Global Fastener News

1961 to 2011 – Bill Unferth on 50 Years in the Fastener Industry

September 04
00:00 2011
Bill Unferth (Courtesy DISTRIBUTOR'S LINK)

Bill Unferth (Courtesy DISTRIBUTOR’S LINK)

By Bill Unferth
The year was 1961, I was 20 years old, and boy those winters in Wisconsin were cold, so on October 2, 1961, a friend and I left the small town of Lomira, Wisconsin, to move to sunny and warm California to make big bucks.  I will never forget when we pulled out of the driveway, my dad said, “You will be back in one month.”  I am not sure if that was incentive for me not to come back on his part or incentive for me to prove to him that I knew what I was doing.  I had always wanted to be in sales, and that was my long term goal.
We arrived in Southern California on Thursday October 5, 1961, and I had several interviews with multiple companies beginning on Monday October 9th, with the last one on Thursday afternoon October 12, 1961, where I was hired to start the next day which was Friday the 13th.  That is why I never will forget the day I started at a company that no longer exists today.  That company was The Cleveland Cap Screw Company, which was a division of Standard Pressed Steel.  Cleveland’s headquarters was 4444 Lee Road, Cleveland,, OH.  The location where I started my 50 years in the fastener industry was at 2613 South Yates Avenue, City of Industry, CA.  But this first stop in my 50 years was not in sales, it was in the hot warehouse.  Just as cold as it was in Wisconsin, it was just as hot in the Southern California warehouse, and one’s eyes burned in the California smog.  My pay on that first job was a whopping $70.00 per week, not exactly the big bucks, but with some overtime on occasion it probably was closer to $100.00 per week.

The General Manager of the West Coast division of Cleveland Cap was John Harrington, and the person who hired me was Jim Hooper who is also still in the fastener business , as the owner of American Bolt & Screw in Ontario, CA.  I guess it is lucky John Harrington was not around that afternoon Jim hired me.  He told me later, had he been there he probably would not have approved my hiring, since I had just arrived from cold Wisconsin, because a lot of people who came to California when it was cold back home, somehow wanted to move back when the weather back home warmed up.

When Jim Hooper hired me, he was the Shipping & Receiving Clerk at Cleveland Cap.  Having grown up in WI, and having worked on my uncle’s farms in the summer and at a local hardware store, I thought I knew a little about nuts and bolts.  We sold square head machine bolts with square nuts, and carriage bolts also with square nuts, and in those days, the nuts were attached to the bolts.  When I started at Cleveland Cap Screw that was my entire knowledge of the fastener industry. That position surely would not work today.

I made up my mind real quick, that I did not want to be in the fastener industry on that level for any extended period of time.  In retrospect, it really helped me to have started where I did, as I moved through my career to bring me where I am today.  You see, there is not a whole lot that someone can try to sell me on, that I have not seen and done myself first hand.
Shortly after I started, Jim Hooper was offered a position in our inside sales department, and since I was the only person in the warehouse who could type, I got his old job as Shipping and Receiving Clerk.  That lasted for about four months until our Warehouse Manager left, and I was offered that position.

About one year after starting with Cleveland Cap Screw, John Harrington asked me if I wanted to move to San Francisco to work in our sales department, and of course I jumped at the chance to get out of the warehouse.  I remained in sales for about six months before being promoted to Manager of the San Francisco office.  In this new position, I was basically responsible for all functions to include sales from San Francisco, north to Alaska, and east to Utah, with the exception of the Ken R. Humke Co. in Portland, OR, which John Harrington still handled out of our Los Angeles office.

Do you think any of the younger people today could imagine how we operated with no copy machines, no faxes, no computers, no Federal Express, no UPS, and with a telex machine? In those days a Watts line was something very few companies had.

Some of our competitors in those days were Bethlehem Steel, National Screw, Lamson & Sessions, RB & W, Russell Bolt, and Stan Screw.  This list is not complete, but those that stick out in my mind.

Things were going pretty good, until I got a phone call one Friday afternoon in the spring of 1964 from John Harrington.  I took the call in the main office, but John asked me to transfer the call to a private office.  When I picked up the phone again, John informed me that we were closing both the Los Angeles and San Francisco office, but that I could not tell anyone until the following Monday morning.  After hanging up, I returned to the main office and pretended nothing had happened, allowing everyone to continue in their normal manner.

That was a real long weekend, but on Monday morning I came into the office, called a meeting and informed everyone of the news I had gotten on the past Friday.  Everyone was terminated as of that day, with severance packages.  Now my task was to close up the San Francisco warehouse.  Bethlehem Steel was still operating a warehouse in San Francisco, and they purchased the entire inventory.  To close up the warehouse, I hired back as temporaries our three warehouse people and together we packed and shipped the entire inventory to Bethlehem.  It was a very short move, so we just loaded pallets on a flat bed truck, which allowed us to complete the task much quicker than if we had to load inside regular trucks.  We had the building emptied and closed sometime in mid May, 1964.

Now I had to make a choice, either to transfer back to Cleveland, Ohio or secure a new position on the West Coast.  I really did not care to go back to the cold weather, so I decided I would stay on the West Coast.  I was put in touch with Bud Porteous, who at that time was at Russell Bolt.  He flew to San Francisco, we had lunch, struck a deal, and I agreed to move to Los Angeles.  I wrapped up all lose ends in San Francisco on a Friday afternoon, drove to Los Angeles on Saturday and started at Russell Bolt on a Monday morning.

I enjoyed working with Bud, but I guess my heart was still with Cleveland Cap Screw, who had left it open for me to come back to Cleveland.  After maybe four or five conversations with Bob Thomas, who was the Sales Manager at the time, I made the decision to move to Cleveland, so I really was only at Russell Bolt for about six weeks.

