We are honored to be one of the many family owned businesses in the rubber industry highlighted in Rubber and Plastics News: Four Generations Strong, Family is integral part of French Oil Mill Machinery Company’s success.
Various studies indicate the average life span of a company is between 12 to 15 years. Only 40% of newly-created companies last less than 10 years, and of those who survive the first 10 years have an average life expectancy of 40 to 50 years. According to Michael Evans, national managing director of the Newport Board Group, only a third of family owned businesses make it to a second generation. When companies, particularly family owned, make it into the “Century Club,” it is cause for celebration.
This year, Crain Communications, a family owned publishing company that publishes Rubber and Plastics News, along with about two dozen business publications and related digital properties, marks its centennial. As part of Crain’s celebration, each of their publications dedicated a May issue to family owned businesses.
Four generations strong
Family is integral part of French Oil Mills success
By Edward Noga
Rubber & Plastics News Correspondent
PIQUA, Ohio-It is rare enough for a company to survive for more than a century. But as a family owned business? And a machinery manufacturer, in the technology driven, brutally competitive rubber industry?
Feel free to use the word “unusual” to describe French Oil Mill Machinery Co. Tucked away in Piqua, a city of 20,700 souls about 30 miles north of Dayton, Ohio, the maker of equipment for rubber molders, synthetic rubber producers and oilseed processors will mark its 116th year of operation on May 25. Among the people noting that date will be Chairman Daniel P. French, grandson of the founder, and his daughter, Director of Marketing Tayte French Lutz.
That means Tayte French Lutz is the fourth generation of the French family involved in managing the business that bears the family name. On average only about 3 percent of U.S. family businesses make it that far.
French Oil Mill has beaten the odds for several reasons. Beyond just being lucky, Lutz said first and foremost is a spirit of innovation that seems to be part of the DNA of the French family and many others involved in the business.
Go back to the company’s founding for the initial proof. Piqua was a flax-growing center in the country when Alfred W. French Sr. arrived there in 1897 to rebuild an oil seed mill after a fire. Three years later, supported by two leading Piqua citizens and $5,000 in capital, French Ohio Mill Machinery Co. was born.
Alfred W. French Sr. had been an engineer at another company and already had begun establishing his reputation as an inventor, improving current oil seed machinery. He never quit inventing-holding 55 patents in his lifetime—and believed the firm’s success would come from improvements and adaptations that would result in superior vegetable oil machinery.
Lutz said her great-grandfather also was a visionary in market innovation.
“When my great grandfather started the company, he made hydraulic presses to extract vegetable oil from linseed,” she said, “And through his vision, he continued to grow the markets in which the product could be utilized and also evolved products within those markets.”
When soybean and canola came to the fore, French Oil Mill was there to serve those new markets. And when the oil seed industry started using screw presses to extract oil instead of hydraulic presses, Alfred W. French Sr. ~brought in a guy to design screw presses to make that happen. Not only did we stay relevant in oil seed, but now we had these great hydraulic press designs, and he considered in what markets we could use them,” she said.
The answers were metal forming and rubber curing. French Oil Mill adapted its machinery and opened up two new markets for the business.
Alfred W. French Sr. also looked at the business with a global perspective. Lutz said her great grandfather’s company began exporting vegetable oil processing machinery in 1905 to Canada, Great Britain, Germany and Norway, and soon after to China.
Daniel French once related how Alfred W. French Sr. and his wife, Grace, traveled around the world selling vegetable oil processing equipment. “There are some amazing pictures of them at the Ming Tomb in China, in front of the Sphinx on camels in Egypt.”
Alfred W. French Sr. died in a traffic accident in Los Angeles in 1925. His wife took over as president and chairman, involved in strategic planning, and Charles B. Upton became general manager and ran the company on a day-to-day basis.
The next-generation leader arrived at the firm in 1926-Alfred W. French Jr. Five years later he became vice president, and in 1962 president of French Oil Mill.
He ran with his father’s idea of taking screw presses to businesses beyond vegetable oil. Like his father, Alfred W. French Jr. was an innovator, earning 27 patents. He stretched the company’s business by pioneering the use of screw presses in the synthetic and natural rubber, wood pulp and cane sugar industries.
Tayte French Lutz recalls her grandfather. “When I was a kid I remember my grandfather coming in, well into his 80s. He wasn’t doing too much work, but he was still there to help,” she said. “He put so much heart, so much passion into the business; it was hard to let it completely go.”
Enter the third generation
The third generation came aboard in 1971- Daniel French. He had spent five years in the U.S. Air Force, and as a captain stationed in Honolulu was in charge of thousands of personnel and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. When he joined the family business, it was on the bottom rung, operating a milling machine. He worked his way up to succeed his father as president, holding that post for 31 years until giving it up in 2012 to Jason P. McDaniel, and he continues as chairman.
And like his father, he continues to work, his daughter said. “I don’t think he’ll ever really retire.”
The business continued to grow under Daniel French. He guided it to early ISO certification, an important step for a company that does business in 80 nations. In 2009 the firm acquired hydraulic press and rubber mixer manufacturer TMP, based in Cleveland.
Today it is known as TMP, A Division of French, and relocated to Piqua.
Also in 2009, French Oil Mill established FOM (Shanghai) Co. Ltd. in Shanghai. Its 18,000-sq.ft. facility serves the Chinese oilseed and polymer processing markets with Chinese-made or imported machinery.
Today French Oil Mill equipment is used in a number of markets: SR production; rubber mixing; rubber and composite molding, from aerospace and automotive to sporting goods, medical, industrial and more; laminating of printed circuit boards and plastic cards; and oilseed processing.
In the rubber industry, French Oil Mill is known for its hydraulic press systems for molding rubber and composite materials, rubber mixers, and dewatering and drying screw presses used in producing SR.
Lutz said the firm’s 225,000-sq.ft. Piqua facility is well-situated. “We are by the 1-75 corridor and 1- 70. It is no problem for us getting to port in Baltimore or California.”
The company continues to show growth. Employment had fallen to the 40s in 2010 during the recession, but now is up to 85, she said.
Lutz said first and foremost to French Oil Mill’s success is the knowledge and commitment of the people who have and are working at the business. “We are fortunate to have wonderful employees. They provide great ideas and allow us to continually improve our products and services.”
French Oil Mill has a couple of employees who have 50 years of service, and some families that are in their third generation with the company, she said.
No internal intrigue
Internal conflicts, which often doom family businesses, haven’t been the case at French Oil Mill. Lutz said throughout the years usually only one French family member was actively involved in the company. Tussles between, say, brothers or wings of the family haven’t occurred.
Lutz’s brother, Peter French, also is a board member but not involved otherwise in the family business. He shows the family drive for innovation as an entrepreneur who has been involved in many real estate developments and start-up ventures.
Lutz is similar to her father in that she was on another career path before joining French Oil Mill. After graduating from Tulane University, she moved to New York City and worked in the fashion industry for nearly seven years in executive positions with DKNY and Bloomingdale’s.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Lutz said. “It is very fast paced, particularly cutthroat. Working in New York, the work ethic, the pace-the city is electric.”
Any business experience is a plus, and Lutz said working in fashion helped hone her skills in many areas, such as interaction with people, marketing and internal aspects of a business, even though fashion in the Big Apple and machinery in Piqua are vastly different businesses.
Plus she met her husband in NYC, another Ohio expat, Michael Lutz. He works for Rozzi Famous Fireworks, a pyrotechnic display and manufacturing company in Loveland, Ohio.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Michael Lutz is part of a family-owned business- in its fifth generation, founded in 1895.
“We’re surrounded by family,” Tayte French Lutz said.