The company is riding out the downturn on principles that got it through the Great Depression
James Buchanan was president, Oregon became the 33rd state, and Charles Dickens published "A Tale of Two Cities." It was 1859, a year that also saw the birth of Edson International, making the boating products manufacturer one of the nation's oldest continuously running companies - marine or otherwise.
"There aren't an awful lot of companies that get this far," says president Will Keene, 55, as his New Bedford, Mass.-based firm celebrates its 150th anniversary. "I've always felt I am nothing more than a steward of a company that is 150 years old. So the key is how do you get to the next generation in good shape?"
For Keene, the answer is CEO.
"C is for customers, E is for employees, and O is for owners, in that order. That's how they get taken care of," says Keene. "The customer comes first and, if we keep the customers happy, that means we can keep the employees busy, and if they're busy, they're typically happy. If both of those ends of the spectrum are doing well, then typically the owners will be OK."
Founded on inventions
Jacob Edson formed Edson Corp. to design and manufacture specialty hardware for the commercial marine trade. He invented the diaphragm pump the year the company was formed, and other early inventions included a "boom buffer" to reduce the shock when a sailboat jibes, along with hardware and steering systems for the great Boston area fishing fleets, coastal schooners and cargo vessels.
By the 1900s, Edson was manufacturing steering systems for sailing vessels. In 1902, he designed a worm-gear steering system for Kaiser Wilhelm's
161-foot yacht, Meteor. Edson today sells a steerer called the Meteor. In 1904, Edson exhibited steering systems and pumps to the yachting industry at the first New York Boat Show.
Throughout the 20th century and two world wars, Edson continued to develop new products. Edson steering gear and bilge pumps were used on freighters, liberty ships and PT boats during both wars. In 1956, Edson was purchased by Henry Keene - Will Keene's father - who began updating the product line with an emphasis on lightweight materials, including aluminum castings. An Edson steering system was installed on the first fiberglass sailboat, introduced in 1959 at the New York show.
By the late 1960s, Edson began to pioneer new sailboat cockpit designs with accessories for steering pedestals. This ushered in the era of "cockpit living," with dining tables, drink holders and other lifestyle products. In the early 1980s, Edson went back to its roots in pump technology and engineered holding tank pumpout systems for marinas, yacht clubs and municipalities.
"When Jacob Edson founded Edson 150 years ago, his first product was a diaphragm pump, which he invented," says Keene. "By the time he retired, he had over 60 patents in his name, each one a new and fresh idea that solved a problem and made marine equipment better, safer, faster or more enjoyable for the whole family."
Jacob Edson, says Keene, "made products that withstood the test of time."
Edson's 150th anniversary catalog includes hundreds of products, from steering wheels and accessories to electronics-mounting hardware. Some new products this year include a universal fit mast-mount radar bracket and wire rope tensioning kits.
"We look at where we think our product needs to be upgraded. We listen to what our customers are asking for. We look at things that others are doing, but not doing particularly well, and we are pretty careful about things," says Keene, explaining how the company looks at bringing new products to market. "We look at it and say, 'OK, can we do this and can we do a better job? Is there a niche? Is there an opening?' "
The company, he says, is being very careful right now in deciding on which new products to pursue. "The ideas are cheap," says Keene. "It's the tooling and the inventory and the marketing [that cost money]."
Keene, who owns the company with his brother Hank, the general manager, concedes that today's business climate is difficult, but he points out that Edson has weathered past recessions and the Great Depression. "It's a challenging time - there's no question about it," he says. "Adversity breeds opportunity. I firmly believe that. But there seems to be more adversity than there is opportunity."
Edson has had to cut hours for its 27 or so employees, and there have been some layoffs.
'A lot of fear'
The problem isn't that people don't have money, Keene maintains. "There's still money out there. It's just accompanied [by] a lot of fear. You've got to get the fear settled down."
Keene decries the government's handling of the financial crisis, saying it's the small business owner, like himself, that needs help, not the large corporations. "The real industry that should be looked after, and looked after carefully, is the industry of the smaller, entrepreneurial business, because the small businesses have the agility to turn around faster," he says. "If the government would just get the corporate tax rate down to the point where I can be competitive on a global basis, I could probably put more people back at work, as could my fellow small business owners."
In Ireland, for example, the corporate tax rate is 12 percent, compared to 39 percent or higher here, he says. Also, business owners in Ireland are less vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits, because if someone sues you and has a weak case, they end up paying.
Edson does have an office in England that it opened in 1998. It also has a number of international agents. "I've got higher taxes [here in the United States]. I've got higher legal costs, higher health care costs," Keene says. "That's what we are faced with. Lower the tax rate and see what happens."
Keene, though, has no plans to move overseas anytime soon, and no immediate plans to retire. Though he has two teenage sons, he says it's unlikely they will be able to buy the company from the present generation, as he and his brother did from their father. So he fears this may be the last generation of Keenes to own Edson - a company and legacy he is proud of.
"It's fun to be part of an older organization that's been around for a long time and has the reputation that it does," he says. "It's something that my brother and I are really, really proud of."
And how will the company make it to the next century? "With agility, with ingenuity, quality, attention to customers, attention to detail, attention to our employees," Keene says. "It's a real back-to-basics approach. We've never gotten away from the basics."
This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.