It took me from June 12, 1964, until November 5, 1964, to get to Cleveland, Ohio from Los Angeles, because on Monday June 15, 1964, I was involved in a very serious auto accident in Marion, Iowa, and was in the hospital until early September of that year.  Upon getting out of the hospital, I had to walk with crutches until the end of October.

When I got to Cleveland, I was told to plan on staying there for about nine months, and I got there on November 5, 1964.  I know the day, because it was the day after the 1964 Presidential election.  I remember, because it was the first time I was old enough to vote.  Back then you had to be 21 years old.

My nine months in Cleveland were short lived.  Just before we left for the Christmas holidays in December 1964, Bob Thomas called me into his office and said, “When you return after Christmas, I would like you to move to Detroit and work with the automotive sales department.”  I agreed and advised the apartment complex that I needed to break my lease because I was moving to Detroit.

I returned to the office on a Tuesday following Christmas 1964, planning to move to Detroit later that week.  Again Bob Thomas called me into his office and said, “Bill you have a flight tonight to Atlanta, Georgia to fill in for Larry O’Connor, the Sales Manager for the Southeast who had a heart attack on Christmas Eve.”  I was to be there for about three to four weeks. Somehow those four weeks turned into about three months, and when Larry was able to return to work, he asked me if I wanted to stay in the South or go to Detroit.  Not being that excited about the cold weather, I elected to stay in the South, and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I remain today

My sales territory with Cleveland Cap was North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, which I took over in April 1964.  One of my customers at the time was a company by the name of Universal Fasteners in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The owners, Bill and Clem Rothwell, and I became good friends as well as customer/supplier, and in November of 1966, I joined Universal Fasteners as Vice President.

All my previous experience had been with manufacturers supplying distribution, steel fabricators, or OEM’s, so this was a new venture for me.  Now instead of selling just what we as Cleveland Cap offered, I was learning about all things distributors deal in like anchors, blind rivets, tapping screws, you name it.  I was here for the famous 1973 shortage, when I bought 6,000,000 1/4-20 hex nuts for the unheard of price of $6.00/m, and if you had 3/4 x 2 A325 structural bolts, people thought you actually must walk on water.  But just as fast as the shortage came on us, it disappeared.  I will never forget, in one day we received the backorders for those 3/4 x 2 A325 structural bolts from every vendor we had.

So in fact, we had no choice but to accept all those 1/4-20 nuts and the 3/4 x2 A325’s, even though we in fact had no need, and now were burdened with overpriced inventory.

I remained with Universal Fasteners until May of 1976, so I now had a pretty versed background in distribution, which still helps me today.

In May of 1976, 1 joined Holo Krome as Southern District Manager, covering the Southeast.  In October of 1979, I was elevated to Southern Regional Manager, which now gave me the entire Southeast and Southwest, and two District Managers who reported to me.  During my time with Holo Krome,  I noted a market that seemed to be up and coming was metric, so on January 1, 1982, I joined a small company in Greenville, South Carolina called Metric American Fasteners.

When I got there, they basically had no distribution business, i.e. almost all sales were to the end users.  My mission was to develop a distribution market, and at the end of our first year, that is on December 31, 1982, our sales to distribution were $1,200,000.  In February of 1983, Bossard International, Inc. made an inquiry as to whether Metric American would be interested in selling, and such a sale took place on May 1, 1983.  That is how I ended up at Bossard where I remained through April of 2001.

My intention was to retire in 2001, but after about two weeks, Mary Ann, my wife suggested I figure out what I was going to do, as she was not excited about having me around the house full time.  When word got out that I was leaving Bossard, there were calls asking what I was going to do, and Mary Ann suggested it would be wise for me to follow up on those calls, which I did.  Jerry Hancock who I was with when Metric American Fasteners sold to Bossard had opened up a company called Mega Metric with Virg Lindstrom.  Jerry had asked me to join Lindstrom, but having been a competitor of Lindstrom for almost 20 years while I was at Bossard, it seemed a little odd.  After meeting with Virg Lindstrom, my concerns were eliminated and we struck a deal.  So I joined Lindstrom Metric in May of 2001, as Vice President of Sales, so my planned retirement was short lived.

My first assignment at Lindstrom was to help Mike French, Sr. Vice President of Sales, develop a National Rep organization, which was completed, and it is my opinion, we have an excellent group of Reps.  Once the task of getting the National Rep organization was completed, I focused more on Special Projects, where my title changed to “Special Projects Manager”.  The projects included such things as the Lindstrom Stainless Steel program which was introduced in 2004, and the Lindstrom Technical Manual which was introduced in 2008.  A revision of the original Lindstrom Technical Manual has just been completed and will be available in the fall of 2011.

I have seen a lot of changes in this industry in my 50 years, some good, and some bad.  I can remember when I thought it was high way robbery to pay $10.00 a night for a hotel room, or $4.00 for lunch.  My first company car in California did not have air conditioning.  Wouldn’t that be a drag today?  I remember the first time we bought import fasteners at Universal Fasteners.  I think they were round head machine screws.  I don’t think today you can buy anything but imports on such an item, but I could be wrong.  I have met a lot of great people in my 50 years, and I must say I think I have many more friends than enemies.  Given the industry as we are in; we are all pretty decent and good people.

As I pass my half century in the fastener business I continue with Lindstrom Metric, LLC as “Special Projects Manager”, because I enjoy what I do, and I probably learn something new most every day. Admittedly I do not travel like I once did, nor attend as many association meetings as I once did, but I still feel very connected to the fastener industry.  It seems like almost daily I am asked to join somebody via Linkedin, whom I have met somewhere along the line in the last 50 years.  ©2011 Bill Unferth. Published in Fastener History on with permission of the author.

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