Rea Magnet Wire Company History
Had it not been for the inventiveness of a young man and the support of that young man’s father-in-law, Fort Wayne might be a very different place today. Indeed, the entire world might not be as technologically advanced as it is.
That young man was George A. Jacobs, inventor of a special insulating process that allowed copper wire to be manufactured in extremely fine gauges. That innovation led to the development of high-speed electric motors that powered everything from the Model T to the space shuttle, and to the creation of Rea Magnet Wire, one of Fort Wayne’s leading manufacturing companies.
The Early Days: Dudlo Company
A native of Dudley, Mass., Jacobs and his wife, the former Ethel Mossman of Fort Wayne, developed the enamel insulation for magnet wire in 1907. Jacobs was working for Sherwin-Williams in Cleveland, Ohio at the time, but formed the Dudlo Company to continue work on the process. Ethel’s father, William E. Mossman, offered his son-in-law a factory for his experiments if the couple would return to Fort Wayne, which they did.
Dudlo soon developed a “tiny black box” – automotive ignition coils that powered the Model T Ford. From 1917 to 1927, millions of ignition coils were shipped from Fort Wayne to the Ford Company – some five million in 1920 alone, enough to fill 18 railroad cars.
During World War I, Dudlo provided wire used in military trucks, X-ray machines, telephones and anti-submarine devices. After the war, Dudlo’s business increased regularly and by 1929, the employee base had grown to 6,500. The company was also producing components for radios, phonographs and loudspeakers.
The Depression ends Dudlo, gives birth to Rea Magnet Wire
Dudlo had grown from one tiny shed in 1911 to 12 departments by 1926. In 1927, it was part of a $50 million merger with several other wire and cable companies. The result of the merger was named the General Cable Corporation.
Though the future appeared bright, discontent was brewing in the Dudlo sector of General Cable. George Jacobs, whose invention started the business, resigned in 1928 and formed a new company, Inca Manufacturing, the next year. Victor Rea was named Works Manager of Dudlo after Jacobs’ resignation. Inca Manufacturing was later acquired by Phelps Dodge in 1930, and Jacobs remained for several more years before moving to California because of his wife’s poor health. He died in 1945. Meanwhile, due to the continuing financial woes of the Great Depression, General Cable closed the Dudlo plant in 1933 and relocated all manufacturing operations to Rome, New York.
Rea Magnet Wire – a “Gamble with Destiny”
Victor Rea resigned from General Cable Corp. in 1932, just a few months before the company closed the Fort Wayne Dudlo plant. Shortly afterward, he, along with Jay Boeshore and Edward Snyder, announced they were forming Rea Magnet Wire. To finance the new company wasn’t easy: it was 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression. Rea, Boeshore and Snyder had to borrow against their own capital – life insurance policies, stocks and bonds and mortgages on their homes. “We had to make sacrifices and gamble with destiny,” Boeshore later wrote. The gamble paid off. Victor Rea contacted his old clients and was able to get commitments. The fledgling company leased the Woodward Engineering Building at 3600 East Pontiac Street, for $500 a month, with the option to buy at $25,000, which it did in 1935. The company’s headquarters remain there today.
The new company received its first order in October 1933 from Jefferson Electric Company for 10,000 pounds of 38 gauge enameled wire on three-inch spools. Quality products and ensuring customer satisfaction were Victor Rea’s top priorities. Personal service to customers ensured repeat business, and the company thrived. On Aug. 21, 1954, Victor Rea suffered a heart attack and died. His son Samuel Rea was elected President, and he began adding to the Sales Department and strengthening the areas of Engineering, Research and Development. The company’s growth through the 1950s led to the 1959 construction of its first manufacturing plant outside Fort Wayne: the $1.2 million, 100,000-square-foot facility in Lafayette, Indiana. In 1957, the company built a warehouse in Somerville, N.J. to facilitate delivery of products to New England.
The Alcoa Years
In 1959, Rea Magnet Wire was doing development work with the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), and in Jan. 18, 1960, the aluminum conglomerate purchased Rea Magnet Wire. Samuel Rea and his brother David resigned later that year, ending the Rea family’s tenure of managing the company that continues to bear their name. Longtime sales manager (also a former Dudlo employee) Robert L. “Bob” Whearley was named President in late 1960.
Alcoa consolidated its research, development and sales of aluminum sheet and foil strip for electrical conductors at the Fort Wayne plant. Rea also coordinated all of Alcoa’s activities for round copper magnet wire, round aluminum magnet wire and aluminum sheet and foil strip conductors. Rea perfected a process of removing burrs from aluminum strips and began successfully producing precision slit aluminum strip for low voltage windings of distribution transformers.
