Milwaukee historian John Gurda recently authored “The Drive To Lead,” a history of Butler-based Actuant Corp. that commemorates the company’s 100th anniversary.
The book reveals the firm’s ties to some of the best-known companies in metro Milwaukee and Midwestern fixtures such as Wrigley Field.
In 1914, a company known as American Grinder, which would later spawn Actuant, leased the top floor of a then-newly built manufacturing facility in downtown Milwaukee at 507 E. Michigan St.. The building was owned by Johnson Service Company, which is now known as Johnson Controls Inc. Johnson Controls still owns and occupies the building.
In 1911, American Grinder’s treasurer was Charles Havenor, who also was the principal owner of the minor league baseball Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago ballpark that would later be known as Wrigley Field.
And in 1920, two American Grinder employees left the company to start their own tool company. That company eventually came to be known as Kenosha-based Snap-On Inc.
“I was surprised how many things came out (in the book),” said Bob Arzbaecher, president, chairman and chief executive officer of Actuant. “My biggest takeaway was how many things we’re still doing today have their roots earlier in the company. Things like globalization, the diversification of operations. We thought we started doing that after the company went public. But those concepts were here way earlier.”
Much of the information in the book and the photographs used were provided by retired executives and employees from Actuant and its portfolio companies.
One of the most important sources of information was Phillip Brumder, who was president of the company from 1952 until 1986.
“Without Phil, this wouldn’t have been possible,” Arzbaecher said. “He passed away a month before the project was done, but this book would not have come to light without his help. He still had absolute recall of everything that went on with this company.”
“There is a focused aggressiveness that is still true to the company’s early years,” Gurda said. “They’ve always started with one technology and seen where it can lead them. Hydraulics are a good example of that – they started with repairing cars, and now they’re lifting bridges.”
Gurda’s book is available for viewing and download at Actuant’s website, www.actuant.com. The company also has hard copies available at its headquarters.