Volume 13 | Issue 2 | Year 2010

Established in 1928 Helwig Carbon Products Inc. provides the highest quality carbon-based tools at the most competitive prices. The Milwaukee, Wisc.- headquartered company’s comprehensive line of precision-machined carbon brushes, brush holders and mechanical carbons effectively serves thousands of customers throughout the world.
Originally, Walter O. Helwig founded the business to supply the Midwest’s carbon brush market. During 80 subsequent years of product innovation and global expansion, the company has remained one of America’s few family-owned carbon companies. This familial nature provided Helwig Carbon with unique, compelling perspectives. Walter Helwig believed that it was essential to take care of employees as if they were family, providing them with generous bonuses and retirement plans. This paternalistic approach, adopted by many corporations in the early part of the 20th century, began to disappear in the 1990s. (For instance, consider the personality change that the Dupont Company, one of business history’s most paternal corporations, underwent during that transitional period.) However, the tradition is alive and well at Helwig Carbon, and this has benefited the company; Helwig Carbon has enjoyed steady growth and consistent employment during its entire history. As Vice President of Marketing Jay Koenitzer points out, even during the latest recession, the company avoided layoffs. Of course, some sacrifices were necessary. Salaries and hours were cut. But with the loyalty the company continually fosters, employees were willing to share the pain for the greater benefit. “They stepped up and helped out to get us get through the tough economy,” says Koenitzer.

It’s part of the company’s philosophy to make decisions that positively impact the long run. “Even if profits suffer, we believe keeping our workers employed is more important,” says Koenitzer.

It relates to an old business maxim: Take care of the customers and you take care of your business. But Helwig Carbon realizes that if you take care of the employees, then it’s the employees who will take care of the customers. And that leads to another interesting Helwig Carbon perspective: The customer, and not the business management, is the boss of the company. “We were taught that we’re simply the stewards of the business,” reveals Koenitzer, who is part of the company’s bloodline. After Walter Helwig died in 1985, John Koenitzer (Jay’s father and Walter’s son-in-law) took over. Jay’s older brother Jeff (vice president of engineering) has been with the company for 35 years. Jay has been involved in the family business for nearly two decades.

“True, our family has benefited financially from the business,” says Jay Koenitzer, “but what gets us most excited is being able to serve a customer better than our competition.”

That comment nicely segues into yet another interesting company perspective: Helwig doesn’t perceive its true rivals to be other carbon companies. Rather, it sees the new technology of AC brushless motors to be its main competitive treat. As such, Helwig Carbon considers its primary challenge to be survival in a mature and declining market. It began addressing the challenge in the early part of the new century, when it decided to expand internationally in response to increasingly limited growth prospects in the United States.

That led the business into forming a joint venture company, ECarbon (for electrical carbon), in 2003. The venture involved Gerken SA, a Belgium firm. E-Carbon now owns several carbon companies, including one in Berlin, Germany and another in the Czech Republic. Further, E-Carbon represents a network of independent carbon companies throughout the world. These companies share technology with and purchase products and material from Helwig Carbon and Gerken SA. Now, Helwig Carbon garners more than 10 percent of its business from outside the United States (the company enhances its international presence with subsidiaries in Canada and Mexico).

E-Carbon’s members include businesses located in 23 countries. All share the basic Helwig Carbon philosophy: Take good care of customers and you take good care of business.

It was an innovative strategic move. But innovation has hallmarked Helwig Carbon’s history. The company developed many technology advancements that became industry standards. These include the Red Top padded brush, the Helwig Quick Disconnect terminals (HQDs) and constant-force brush holder designs. Such innovations extend product life and reduce maintenance costs.

Helwig Carbon also grew its business by enhancing its high-quality product line with optimal service. Indeed, early in its history, the company obtained a loyal following with motor repair shops due to its quick delivery service. As the company’s experience and expertise grew, it attracted business from large end users like power plants, steel mills, and mines. For the past 25 years, Helwig Carbon grew the OEM side of its business with quick, reliable service and robust technical support. In this way, Helwig Carbon secured approvals with major OEMs such as General Electric, Milwaukee Electric Tool, Baldor Electric, Leeson, and P&H.

Helwig Carbon manufactures its many products in a state-of-the-art facility built in 1989 in Milwaukee. Business growth led to plant expansion in 1999. Within the facility, Helwig Carbon continuously develops new products that focus on extended life and reduced cost. Plant capabilities include monitoring and detection with performance and feedback sensors.

The facility includes a motor test laboratory and a complete research and development section. The plant, which has been ISO 9001-certified since 1994, turns out hundreds of thousands of different brushes, brush holders and mechanical carbons. All undergo in-line testing and monitoring, according to narrow tolerances and specific standards, which provide reliability and consistency. Further, all customer orders are subjected to stringent inspection before going out of the door.

Such measures underscore Helwig Carbon’s meticulous manufacturing methodology. Meticulousness cannot be in any way compromised or negotiated, as Helwig Carbon’s products are deployed in customers’ mission-critical applications. You’ll find these within power plants, steel mills, defense systems, magnetic resonance imaging equipment and the micro-motors used in computer systems.

Today, Helwig Carbon employs about 240 people. Total revenues, in the past several years, have remained at the $30 million level, except for 2009, when the company – like everyone – suffered the effects of the recession. But Helwig Carbon shook off the blow and continues focusing on the future. Even during that tough year, it took a major step in securing it strong position by establishing a long-term agreement with SGL Carbon, a well-known supply source of top-quality carbon grades.

The move was as mission critical as customer needs. After all, the many markets, customers and applications that Helwig Carbon provides for include motor repair and service, steel and metal, power generation, mining, DC motor manufacturers, elevators, paper, railroad and transportation, consumer and professional, power tools, lift trucks, off-road vehicles, food processing, automotive, medical, and household appliances. “Essentially, we’re in any place – serving anyone and any market – where motors are used,” says Koenitzer.

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