Determined to Succeed
A Profile of Ace Wire Spring and Form Co., Inc. by Gary McCoy, Springs Magazine - Spring 2013
Steely. Gritty. Determined. Those are some of the adjectives people have come to describe Pittsburgh, a city in southwest Pennsylvania where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the Ohio River.
Not far from the heart of Pittsburgh is McKees Rocks, also known as “The Rocks,” a borough along the south bank of the Ohio River and the hometown of Ace Wire Spring & Form Co. Like the area where the company is headquartered, Ace Wire Spring has been determined to succeed since it started in 1939.
Ace Wire Spring was started by Linda Froehlich’s father, Joseph Vodvarka, and was taken over by Linda and her husband, Richard Froehlich, in 1976.
“My father was an opera singer,” explained Froehlich. “He was a very good tenor who had studied under the same teacher as Caruso.”
When he met Froehlich’s mother, Vodvarka decided that a career as an opera singer may not be something that could support a family should he ever lose his voice. So he went to work for a spring company in nearby Coraopolis, Pa. and realized that springs might be a future worth pursuing. Froehlich said he reasoned that “springs would always be involved in people’s lives.”
Not a technically oriented person, Vodvarka partnered with his father, a machinist, to start Ace Wire Spring. As Froehlich relates, “The two, working together, made a great team, with Dad running the business side.”
In an article on the company for the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Froehlich said Ace Wire Spring was “built on the creativity of her ambitious father with a foundation for growth, innovation and attention to customer needs.”
Froehlich says family members have always been involved in Ace Wire Spring. In fact Froehlich’s grandmother made garter springs in the attic of their house. As the business grew, Vodvarka built a little building near the family home to make springs, and the living room turned into his office. Vodvarka eventually took the business out of the family homestead, constructing a 20,000 sq. ft. facility. Froehlich said her dad added on to that facility after just two years.
After Linda and Rich bought the business, they built the company’s current 55,000 sq. ft. facility, which is home to the company’s workforce of 47 employees.
Small to Medium Specialists
Ace Wire Spring specializes in medium-to-small volume business. They do a lot of prototype work and provide design assistance to their customers.
Ace Wire Spring was recently recognized by Catalyst Connection as one of 25 top manufacturing companies. The organization, a Pittsburgh-based economic development and manufacturing consultancy, advances the performance of small manufacturing companies.
“Because we are family owned, and small, the experience is more personalized for customers,” explained Froehlich.
Most employees at Ace Wire Spring have been with the company for a long time, including one man who has logged over 60 years of service and a woman who has worked in the office for 38 years. Froehlich acknowledges that the work ethic has changed and it’s harder to find younger people that it was years ago.
“It used to be people would come from high school and stay with us,” she explained, “now we have to retrain people.” The company has put in place a program to attract young people. They work with local schools to expose students to the opportunities in manufacturing.
The family part of Ace Wire Spring continues to be strong. Froehlich’s father-in-law, Fred, worked at Ace Wire Spring after he sold his oil business at age 55. “Rich said he needed something to do,” said Froehlich of her father-in-law’s entry into the business. “Fred started doing inventory by hand for my dad and stayed on with us until he passed away a few years ago.”
The Froehlich’s son, Ritchy, is the general manager for the company, involved in estimating, spring design and attending trade shows. He’s also the one in charge when the Froehlich’s escape to Florida during the winter. Ritchy, and his wonderful wife Tressie, were blessed with two daughters and a son. At one time, Tressie worked at Ace in the office contributing to the company's daily needs. Ritchy’s sister, Deanna, also worked in the business. She now lives in the Houston area and is the mother of three boys.
Like the different skills and talents that Froehlich’s father and grandfather had, Linda and Rich have forged a similar partnership as co-presidents of the company, bringing different strengths to bear in running the company. Linda is in charge of sales, marketing and overseeing the office staff and is the outgoing, “personality” of the company, while Rich prefers to work quietly behind the scenes with their son, Ritchy, in handling the plant and equipment activites of the business.
