In a few short weeks, Waterloo Industries finally will no longer be in Waterloo, its namesake city.
It’s been a long time coming, and almost like a family who is no longer in town finally selling the old homestead.
Officials from Stanley Black & Decker, which acquired Waterloo Industries in 2017, announced Friday the Waterloo satellite office of the company will close in September. The lease will not be renewed.
WI was once known as a worldwide manufacturer of tool storage products, headquartered in Waterloo. The plant at 300 Ansborough Ave. closed in 1997. The corporate offices, after moving into a newly built leased building at 100 E. Fourth St. that year, left over the course of the following 14 years. Much of that space was occupied by The Courier, which moved there in 2011.
Waterloo Industries (Stanley Black & Decker) retained some product development in a small model shop in Waterloo. About eight people still work there and are being offered remote working or outplacement options; six will stay with the company.
Waterloo Industries was founded in the 1922 by Croatian immigrant Nicholas Sulentic and operated by his six sons through the 1990s, after which it underwent a succession of corporate acquisitions.
It was originally the Waterloo Valve Spring Compressor Co. Nicholas Sulentic designed a box to store what was then his main product, valve spring compressors, used to dissassemble engine cylinder heads.
It was a bit of serendipity. The tool box became the more popular product and tool storage became a staple of the company, hence the name change to Waterloo Industries.
Waterloo Industries is probably best known as the manufacturer of the Craftsman line of tool boxes and tool chests that were sold by Sears. It also made carts for medical equipment in doctors’ offices and hospitals for decades, bearing the “Waterloo” name.
The company kept its headquarters in Waterloo even after closing its tool box-manufacturing activities here in 1997 — the company’s 75th anniversary year. It phased out 300 employees, moving that work to a new factory in Muskogee, Okla., and Nogales, Mexico. Employees remained at the downtown headquarters.
The Muskogee plant closed in 2003 and that work moved to plants in Pocahontas, Ark., and Sedalia, Mo.
In 2015, Waterloo Industries Inc. was acquired by a New York equity firm AFI Partners LLC and was down to 14 employees in the Waterloo area. Then in 2017, Stanley Black & Decker acquired Waterloo Industries and the named was officially changed.
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Waterloo Industries did not fade from Waterloo quietly or pleasantly, as many here will remember.
In November 1994, when WI’s corporate owner announced it was building a new plant in Muskogee, workers affiliated with the International Association of Machinists were told the Waterloo plant would close and the work would move to Muskogee unless they cut pay and benefits 50 percent — and they were not guaranteed even that would save the operation. The future of the company’s corporate offices also was uncertain. City and state officials worked to keep both factory and headquarters. They kept one of them.
WI announced it would close the Waterloo plant at the end of October 1997, after phased layoffs. Three weeks before that closing, company and city officials announced WI would put a new corporate headquarters in downtown Waterloo, in what was then part of Paramount Park on the old Paramount Theatre site, with a number of state and local financial incentives.
Citizens and WI plant workers cried foul about the city giving incentives to a company that was cutting local jobs. City officials said they tried to save the plant, offered three times the bid for the corporate offices, and it was turned down.
The final WI plant workers punched out Oct. 30, 1997. The company approved a final contract with the IAM designed to cushion the blow for displaced workers, and the company hired an outplacement firm. But one worker, despondent over the plant closing, committed suicide, and another worker died at home because she could no longer afford prescription medicine.
In January 1998 the Waterloo City Council approved the WI corporate-office incentive package, despite a City Hall picket by WI plant workers. The project would save 120 jobs and boost downtown.
Local WI officials said they had to convince corporate parent Fortune Brands to keep the offices here instead of moving them closer to Chicago and WI major customer Sears, or to company plants in Sedalia and Pocahontas, Ark.
State officials said they approved their portion of the incentive package because of WI’s attempts to ease the blow for displaced workers and its desire to re-invest in the community. Employment at the downtown offices increased to as many as 150 employees before being scaled back as the company changed hands.
So, the last trace of Waterloo Industries in Waterloo fades from the scene three years shy of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nicholas Sulentic’s company. Its impact will not soon be forgotten.
Businesses are like trees. Some last a very long time, almost forever. Some deteriorate over time, while others simultaneously grow to maturity and take their place. We saw it in the 1980s with Rath Packing Co., which folded after more than 90 years. Such is the case with Waterloo Industries. As it and other industries faded over the past 30 years, others, like Bertch Cabinets, Omega Cabinetry and all the new technology-related businesses in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park, have taken root. Similarly, members of the Sulentic family continue to be very involved in real estate and development in the Cedar Valley, contributing to community life just as Nicholas did.
Many who worked at Waterloo Industries in past years also have posted their memories on social media. That’s what’s important. That’s really the measure of any business, whatever its lifespan — its impact on people. Just as a tree can provide shade and shelter from the elements, even sustenance, so too, do businesses. The provide an opportunity to put food for our table and a roof over our head. And just as people can remember the cool of a tree’s shade and the beauty of its leaves long after its gone, so too, can people who worked at a business can remember the sense of satisfaction of producing a quality product and security for themselves and their families.
There is a bottom line in business, and it is more than money, a balance sheet, or earnings per share. It’s intrinsic worth; how it physically and spiritually uplifts workers, a company and a community. Those who open and run the best businesses are grounded in the values that create intrinsic worth. Nicholas Sulentic and his sons were very well grounded in those values — the values of an immigrant family, looking for a better life and willing to work for it for themselves and their community. And we in the Cedar Valley are blessed to have many more such entrepreneurs following that example.