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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2004

Toledo's biggest company marks century of innovation

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Clarence Spicer nearly lost the business that one day would become Toledo's Dana Corp. when he couldn't keep up with orders at his then 10-year-old firm. Bankruptcy was imminent until he sought out an investor and Charles Dana surfaced.

Nearly 90 years later, ArvinMeritor Inc. attempted a hostile takeover of Dana as the large auto supplier was recovering from a massive restructuring that contributed to a drop in its stock price. The competitor's effort was rebuffed after Dana leaders and investors remained steadfast.

In between, executives monitored when investment firms bought large chunks of Dana stock. Such moves were less public, but still valid, signs of potential threats to the company's remaining independent.

Such recollections came quickly to retired Dana Chief Executive Officer Gerald B. Mitchell recently when he thought about highlights of the Fortune 500 firm's first 100 years.

"First off, it survived," said Mr. Mitchell, who worked his way up from a 16-year-old grinder operator on the night shift at a Canadian affiliate in 1944 to the company's top job 35 years later.

On April 1, 1904, in Plainfield, N.J., Mr. Spicer began making universal joints to transfer power to car wheels, replacing the bicycle-like sprockets and chains in use in the nascent auto industry. Although their design has been refined, universal joints - award-winner Spicer driveshafts - continue to be made by Dana and are a critical part of the company's products worldwide.

Mr. Spicer, an engineer who patented his encased universal joint while a Cornell University student, and Mr. Dana, an attorney who followed the auto industry and moved the company to Toledo in 1928, are pivotal figures in Dana's history.

Although he struggled with the decision, Mr. Spicer stayed on as head engineer after Mr. Dana replaced him as company president in 1916, and the two laid the groundwork for a company now headquartered on Toledo's Dorr Street. The firm's size peaked in 1999 with sales of nearly $13.2 billion and about 85,000 employees.

Toledoan Gene Robedeau, who last month reached a personal milestone of getting a pay or pension check from the company for 75 years, recalled Mr. Spicer as knowledgeable and creative.

"You liked to talk to him because, to me, he talked sense," he said.

Mr. Robedeau, 94, was hired as an office boy and retired as superintendent of a parts warehouse with several dozen employees.

He said Mr. Dana was constantly on watch for ways to save money and time. That former company leader, Mr. Robedeau said, would be amazed by advancements with computers, which perform functions Mr. Dana once mused about.

"He said [of employees], 'Wouldn't it be great to take all their knowledge and put it in cans so I could use it when I needed it?' " recalled Mr. Robedeau, who is believed to be the oldest retiree from Spicer Manufacturing Corp., which was renamed Dana.

Mr. Mitchell, who retired as Dana chairman and chief executive in 1990, remembers his first meeting with Mr. Dana, which he referred to as the most frightening time in his life. The onetime president of the former Hayes-Dana Ltd. was called to the Toledo Club to speak to a group of officials about trade with Canada. Mr. Dana was in the front row.

"The highlight of the day was that the podium was sufficiently sturdy to hold me up," Mr. Mitchell said with a laugh.

Through the years, various acquisitions brought different companies, products, factories, and people into the Dana fold. Originally incorporated in 1905 as Spicer Universal Joint Manufacturing Co., it first made a foray into international sales when it spent $10 to advertise universal joints in Panama and elsewhere in Central America, said Dana writer Chuck Hartlage, who is compiling a centennial history of the Toledo firm.

The company began expanding after becoming the first customer of Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch, who helped set it up with publicly traded stock in 1916. From acquisitions made in 1919, Dana still has a factory in Pottstown, Pa., from one purchase and continues to make axles and vehicle frames from the other two, Mr. Hartlage noted.

Half of Dana's growth through the decades was through acquisitions, and the other half came from improving driveshafts and previously purchased products, said Southwood J. "Woody" Morcott, who retired as chairman in 2000.

Not every acquisition attempt succeeded, though. For example, Dana tried to buy Toledo's former Champion Spark Plug Co. but was outbid in 1989.

And not all business units fit. Dana sold most of Findlay-based Diamond Savings and Loan in 1991, about a decade after it bought it. Other acquired companies, such as those dealing with marine equipment, were shed too, Mr. Morcott said.

The company makes what executives have referred to as "the underwear" of passenger and heavy-truck vehicles, including axles, driveshafts, frames, brakes, engine cradles, and piston rings.

Toledo became the company hub in the late 1920s and early 1930s as driveshaft, axle, and transmission production was moved to a new factory on Bennett Road. Yet those and other products eventually moved out, with transmissions the last to leave, in 1987. (A joint venture between Dana and a Mexican company has a small testing laboratory in the building, which is owned by another firm.)

During World War II, when the Bennett Road factory produced various wartime necessities, such as Jeep axles and tank transmissions, the plant employed thousands and it grew to 1.4 million square feet, or the size of a large shopping mall today.

Other companies that were or would be acquired by Dana supplied artillery shells, B-29 bomber parts, and other products for the war effort.

Among the many tasks Mr. Robedeau performed during World War II was designing a T-shaped container to ship large transmissions.

"I've always been proud of being able to be involved in the war effort," Mr. Robedeau said.

In 1944, the company's sales topped $100 million, a far cry from the roughly $42,000 in 1905, its first full year. The $1 billion mark was first exceeded in 1974.

Remarkably, Mr. Morcott said, Dana remained successful during the Depression and War War II. Dana's quarterly dividend was never cut and sometimes was increased from 1936 to 2001. In late 2001, the quarterly dividend was nearly eliminated, down to a penny a share from 31 cents, as part of the restructuring.

Still, everything hasn't always run smoothly. The Bennett Road plant was unionized soon after it opened and strikes were common early on. The Toledo company's most recent rough patch started last year after ArvinMeritor waged its ultimately unsuccessful takeover bid for Dana. The company was dealt another blow when Joe Magliochetti, chairman and chief executive, suddenly died during the struggle.

After Mr. Dana, just six men have been company chairman. They are, in order of service, the late John Martin, the late Rene McPherson, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Morcott, Mr. Magliochetti, and Glen Hiner.

Mr. Martin was hired from Akron's Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., and it was his idea to start a system to prepare select employees for future roles as top executives, a concept honed by Mr. McPherson.

Dana University, an in-house college teaching management-related courses, was born in 1969 with a single course, Fundamentals of Supervision.

Dana starts its next century in the hands of Mr. Hiner, a longtime company director and retired leader of Toledo's Owens Corning, and Mike Burns, a longtime General Motors Corp. executive who was tapped this year to be Dana president and chief executive. Mr. Mitchell doesn't know Mr. Burns but said he has no problems with the concept of such an "outsider" managing Dana. Many of Dana's leaders came to the company through acquisitions over the years, he said.

"Anyone who worked for GM for 34 years is not a job hopper," Mr. Mitchell said of the current CEO.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.


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