WAF CEO Sachin Shivaram on the company's playbook for reinvention
From time to time, we'll be passing the proverbial pen to our entrepreneurs, network connections, and industry experts, to share their personal perspectives on a variety of conversation-worthy topics. We'd like to thank Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry (WAF) CEO Sachin Shivaram for his contributions to our TitletownTech ecosystem, including this story.
Stepping into our foundry in Manitowoc, Wis., is a bit like time traveling.
Our company, Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, was founded in 1909. The first production line you see looks like a discarded relic from the turn of the century. It is called “the squeezer,” and it is operated by just the type of burly man you would imagine. Covered in black sand, face illuminated by a vat of molten metal, he is the very picture of what many imagine heavy manufacturing to be. Surrounding the squeezer line are stacks and stacks of finished aluminum castings for pipe fittings and truck engine parts.
As you continue walking through the plant, something curious happens. Each successive turn brings a new vintage of technology and ever more complicated production parts. First there is an automated molding line from 1980s, and then robotic finishing, then a brand-new production line with high tech computer controls, and then giant parts for MRI machines that we produce, and then – whoa! – a sparkly, brass gyroscope for the latest generation of satellites that we are prototyping.
A trip through our factory just might be the fastest way to get from the iron age to the space age, and you may even end up traveling to some year in the distant future.
Surviving and Thriving
We have survived and thrived for over a century by continually reinventing ourselves. Recently, we debuted a book written by historian Kerry Trask about the history of our company. The book is titled Never Think You’re Better than the Workers, quoting an oft-repeated mantra from our founder Abe Schwartz. While sentiments like his are certainly in vogue now in the era of labor shortages where workers have newfound leverage, it is remarkable to think that Abe felt this way in the early 1900s.
The book captures to tearful perfection the grit and character of our people and of our company. As chronicled in the book, one of the earliest episodes of reinvention was one that was foist upon us unexpectedly – a classic example of making lemonade with lemons. Right before the July 4th holiday weekend in 1948, one of the top executives at the company announced he was leaving to start his own foundry and that he had a commitment from our largest customer, Harley Davidson, to move their business to his new company.
This should have been a death knell, especially in the precarious years after World War II when we were just starting to regain footing in our core markets after pivoting to support the war effort. Instead of surrendering, we scrounged up capital, invested in new machinery, engineered new products, and we reinvented ourselves as a consumer cookware company just in time for the post-war consumer boom. We began producing a line of high-end kitchen tools under the brand name All American® that we still produce today.
Drive to Innovate
We have followed the same playbook of reinvention over and again, and each time we emerge bigger and healthier than before. Today we have over 750 employees across three states, and we are widely esteemed as one of the best foundries in the industry. We are fully integrated from pattern-making to machining and final assembly, delivering an end-to-end solution to our customers’ needs for cast metal parts.
But the drive to innovate and reinvent never stops. Even as we are enjoying the best financial performance in our history, we see existential threats on the horizon. Our largest market can be thought of broadly as combustion engine applications. We make things like transmission housings, charge air coolers, oil pans, fuel pumps – all types of parts that look likely to disappear in the decade ahead as electric vehicles become more prevalent. Adding to the worry is that electric vehicles simply do not have as many metal parts as a regular combustion engine vehicle, setting into motion a wicked game of musical chairs among companies like ours.
After 113 years of overcoming existential threats, we’ve learned to get excited about them. We are years into planning what is next for us. In fact, we just broke ground on our largest expansion ever: We are building a new 55,000 square foot building that we will fill with the latest in metal casting technology.
Collaborating with TitletownTech
Collaborating with TitletownTech is an integral part of the next chapter in our story. On our own, we simply do not have a great vantage point to see into the future. The vision into what is transpiring on the cutting edge of the economy – and beyond – that TitletownTech brings to our community and to our company is unlike anything we have seen before.
I had an opportunity to sit down with the TitletownTech team to hear what types of investment opportunities they are seeing in industries adjacent to ours. The sense of marvel that I expressed as they flipped through the variety of ventures they are studying must have felt amusing to them – this was just a regular afternoon at TitletownTech.
But for me, it was the highlight of the month. I could see my wide eyes reflected on every one of the glass panels that lined the conference room. I came away from the meeting feeling not just smarter but also strangely younger.
Our investment in TitletownTech is so much more than a mere investment. Through TitletownTech, we truly feel ourselves to be part of a community that is engaged in a project much larger than ourselves. We are defining and expanding the scope of that project as go along, but at its core, the project is about accelerating the change that we all need to make to adjust to a world that will undoubtedly be very different than the one we inhabit today. Climate change, ways of working, social interaction, methods of transportation and communication, geopolitics – everything is getting flipped on its head.
Preparing for the Future
For the manufacturing sector in Wisconsin, the challenge is especially real. While we are not technically in the “rust belt” (aluminum doesn’t rust 🙂), the feeling of time having passed us by is something we can relate to. Many of us in Wisconsin make things that the world may not need in the future.
The next time our company faces upheaval, it will make the Harley Davidson episode feel cute. We need to be prepared for a moment when a foundational market for us may suddenly disintegrate. We need to be prepared for a moment when we cannot find 750 people to toil in the dust and heat. Quite soberingly, we need to be prepared for a moment when we are irrelevant.
Connections like the ones we enjoy with the team and the portfolio companies at TitletownTech help us stay on the path of continual rejuvenation. We hold on tight to the threads from the past – because we need to remember where we came from. Braiding those threads to the straws we can grasp from the future is a time traveler’s lifeline.