When Heil Was a Startup

May 1, 2001

5 Min Read
When Heil Was a Startup

Michael Fickes Business Editor

As a boy, Julius P. Heil worked on his family's Wisconsin farm during the late 1800s. When he was 12, he dropped out of school and took a job in a general store. Two years later, he went to the big city — Milwaukee — looking for opportunity. He ran a drill press in a machine shop, learned to fabricate tin and worked as a conductor on the city's street railway. He also held jobs as a blacksmith and a fire fighter.

In 1893, Heil went to work for Herman Falk, an engineer and friend of Heil's father, who had started a new wagon shop.

Shortly after the opening of the new shop, a man named Albert Hoffman approached Falk with an idea. What if you welded street railway rails together instead of tying them together with bonding wire.

Falk bought some early welding equipment and put together a contraption that resembled a steam engine. It produced enough heat to melt iron. And Heil's job was to supervise the welding and laying of the rails.

The process captured the nation's attention. In Washington, D.C., President McKinley stopped during one of his daily carriage rides to watch a welding crew in action. He asked a young supervisor how the process worked, and Heil expounded.

As the Washington, D.C., job came to an end, an engineering firm from London approached Heil with a rail welding job in Buenos Aires, Argentina. To handle the project, Falk sent Heil and crew to South America. The project lasted through 1899. By the time Heil returned to Milwaukee, he had decided to open his own rail welding business.

In 1901, he opened the Heil Rail Joint Welding Company, persuading six friends to provide venture capital for the undertaking. They purchased $8,100 in stock, and Heil borrowed another $17,000. Capitalized with $25,000, Heil rented a 4,000-square-foot frame factory and brought in three employees.

For his first 10 years in business, Heil worked as the company's chief engineer, plant superintendent, salesman and office manager.

The company lost $970.36 in its first year, then growth came slowly. Through 1905, profits hovered around $420 per year or $35 per month. Low salaries allowed what earnings arrived to flow back into the business. Heil, himself, drew a salary of $2 a month.

After six years, the investors, seeing no profits, demanded their money back. The Rail Joint Welding Company dissolved in Feb. 1906 to pay its debts.

Three investors, however, decided to stick with Heil's concept, and four new investors joined the fold. They formed a new company, The Heil Co., that worked in a broader welding market, including tanks, smokestacks and a variety of fabricated steel products.

But the financial pressure continued. In 1907, two more of the original stockholders sold out, just before the breakthrough came. By the end of that year, the company showed earnings of $5,501.16.

Within a year, Heil had moved the company to a new plant in Milwaukee. The site was an 18-acre tract called Layton Park. Facilities included a 9,600-square-foot plant and a railway siding for shipping and receiving.

Sales continued to grow, and in 1914, the company sold its first steel truck body to a truck manufacturing company.

By 1916, Julius Heil's company was breaking new ground in welding technology: It produced the world's first electrically welded tank, which he sold to a Milwaukee company.

Heil continued to be innovative in the years that followed. In 1927, the company produced the first tin-lined milk truck tank, as well as the world's first welded stainless steel tank. Heil also introduced the world's first twin-arm hydraulic hoists for bodies in 1928, and produced the first mobile crop dehydrators in 1930.

By the mid 1930s Heil was producing a long line of construction equipment, including hydraulic scrapers and bulldozers, and introduced the world's first fully hydraulic steering mechanism.

It wasn't until 1937 that The Heil Co. entered into refuse collection equipment market. A natural outgrowth of its truck body business, dump bodies, for example, proved reasonably easy to modify for garbage collection. Modifications included hinged sides, canvas covers, and hinged or sliding metal covers.

As customers accepted those kinds of modifications, a new product concept followed. In 1937, The Heil Co. delivered its first order for conveyor-type garbage bodies with rear-loading hoppers to New York City.

By 1939, customers also were purchasing early Colecto garbage bodies, with rear hoppers and top-loading capabilities.

As World War II broke out, Heil joined the effort in a big way, converting its manufacturing capabilities to produce a broad range of military products, such as combat tank hulls, anti-aircraft gun limbers, hoists and winches, torpedo tubes, pontoon bridges, smoke generators and missile loaders. These efforts earned Heil three Army-Navy E-pennants during the war years.

Once the war ended, Heil turned its attentions back to the refuse industry, producing in 1945 the first refuse body that could compress or “pack” its payload for greater capacity. The Colecto-Pak had a rear hopper which deposited its load through the top of the body like the earlier Colecto models. The packing action was accomplished by a moveable panel that also served as the front head and was activated to pack the load when the hopper was lowered.

The 1960s saw the arrival of the Mark line of Colectomatics, which moved through four designs through 1972. The 1960s also produced a complete line of stationary compactors and mobile compactor containers. Load-lugger and roll-off container systems contributed to the company's growth following its purchase of the Borg-Warner Corp.

In cooperation with the city of Madison, Wis., the University of Wisconsin and the Environmental Protection Administration, Heil developed and built the first successful municipal waste shredding system in 1966.

By the 1970s, the company had grown to occupy 1.5 million square feet of plant space with state-of-the art equipment and 1,400 employees.

By then, of course, the company's startup days were long gone.

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