Several Presidents oversaw the company in the ensuing years. Allen Sheldon, Rea’s executive vice President, was named President in December 1964, to replace the retiring Whearley. James L. McKinley succeeded Sheldon in 1965, and he oversaw construction of an Alcoa-financed and Rea-operated plant in Laurinburg, North Carolina. That plant was designed to be able to draw, anneal and coat wire all in one operation.
In 1965 and 1967, the Lafayette plant was expanded, and in 1970, obsolete equipment was replaced and electrical systems updated. In 1974, Rea, through Alcoa, purchased General Cable Corporation’s Buena Vista, Virginia, plant for $4 million. In 1975, the company, seeking to diversify into wire-related product, purchased Dixie Wire and Professional Electrical Products (PEP) of Nashville, Tenn. James McKinley retired in 1973 and Alcoa sent George Haymaker to become Rea Magnet Wire’s President. He was the first President not to come from Rea’s own ranks. Haymaker was succeeded in 1976 by Don Whitlow, who in turn was succeeded by Charles Ligon in 1979; and James “Jim” Vann in 1982.
By the early 1980s, Alcoa shifted many of the Fort Wayne general magnet wire production operations to the Lafayette plant. In 1981, a Special Products Group was formed in Fort Wayne, and given the responsibility for products other than film-insulated wire, such as tape and fibrous magnet wire, tin-lead and tinned wire, bunched wire and de-reeling equipment.
In 1983, Rea continued its expansion, purchasing Algonquin Industries of Guilford, Connecticut. And in 1984, Rea Magnet Wire set a new record, with $100 million in sales.
A return to private ownership
Early in 1985, Alcoa decided to sell Rea, Algonquin and PEP industries. All offers for the three companies were below their appraised value, and in the end, Rea Magnet Wire President Jim Vann along with Bill Gorman (Algonquin’s vice President), and Rea managers Ron Foster and Bill Wyatt were able to purchase Rea and Algonquin (Alcoa had decided to keep PEP Industries.).
By 1986, the Rea plant was back in private hands, and eliminating the company’s debt was the top priority. The four men decided to shutter the Buena Vista, Va., plant after a devastating flood. That plant’s equipment was divided between the Laurinburg, N.C., and Lafayette plants. In 1988, Rea joined forces with Fujikara Ltd. and created Texas Magnet Wire Co, based in El Paso, Texas.
Rea’s management company became Rea Wire Industries, Inc., in 1988, an umbrella organization over the three business units: Rea Magnet Wire, Rea Engineered Wire Products and Algonquin Industries. That structure still exists but is now known as Rea Magnet Wire Company. Ron Foster became President of Rea Magnet Wire in 1988, Bill Gorman remained as President of Algonquin and in 1989, Larry Bagwell came from Alcoa and became President of Rea Engineered Wire Products.
By 1993, Rea streamlined its operations by selling both Texas Magnet Wire and the Laurinburg plant, and closed the Adams Center Road facility. With its remaining debt paid off, Rea overhauled the Pontiac Street and Lafayette facilities.
In 1995, Jim Vann retired as chief executive officer of Rea, and was succeeded by Ron Foster. Foster retired in 1997 and was succeeded by Larry Bagwell. Bagwell retired in 2007 and Chuck Fisher joined Rea as President and CEO.
Although retired from daily activities, Rea’s Shareholders remain committed to growing the company and developing the employees. In 1998, Rea constructed a state-of-the-art magnet wire facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico. In 2001, Rea purchased Hanover Manufacturing, located in Ashland, Virginia, from Alcoa. This was followed in 2003 by an acquisition of Southwire Specialty Products Division (SSP) located in Osceola, Arkansas. Beginning in 2003, Rea also began to diversify internationally, to support their North American customers who were building plants in China. Rea formed a joint venture with Tongling Jingda of China, China’s largest manufacturer of magnet wire. The joint venture, known as Jingda-Rea, operates state-of-the-art magnet wire plants in the cities of Nanhai (North of Hong Kong), Tianjin (Southeast of Beijing), Changshu (near Shanghai) and Tongling (West of Shanghai).
In 2006, Rea purchased the assets of the Phelps Dodge Magnet Wire Company, with plants in Fort Wayne, IN and Monterrey, Mexico. Today, Rea Magnet Wire employs over 1200 people, with seven plants located in North America and seven plants located in China. Rea is the largest producer of magnet wire in the world.