July 12 marks 100 years for Chicago Faucets
That's the date in 1901 when founder Albert C. Brown set up shop on Chicago's west side to produce OEM faucets, lamp shade frames, gas regulator valves and oil burner tips and nozzles. By 1911, demand for the company's plumbing products had grown to the point where it began marketing them under its own name, and distributing its expanding line through wholesale plumbing supply houses.
In 1913, Chicago Faucets made a major breakthrough in faucet design with Brown's patented Quaturn cartridge. It was a replaceable, completely self-contained operating cartridge with the ability to turn water flow off from full flow with one-quarter turn of the faucet handle. The Quaturn also introduced the principle of closing with, rather than against, the pressure of water flow, reducing washer wear, virtually eliminating drips and making the life of the faucet body itself almost limitless.
This initiated Chicago Faucets' commitment to standardization and renewability of parts. The Quaturn cartridge has been updated over the years to incorporate new technology and materials, but is still interchangeable with any Quaturn manufactured since 1913.
Hit hard like most firms by the Great Depression, Chicago Faucets realized a reversal in fortune by participating as an exhibitor in Chicago's "Century of Progress" World's Fair. National recognition ensued, and orders picked up once more.
During World War II and through the Korean conflict, the company's manufacturing capability was converted to war-related products. The postwar building boom led to prosperity and, in 1961, a new, much larger facility in suburban Des Plaines, Ill. Significant expansions have taken place in every decade since.
Today, Chicago Faucets employs about 500 people in operations located in Des Plaines, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Huntsville, Ala. Its Milwaukee-based subsidiary, Starline Manufacturing Co., is one of four U.S. producers of permanent-mold, yellow-brass castings. Permanent-mold castings allow for finer finishes than traditional sand casting.
Sales volume is "in the $100 million range," according to president Alan Lougee, great-grandson of the company's founder. Following are excerpts from a chat Supply House Times had with Lougee.
Chicago Faucets' niche within the American faucet market:
Lougee: "Chicago Faucets makes predominantly commercial products. Residential accounts for less than 10% of sales, but a lot of commercial products from our foodservice line are finding their way into kitchens.
"We're strong at the specification level, working with architects and engineers whose reputations are on the line. We maintain close relationships with the plumber and distributor. Because of our position in the com- mercial specification market, we also get involved with building owners. "
"Our approach with large distributors is to try to convince them to quit trying to be everything to everybody. They may carry nine to 15 faucet lines. We think they only need to carry around five, with us filling their entire commercial niche."
Chicago Faucets' new Synapse technology:
"We want faucets that can talk back! Synapse enables them to say, 'It's been seven years since I've been installed, the solenoid has been used so many times and is starting to wear.' It's like a smoke detector telling you to change the battery.
"Electronics have been slower to ramp up in plumbing than in many other fields because plumbers don't understand the products. I didn't see anything like this at the ISH show ."
"The trend in faucet manufacturing follows that in the automotive field. Over the last 15 years or so, the car makers have shed their supply operations to where they mainly just assemble and market their products.
"Globalization will have an impact. Outsourcing has swung toward Southeast Asia, but I don't know where Chicago Faucets will fit into this scenario. We are presently more than 98% American-made, but are looking into outside sources of supply for some of the components.
"Going from liquid metal to final product within a week is an important competitive capability. The purchase price may be 45% less in Taiwan, but instead of a one-week ship time from Milwaukee, it's four to eight weeks. Rework adds to cost and impacts the ability to deliver on schedule.
"There's a big difference between purchase price and cost. Some of the most competitive faucets come from Italy, where labor rates are $17 an hour."