to implement sophisticated laboratory equipment and strict quality controls.

The Ulbrich family was prepared to ambitiously grow the company.

Yet, the aircraft companies were not aware that their recommendations for equipment were more than a year’s profit. Ulbrich had to borrow money again, and Fred Sr. personally guaranteed loans to build a new testing laboratory at the Strip Mill. Fred Sr.’s philosophy was simple, “Take care of the company, and the company will take care of you.” Consequently, net profit was not the goal in those years - the goal was to remain in business and to better serve customers to their specifications.

New testing laboratory at the mill

Dick Ulbrich was heavily involved with the new laboratory and various technical aspects of production. He had joined the company full-time in 1960 but had worked part-time since he was about 10 years old — like his brothers. Dick matriculated from to Fairfield College Preparatory School to Georgetown University and graduated in 1956. He then did a tour of duty in the United States Army as an officer in the Field Artillery.

Fred Sr.’s understanding with his sons was that they were not obliged to go into the company — he never urged or brainwashed them to do so. However, he was delighted that they chose to join the family business. Fred Jr.’s talents were in sales and marketing, and Dick’s talents were in production. Their talents complimented each other, and on a practical basis, this arrangement worked out well.

Dick also attended daily Oakdale luncheons with his father and brother. Fred Sr. had always believed in a consensus of opinion. For example, the three of them would have to agree on what orders were to be placed, what equipment was to be purchased, who was to be hired and more. At a certain point, this formal consensus system ceased to work. Family members and co-workers were too busy performing their specific jobs. The complexity of the steel business also produced various opinions on things like purchase order requirements, customer policies and acceptable production standards.

Sr Jr and Dick 1960s

A major determination was made by Fred Sr. that specific responsibilities would be assigned to certain individuals. That person alone would be responsible for his or her departmental choices, and they would report to Fred Sr. as the ultimate decision maker. This was the beginning of the company's organizational chart, a concept never discussed or even considered up until then. The department assignments were: Fred Jr. in sales and inventory; Dick in production; and May Warzocha in office management and purchasing.

In 1964, Daniel Ulbrich entered the business. Like his two older brothers, he had worked summers on the shop floor since he was twelve years old. Like Dick, he had graduated from Fairfield Prep and Georgetown University. Dan had also served in the United States Army as a Russian interpreter stationed in Germany. Upon honorable discharge from the Army, Dan was placed in charge of Ulbrich’s Layout Department, a key position in the company. Layout was responsible for selecting coils to be applied to orders. He was also helped manage the minimum and maximum inventory of the many alloys in stock.

Ulbrich had about fifty different alloys in many different gauges throughout the 1960’s. Dan’s entry into inventory control gave Fred Jr. the opportunity to spend his time exclusively in sales. Freed from having to agree on everything, the results were astounding. The company progressed rapidly.

Fred Sr. maps plans for a warehouse in Wallingford

In 1968, there was significant developments at Ulbrich. First, the company needed to expand away from Dudley Avenue in Wallingford. The present site offered no available land adjacent to the Strip Mill. Consequently, Fred Sr. selected a tract of land in Wallingford serviced by a railroad and close to Interstate 91. He received an option to purchase the property, which was zoned as rural, but the town would require an industrial zone change.

It was anticipated that the change would be a formality, especially after Fred Sr.’s many years of service to the community. However, it did not work out that way. The plan was not approved by the Planning and Zoning commission, and today, Pilgrim’s Harbor condominiums occupy the property. In retrospect, this disapproval turned out to be a blessing, because Ulbrich later purchased Defco Industrial Park in North Haven. This land bordered Wallingford and was closer to the mill.

Defco Park included a railroad spur, the Valley Water Company and buildings owned by other companies. The Strip Mill would remain at Dudley Avenue in Wallingford, because the cost of moving equipment was prohibitive. Ulbrich then built a modern warehouse in this Park to house all of its coiled stock. The warehouse, measuring 90,000 cubic feet, has always been visible from U.S. Route 5 in North Haven. Ulbrich was able to eliminate four smaller warehouses scattered about Wallingford by incorporating all inventory into this one building.

The original thought behind this project was that all of Ulbrich would move to the 72 acre North Haven site. Ultimately the cost of moving the entire organization proved to be too much, so the plans were dialed back.

1968-Ulbrich New Home Sign

Ulbrich did not have a feasible means of servicing customers in the Midwest until 1968. The family determined that the best way to infiltrate the region was to start a company from scratch. Fred Jr. hired John Thoma, who had been employed by the House of Stainless in Chicago, to open an Illinois-based office. The plan was to construct an industrial building within two years as a steel Service Center that stored and slit coils. Ulbrich of Illinois, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ulbrich Steel, is located in the Cook County village of Alsip to this day.

A few years prior, Fred Sr. had started a company called Ulbrich Special Metals to handle the nickel-based alloys with which Ulbrich had become involved. This was a separate company housed under the Ulbrich umbrella. Ulbrich also had Ulbrich Research Corporation, which did the basic research involved in producing the metals for the XB-70 and the forerunner of the space shuttle. Fred Sr. combined these companies into one called Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals, Inc. in 1969.