“When you both work together with the same goals in mind, it’s fun,” said of her relationship to Rich. “I think it probably has brought us closer together than ever.”
She says they enjoy working together, along with travelling and sports activities. Plus, they enjoy their employees and customers. “They are family to us, so what could be wrong with that?”
Froehlich concluded by saying, “Nobody’s the boss. We’re just a team.”
Like many other smaller sized spring companies, Ace Wire Spring was able to weather the recent Great Recession storm. Even now, Froehlich says a second Obama administration and lingering uncertainty has hurt a lot of manufacturers.
“Customers order smaller quantities,” she explained. “Nobody is certain about tomorrow.”
As belies the grittiness of the Pittsburgh area, Froehlich says, “Somehow we are going to have to get through this uncertainty.”
And as she looks to the future, “We are determined to succeed. We are not going to fail. We’ll get through it, because that’s just who we are and how we work.”
Being part of the spring industry has been an integral part of Froehlich’s life. “It’s a good industry,” she commented. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a good industry.”
Membership in SMI has been important, where Froehlich has made many lifelong friends and developed business relationships.
“A lot of work we do is for other spring companies because of our quality and reputation,” Froehlich related. “Every spring company has their expertise and that’s why SMI membership and participating in the conventions is a great springboard for meeting other people.”
Froehlich admits there was a day when MSI members were secretive about what they did, but she believes that era has passed.
When attending SMI meetings now, she says “it’s amazing how open people will be with you.”
A former SMI board and committee volunteer, Froehlich is not sure if SMI is ready for a woman president. She’s hopeful that someone will eventually break that barrier.
“More people, especially women in the spring industry, should get involved,” explained Froehlich of involvement in SMI. “Come out, meet people and make the contacts. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn.”
Froehlich said it is often hard to meet other women in manufacturing and this event has been a great opportunity to network, especially to share ideas and challenges unique to women as business orders. “I’ve enjoyed it immensely.”
Probably the spring’s industry most notable accomplishment was the invention of the Slinky by one of its own – Richard and Betty James, founders of SMI member James Spring & Wire Co.
Froehlich remembers when the slinky came out and telling her father, “Why didn’t you do this?” Her dad said, “We don’t do that.”
Recollecting that she was about 10 years old at the time, she bluntly told her father, “Why not? We could be rich.”
She did predict to her father that Ace Wire Spring would one day do something similar.
Froehlich thought her “breakthrough day” had come in the ‘90’s when Ace Wire Spring invented the SuperClip. Basically a large paper clip, SuperClip is made from a sturdy, high carbon steel, that can easily hold 100 sheets of paper.
“When we invented the SuperClip it was probably one of the most memorable ventures in our lives,” explained Froehlich. “That was fun!”
The fun was tinged with frustration and lessons learned by watching the patented product grow and then later be copied by office product chains and mass merchandisers, who went overseas to make a cheaper knockoff.
“Maybe it’s a compliment to have so many imitate the product,” she says with a laugh. “I would have rather had the money.”
Later she reflected, “It’s a great product and when we go some place and our grandkids see the product they say: ‘Oh, my grandparents invented that.’ That makes us proud.”
A detailed story on the trials and tribulations of the SuperClip was published by Inc. magazine in the December 1997 issue. To read the entire story, click here.
Despite the ups and downs that come with running a business, Froehlich says, “It’s been a good life for us in the spring industry.”
She believes the keys to success in the spring industry involve three P’s – passion, persistence and perseverance. “And always give 100 percent of yourself. Be truthful, and be fair.”
Gauging success for Froehlich involves “just being there, year after year. Surviving, I guess.”
She pauses and says, “Surviving and growing. And we’re hoping to do both.”
Whatever challenges lie ahead for Ace Wire Spring, it’s a safe bet they will continue to display the gritty determination that has helped them succeed for nearly 74 years.