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Business
In the Spotlight: Hipwell Manufacturing

Once flickering North Side flashlight maker expands under new owner

Sunday, November 10, 2002

By Patricia Sabatini, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At over 100-years-old, North Side flashlight maker Hipwell Manufacturing is no flash in the pan.

Still, a little over a year ago, the company's lights were flickering and in danger of going out for good.

Machinist Harry Nicholson, right, shows Hipwell Manufacturing President George Parks a lens at the North Side company. Nicholson has worked for the company for 50 years. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The family-run operation's fifth-generation owner, Bud Hipwell, was tired of struggling against cheap imports and wanted to sell or shut down.

At the same time, Shaler native George Parks, owner of a local security alarm installation firm, was searching for another business to invest in. Seeing an opportunity to reinvigorate Hipwell, he and three other partners bought it.

"I did due diligence and found that in the past 10 years, they did no marketing," said Parks, 64, a Hampton resident and president of Hipwell.

Although the company had four outside sales representatives, "three weren't selling anything, and the other one was only taking orders."

The spacious four-story building also had lots of room to expand.

In January, the company bought the flashlight division of Bridgeport Metal Goods Manufacturing Co. in New Hampshire, consolidating the operation into Pittsburgh and doubling Hipwell's production to roughly 2 million flashlights a year. The deal also brought in a lucrative contract for making flashlights for the battery maker Duracell.

Parks is now in the process of looking for new manufacturing representatives, setting up a Web site and possibly initiating a direct mail campaign. He's also scouting for another acquisition.

 
 
HIPWELL MANUFACTURING CO.

dot.gif Business: Flashlight maker.

dot.gif Headquarters: North Side.

dot.gif History: Founded in 1887 as Pittsburgh's first stamping plant, then started making parts for oil lamps and later parts for natural gas-fueled lamps. Moved to current location on West North Avenue around 1900. Began making flashlights in 1940s, first out of metal, then plastic. Employed about 100 at its peak.

dot.gif Employees: Approximately 30.

   
 

His stiffest competition comes from China, where flashlights are assembled and shipped to the United States for less than it costs Hipwell to buy the parts. Chances are the flashlights consumers pick up at Wal-Mart, Sears or Home Depot and tuck away in a drawer waiting for the lights to go out came from that country.

"It's an uphill battle, one faced by all American manufacturers. We're not alone," Parks said about cheaper foreign goods.

Hipwell, which employs roughly 30, competes by selling flashlights in batches too small for the Chinese to bother with, he said, and by offering a quicker turnaround time -- two weeks or less vs. the six to eight weeks it takes for orders overseas.

The company also relies on several big customers, including the U.S. military and the Boy Scouts, that buy from Hipwell because they believe in the "Made in America" label, he said.

Hipwell has plenty of competition at home, too. Parks estimates that there are about 30 flashlight manufacturers nationwide, including the maker of the top-of-the-line, rugged Maglite brand.

Hipwell competes at the low-end of the market, selling flashlights at wholesale prices ranging from $1 to about $10. The most expensive are watertight, fat plastic lights about the size of a thermos with a handle on the side used by pipeline and sewer workers.

Two of the company's biggest-sellers are the standard-size plastic models that come with a magnet on the side that mechanics like for keeping the lights handy, and small metal penlights used in doctors' offices.

A tour of Hipwell's factory is like taking a step back in time. Beneath the soaring ceilings lie the creaky, original wood floors and steps bowed in the middle from a century of wear.

There's no deafening din from modern high-speed conveyor lines, either. Much of the assembly is done by hand or by workers bent over ancient machines.

"There's not enough volume of one light to automate," Parks explained.

The company buys the main plastic flashlight bodies from suppliers, but makes many of the other parts in-house, such as battery springs, contact strips and plastic lenses.

Roughly 85 percent of the flashlights Hipwell sells are plastic. The company also does a small business in chrome/steel flashlights that some companies such as trendy home goods retailer Restoration Hardware buy for their old-fashioned looks.

Parks said one of the best things about taking over such an established business was the veteran staff that came with it. Shop foreman Stanley Grubjesic has been around 27 years, machinist Harry Nicholson 50, and secretary Norma Jones even longer.

Their dedication and experience allow Parks to focus on growing the business. One goal is to raise the company's profile.

Even though the factory's been in the same spot for a century, few Pittsburghers know about it, he said.

"No one knows we did a million flashlights a year," Parks said.

"The mayor didn't even know."


Patricia Sabatini can be reached at psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

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