The year of 1969 was particularly consequential for the family business.

At a key juncture in American history, Ulbrich had become adept in milling and converting metal alloys. These technical capabilities attracted aerospace customers bent on space exploration. Innovations in rolling specialty metals were critical to early space travel. Yet Ulbrich’s contributions were largely unknown to the general public. The United States and Soviet Union were competing in a bitter Cold War and Space Race for geopolitical and technological supremacy.

NASA was tasked with pulling off a lunar landing within a decade by President John F. Kennedy during his 1961 inauguration speech. Having been involved in previous federal projects, Ulbrich was approached by NASA contractors and original equipment manufacturers such as United Technologies, Hamilton Standard, Grumman Aircraft and Collins Aerospace. With Ulbrich, these aerospace companies could purchase small quantities of stainless steel and special metals to develop test trials.

Apollo 11

On July 20, 1969, America made “a giant leap for mankind” when Apollo 11 successfully touched down on the Moon. The feat was accomplished using 300 pounds of Ulbrich-rolled metal. Stainless steel and titanium were utilized in several applications on the spacecraft. Customers like United Technologies and Hamilton Standard formed the metal into interstellar components. Applications included seals and inlets used to help the Mark 10 turbo pumps launch the 6,252,500 pound Saturn V rocket.

Ulbrich provided metal for bellows used on the Lunar Module nicknamed Eagle – the first crewed vehicle to land on the Moon as well as the Command and Service Module referred to as Columbia – a propulsion unit that towed the Lunar Module across space. On the outer structure of the module was a brazed honeycomb heatshield formed from Ulbrich-rolled steel. Pressure and flow of fuel in the service module was controlled by bellows regulators made from Ulbrich metal.

The Apollo 11 spacecraft carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the first voyage to the Moon and back from July 16 to July 24, 1969. On the day of the launch, the Ulbrich family attended an official viewing at Cape Canaveral, Florida. “There were several thousand of us about a mile and a half away,” Fred Jr. once recalled. “We were in the bleachers. They made us wear goggles and made sure we didn’t look directly at the rocket when it launched and that was quite a thrill.”

Ulbrich was perhaps the least known metal supplier to produce solutions for the Apollo missions. Ulbrich continued to supply metal used for future Apollo missions. The achievement of a moon mission displayed Ulbrich’s extensive capabilities as a precision re-roller. With a strong core business in place, the company continued to expand into uncharted territory. Around this time, the family business also invested in the production of stainless steel wire.

Machine running wire product 1960s

The wire product line required special attention to detail. It was different from Ulbrich’s other products because the starting material was a cylindrical wire. Ulbrich initiated this product for two longtime customers who were having problems finding quality material at narrow sizes. Connecticut Spring Company and Wallace Barnes, a division of Associated Spring required custom, uniform and precise spools of milled wire.

Like other re-rollers, Ulbrich was producing wire products from strip by slitting the strip to narrower widths. But now the best method of wire production was to squash a round wire flat. A substantial technology upgrade would need to be implemented and new staff needed to be onboarded. Therefore in 1969, the decision was made to spin-off this product line and to give it an identity of its own. The spin-off corporation was Ulbrich Wire, Inc. within Defco Park in North Haven.

The size and complexity of the business were greater than Fred Sr. had ever dreamed.

Fred Sr. sometimes expressed his astonishment at the growth of his original enterprise. He and Ada spent most of their late sixties in Fort Lauderdale writing a travel memoir entitled Around Two Worlds. The book documented their 1961 trip across the globe by steamer and railcar from America to Asia to Europe, which included a meeting with Pope John XXII.

From 1956 to 1969, the family business was propelled by tremendous ambition among its people. New personnel, new products, new customers, new locations and new equipment added to profits. Annual sales had increased tenfold from $1.3 million in 1956 to $10.2 million in 1969. While sales numbers skyrocketed, so did costs and technical issues multiplied. Ulbrich’s organizational structure became more sophisticated and more difficult to manage. Mistakes were inevitable due to the large operational scope of business.

Ulbrich old trucks

Hiring missteps, supply chain bottlenecks and returned orders were valuable lessons learned. Company growth relied on the dedication and expertise of long term employees. Developing staff became a focus — because the Ulbrich family believed that the company would only go as far as its people. Ownership began to administer rich employee benefits and higher wages as the local labor market grew more competitive. In return, the business was privileged to retain many of whom remained in their roles at Ulbrich for several decades.

Fred Ulbrich Sr. and his entrepreneurial spirit had unexpectedly created hundreds of jobs. His energy rubbed off on his family, friends and his co-workers. At work, Fred Sr. was known for his catchphrases. He often greeted men on the shop floor with a cigar tucked into the side his of mouth, while inquiring “How’s it going, boys?” Fred Sr. coined his flagship facility in Wallingford as “The Biggest Little Mill in the Country.” He adored this moniker due to its fitting title for a small company with value to the manufacturing of stainless steel.

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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