The Early History of SIFCO and Its Principles of Success

The very first SIFCO location.

The very first SIFCO location.

The year 1913 was one of tremendous change in the world, as well as in the United States. In New York, Grand Central Station opened and commuters rejoiced. The 16th Amendment to the Constitution passed, authorizing the federal government to impose and collect income taxes. Many future history-makers were born in 1913: Richard M. Nixon, the 37th president of the United States; American civil rights activist Rosa Parks; and legendary Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes.

In Detroit, Henry Ford made improvements to the concept of an assembly line, and in doing so, revolutionized the business of manufacturing. The same year a new process—the thermal cracking of petroleum—made gasoline readily available to the public, which, along with Ford’s assembly line, helped put Americans on the road. Yet, most in our young and optimistic nation did not see the dark clouds of World War I gathering across the Atlantic Ocean.

In Cleveland, Ohio, this year of momentous change would give birth to a company that would later come to be known as SIFCO Industries, Inc. It would prove to be historically significant for entities as large as the United States military services as well as the multitude of families with members working at SIFCO.

All of this began with five men who formed a small company for the purpose of applying relatively new scientific principles to improving the strength of metals, specifically through the use of thermal cycles. They called their company the Steel Improvement Company.

Next door to the Steel Improvement Company was The Forest City Machine Company, which manufactured hardware for the rapidly expanding power transmission lines across the country. Steel Improvement combined with their neighbor in 1916 and created a new company with new capabilities: The Steel Improvement and Forge Company. (In 1969, when the company listed on the American stock exchange, the name was officially shortened to SIFCO Industries, Inc.)

During the First World War, SIFCO supplied forgings for various military ordnances and ships and to the new aircraft industry.

In 1919, SIFCO’s founders convinced C.H. Smith Sr. to leave Alcoa, where he had established their first aluminum forging operation. Smith, who was born in 1887 in Poland, Ohio, and gained his degree in metallurgy from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1909, took the offer and became sales manager for SIFCO.

The period after World War I proved challenging for many U.S. companies, but C.H. Smith Sr. found new business from the growing forklift industry, as well as in the valve and air compressor fields. One of his greatest achievements was converting the oil industry from cast still-plugs to forged ones out of monel metal. This put SIFCO on sound footing.

SIFCO loading dock circa 1930

SIFCO loading dock circa 1930

In 1925, Smith was promoted to president. Among his many other accomplishments, he relocated the company: SIFCO opened the doors to its new facility in 1928 at its current location on E. 64th St., which is not far from downtown Cleveland, Ohio.

Along with the rest of the nation, the company had serious challenges during the Great Depression. Once again, under Smith’s leadership, SIFCO grew new lines of business, such as forged golf club heads for a sport that was growing in popularity, and specialized parts for the up-and-coming aircraft industry.

Forge hammer shop 1930s

Forge hammer shop circa 1930s

Two of SIFCO’s important contributions to the war effort began in pre–World War II Rhode Island in the 1930s. The Naval Ordnance Station at Newport, R.I., had been developing torpedoes, including those fired from surface vessels. They had been cast from corrosion-resistant bronze, but due to the shock of launching and the impact with the water, those torpedoes often broke.

SIFCO engineers developed a four-bladed, alloy steel propeller that could withstand the shock of launch, and this in turn led to a torpedo that could be launched from an aircraft. The fact that this relatively small company produced every single aircraft-launched torpedo propeller used by the U.S. Navy during World War II, as well as a substantial number used by the British navy, remains a great American success story.

Crankshaft machined from SIFCO forging for Bristol

An aircraft engine crankshaft machined from a SIFCO forging for Bristol

The United States’ major ally, Great Britain, was fighting the war, and their need for the forged components was great. A.H. “Toby” Milnes a young, British metallurgist, had been working at the Bristol Aeroplane Company in Bristol, England. “One day, the top office called me in and advised me, ‘You’re going to America,’” he later recalled. Bristol Aeroplane Company had placed a small order with SIFCO, and Milnes came to the U.S. to oversee the manufacture of the production of crankshafts.

He worked closely with C.H. Smith Sr. to push through all necessary paperwork to get the product. The Milnes and Smith families became fast friends.

“SIFCO performed a very, very excellent job for us during the war,” Milnes recalled. “SIFCO was also heavily involved in making parts for the Navy in the United States—critical forged components, which they continued until Germany collapsed . . . England owes a lot to the guts and drive of the people who were in this company at the time.”

SIFCO’s second major development for the war effort was forging the first material to possess the physical properties that allowed a turbine disk to withstand the tremendous centrifugal forces and high temperature created during operation. These forged disks were used in every GE turbo supercharger in World War II. This helped establish superior U.S. air power and in no small way contributed to the Allies’ victory.

During the war, however, SIFCO was hit with a tremendous personal and company tragedy. C.H. Smith Sr., who changed the culture of SIFCO and the face of the forging industry, passed away unexpectedly in December 1942 at the relatively young age of 55.

C.H. Smith, Jr. in 1946

C.H. Smith Jr., in 1946

Into this leadership void stepped a young man, C.H. Smith Jr., who was a mere six months out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stepping into his father’s large shoes, young “Chuck” Smith kept the company working to keep up with the war effort, supplying those critically important torpedo propellers and GE super turbochargers for military aircraft.

C.H. Smith, Jr. working in SIFCO's lab in the early 1940's

C.H. Smith Jr., working in SIFCO’s lab in the early 1940s

Young Mr. Smith was no stranger to SIFCO. He had worked there on and off since the 1930s in a variety of factory jobs, learning the company from the ground up, and would later be remembered fondly for his creativity, common-man approach, compassion and willingness to get his hands dirty on the SIFCO factory floor.

CH Smith, Jr. and Dr. Vasconcellos looking at truck crankshafts made in SIFCO Brazil

C.H. Smith Jr. (right) and Dr. Vasconcellos (left) looking at truck crankshafts made in SIFCO Brazil

Then, when the war came to a close, the entire free world breathed a sigh of relief. Many said a prayer of gratitude. SIFCO, like many other companies, resumed its normal peacetime business. The company produced parts for valves, pneumatic tools, machine tools, oil refinery and drilling equipment, industrial trucks, as well as continuing its work making aircraft parts, gas turbines, and parts for the new jet engines. It was under C.H. Smith, Jr.’s leadership that SIFCO went beyond U.S. borders and launched manufacturing ventures in Canada, Argentina, Brazil, India and Europe.

Innovation continued as well with SIFCO becoming, for example, the first company to successfully forge titanium in 1949, as well as forging complex alloys used in rocket nozzles.

The importance of global relationships was made into part of SIFCO’s DNA during C.H. Smith Jr.’s time. Beginning in 1953, Smith served as a member of employer delegations to various meetings and conferences of the International Labor Organization (ILO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. In 1972, he was named by the ILO’s Governing Body to a Committee of Experts to consider the relationship between multinational corporations and social policy. All in all, Smith Jr. and his colleagues not only advanced the technologies of the forging industry, but also enhanced world cooperation through mutual understanding and business alliances. In general, one may say that it was the sudden-yet-long-lasting leadership of C.H. Smith Jr. who forever changed the face of SIFCO.

In the words of SIFCO Chairman Jeffrey Gotschall, “At the time of our centennial, I think I speak for those SIFCO personnel, both here and gone, when I say that we are very proud of our heritage and excited about our future.”