For over one hundred years Ladish Company has engaged in the age-old practice of forging metal into a variety of finished products. Innovative application of such technology made the company one of the foremost forge shops in the country, and modernization of the basic process made Ladish a key supplier of aerospace parts. In addition, the scale of their equipment helped them to remain a fixture in Cudahy to this day, in spite of several economic downturns throughout their history.
The company originated in 1905 when American Malting Company supervisor, Herman Ladish, sought a solution for persistent machine problems. Ladish approached John Obenberger, who ran a local forging shop, to address the matter and walked away with a new business partnership. Obenberger and Ladish initially produced small metal parts, particularly for automakers. The company moved to Cudahy in 1912 in order to accommodate its need for more production space and—reflecting Ladish’s growing control over operations—changed its name to Ladish Drop Forge Co. in 1917. To supplement its manufacture of camshafts, steering spindles, and other auto parts, Ladish supplied larger steel parts used in Caterpillar construction equipment and John Deere tractors.
While business thrived throughout the 1920s, forge shops—which tend to rely on specialty orders—are vulnerable to market shifts. This was true for Ladish at the onset of the Great Depression when businesses failed by the thousands and orders rapidly declined. To offset the losses, however, Ladish expanded its operations. By introducing a new, standardized fittings division that produced piping as well as adding finishing machinery to its repertoire, the company was able to bring in new business and offer clients a better end product, thus keeping its doors open. As the country inched closer to World War II, Ladish was once again booming, with new government contracts to produce parts ranging from propeller hubs and landing gear to tank pinions and bomb nose cones.
The end of the war threatened prosperity briefly, but a combination of standardized production and technological innovation made the next three decades a period of relative prosperity and growth for Ladish. While their auto parts manufacturing waned, the end of the war brought a return to production of construction and farm equipment as well as finished pipes that could be used for oil extraction. In addition, the company invested heavily in its specialty forge operations. They purchased equipment the government had lent them during the war, leased a giant counterblow hammer, and designed other large equipment which included the world’s largest forge hammer. Such machinery aided Ladish in its pursuit of new contracts in the burgeoning aerospace industry. Their large forge hammers have made them a key supplier of equipment for both commercial and military use.
The recession of the early 1980s marked a turbulent era for Ladish. As clients cut back on orders, Ladish struggled to stay alive. They sold off their fittings division, refocusing their efforts on aircraft parts. The company changed hands several times and ultimately declared bankruptcy in 1993. After steadily carving their way back throughout the 1990s, the company is now owned by Allegheny Technologies (ATI). It retains its position “as a stand-alone business unit” in Cudahy to this day although the firm’s title has now changed to ATI Ladish Company, Inc.
- ^ John Gurda, Forging Ahead: A Centennial History of Ladish Co. (Milwaukee: Ladish Co., Inc., 2005), 9-11. Gurda explains that Herman Ladish first made a name for himself in the malting business and, in addition to serving as a supervisor at American Malting Co., would eventually establish his own malting company located in Jefferson Junction. His keen attention to business opportunities made Ladish (the son of a working-class German immigrant family) a multi-millionaire and a major name in Milwaukee industry.
- ^ Wallace Huskonen, “Sizing up the Past, Present, and Future at Ladish,” Forging, November 26, 2005, accessed January 7, 2016.
- ^ “Company History,” ATI Ladish website, www.jobs.atiladish.com/company-history, accessed January 7, 2016. See also Gurda, Forging Ahead, 18-19, who explains that the name change (which he says took place in 1916) followed Ladish’s acquisition of 76 percent of the company’s stock and Obenberger’s departure in that same year.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 26.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 28.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 47. According to Gurda, Forging Ahead, 44, the booming World War II period led to a massive expansion of the Cudahy plant and the workforce rose from just 725 workers in 1938 to nearly 3,400 at the peak of World War II production (1943).
- ^ As Gurda notes, Forging Ahead, 103, Ladish did not reach its peak employment figures until after the war. In 1956 they employed as many as 5,996 workers at the Cudahy plant. Nearly two decades later (1975), company employment reached 7,279, distributed throughout North America at plants in Cudahy, Los Angeles, Kentucky, Arkansas, Houston, and Canada.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 55; 86. Gurda, Forging Ahead, 86, notes that the auto contracts dried up because of competition from other smaller forge shops that could offer better pricing. Furthermore, he elaborates on how the standardized pipe fittings that the company produced were used for an oil pipeline stretching from Italy to Germany in 1966 (Europe’s largest at that time) as well as one of America’s longest pipelines from Louisiana to Illinois in 1968.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 57-58. Gurda explains that the #85 Hammer, designed by the Ladish Co., is three stories tall and remains the largest of its kind in the world.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 60. Gurda, Forging Ahead, 60; 92-95, elaborates on the company’s role as a supplier for jet engine parts, and explains how Ladish contributed to both the space race and the Cold War arms buildup with the Soviets, The size of their machinery allowed Ladish to produce items that other forge shops simply could not. This has been essential to their survival (Gurda, Forging Ahead, 102).
- ^ “Ladish to Sell Industrial Products Unit,” Milwaukee Business Journal, April 25, 1997, accessed January 22, 2016. See also Gurda, Forging Ahead, 113, who explains that Ladish closed the doors on its Cudahy pipe fittings department as far back as 1984 but kept other fittings manufacturing facilities open. As the Milwaukee Business Journal article explains, those other operations—situated in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Kenosha (Trinity Fitting & Flange Group, Inc.)—were eliminated in the late 1990s in order to renew focus on jets and aerospace technology.
- ^ Gurda, Forging Ahead, 110-120. President, Vic Braun, first sold the company to Armco in 1981 after a handful of small stockholders sold off their shares to an outside firm. Just after Braun’s sale to Armco (a friendly, outside interest), the recession hit and Ladish was resold several times—first to Owens-Corning Fiberglass in 1985, then two years later to a group of private investors (Gurda, Forging Ahead, 110-117). Declining sales, which are attributed to a combination of the rise in foreign competition and globalization, the explosion of the Challenger space craft and its ripple impact on space exploration, and the end of the Cold War, led Ladish to declare bankruptcy (Gurda, Forging Ahead, 118).
- ^ Rick Barrett, “Ladish to be Acquired by Allegheny Technologies,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 17, 2000, accessed January 22, 2016. ATI bought Ladish for $778 million. At the time of the purchase, Ladish employed some 1,700 workers in plants located in Cudahy, Oregon, and Poland.
For Further Reading
Gurda, John. Forging Ahead: A Centennial History of Ladish Co. Milwaukee: Ladish Co., Inc., 2005.