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Business still sparks

By Jim Mackinnon - Beacon Journal business writer

April 11, 2008

The Imperial Electric Co. did not last 100 years in business by standing pat.

That attitude might bode well for the Akron manufacturer in the next 100 years.

Imperial Electric makes, among other things, high-quality electric motors that are used to move elevators and escalators. More than six years ago, the company moved out of its creaky, aging headquarters and factory on Ira Avenue, shuttered a Cuyahoga Falls plant and closed a Stow office to consolidate into 100,000 square feet at 1503 Exeter Road next to Akron Fulton International Airport.

''We started in Akron. We're still in Akron,'' said Gary Ward, vice president for sales and marketing.

Imperial Electric's 100th anniversary officially was Jan. 27. The privately owned company got its start in 1908 as an electric motor manufacturer. The company is now owned by Illinois-based Kinetek Inc., formerly Motors and Gears Inc.

''We've changed a lot. Many, many new products,'' Ward said.

The greatest changes have taken place over the past 10 years, as new top managers were hired to succeed executives going into retirement. As part of that turnover, Ward and company President David Molnar came on board.

Electric motors — ranging from two pounds to three tons — are still the company's bread and butter. They're sold worldwide. Exports go to China, Europe, Australia, South America, Mexico and Canada.

But while Imperial Electric had a relative handful of products 10 years ago, its expanded line now fills a good part of the company's new showroom.

Newer products include building systems incorporating electric motors, saving Imperial's customers the trouble, time and expense of coordinating and assembling components from different manufacturers. Transaxles, gears and more are made at the company's Ohio plants and others. Imperial also has factories outside the United States, including China.

It has also bought up other companies along the way. Besides elevators, products go into floor-care machines, industrial-type blowers and other uses. The company's transition has been from electric to electromechanical to electronic.

''We try to stay in niche markets,'' Ward said. ''Be a big player in a smaller pond.''

All of that has helped quadruple Imperial Electric's sales from about $23 million in 1998 to nearly $100 million most recently, executives said. They declined to give specific figures.

In 1997, Imperial Electric had perhaps one personal computer at its headquarters, Molnar said. PCs are now everywhere.

''You have to embrace change. Especially today in a global economy,'' said Molnar, who joined Imperial Electric from General Electric.

''Knock on wood, we've never had to lay anybody off, even when we moved (some) production to China,'' he said. The company was able to maintain employment in Akron in large part because of changes in its manufacturing process, he said.

About 100 hourly employees, represented by the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers, are at the Akron factory; Imperial Electric has 325 employees worldwide.

The Akron production line has been reconfigured so that workers can make any of the products at almost any time, Molnar and Ward said. Switching from one product line to another can be done in minutes, where under the old system, a changeover could take hours.

And whereas years ago it could take a month to fill a customer's order, it now usually takes no more than a few days, Molnar and Ward said.

''We spent a lot of time and a lot of money,'' Molnar said. ''We've done a lot of cross training, where people are very flexible.''

While the number of employees is about the same as 10 years ago, the amount of products they make has about doubled, Ward said.

Gary Dotson, a 13-year employee, said the current facility is much better than the old Ira Avenue factory. He said the number of products the company is able to make went from 13 when he started to more than 100 now.

''I seem to learn something new every day, still,'' the 45-year-old Akron resident said.

John Molessa, 61, of the Kenmore area of Akron, has worked at Imperial Electric for 42 years.

The company focused on elevator motors when he was hired, he said. Now the product mix is much more diverse.

Another sign of a reinvented Imperial Electric Co. can be found in the form of Slavica Djosanoxic, one of about 35 workers who describe themselves as either Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian. Imperial Electric has worked with the International Institute of Akron, which aids immigrants, to find and place employees.

Djosanoxic was hired about 31/2 years ago, after friends and her mother-in-law urged her to apply at Imperial Electric.

''They said this is a very good company,'' the 31-year-old Akron resident said. ''This is a good company. Very good people.''

Sue Bamer-Flynn, 40, a production supervisor who lives in Wadsworth, said she is studying the immigrants' language to help her communicate more effectively.

''We have a great work force here,'' she said. ''We have a rising quality standard. . . . We have to be right on our toes. All of us do.''

Molnar said Imperial Electric tries not to stock a lot of its products in its warehouse. ''Everything is built to order,'' he said.

Not all of its new products have been successful, Molnar and Ward said. One flop was a salt spreader developed for the winter snow-cleaning market; it didn't take off as they hoped and was sold off, they said.

As they look to continually improve what and how they build things, they are also looking for new business, Molnar said.

''We track new business opportunities all the time,'' he said.

And Imperial Electric is also looking for new twists for its long-established lines.

The company now makes ''green'' elevator motor systems that can recapture energy from elevators and put it back onto the electrical grid. Other improvements save on the amount of electricity elevators use compared to older systems.

''The whole idea of a green elevator system is new,'' Molnar said.

It's a safe bet the company's founders didn't envision that 100 years ago