When the chairman and CEO of Humphrey Products Co. passes by the 1920s Radiantfire heating unit in his office each day, it is a constant reminder of his great-grandfather who started Humphrey Products 116 years ago and invented this revolutionary heat source. And the unit, by the way, still works like new.
“That whole thing will get red hot,” says CEO Robert Humphrey. “It will put you right out of this room.”
The Radiantfire gas heater helped put Humphrey Products — then called General Gas Light Co. — on the map. The product, no longer sold by the company, offered customers a clean, odorless heating alternative to the never-ending, dirty job of heating with wood or coal. Radiantfire slipped directly into a fireplace, and owners only had to hook it up to a gas line, which many people already had in their homes, and then turn it on and off, Humphrey explains. The product took off fast, selling well into the 1950s and 1960s.
“They had a lot of different models, the very ornate down to the very spartan,” says Humphrey, the fourth generation of Humphreys to helm the company, which is located just east of the intersection of Kilgore Avenue and Sprinkle Road.
Other reflections of Humphrey Products’ history exist all around Humphrey’s office. On a wall near his desk hangs a black-and-white photograph of four men: company founder Alfred Humphrey and his brothers Charles, Frederick and Herbert (H.S.) Humphrey. The men were entrepreneurs, inventors and tinkerers, and all started companies. Frederick invented and patented a water lift, which was a hydraulic pump used to pump rainwater from a household’s cistern into the house, and sold the design to an individual who established National Water Lift in Kalamazoo, now a small part of Parker Hannifin’s Aerospace division.
When the Humphreys came to Kalamazoo in 1883, Alfred, Charles and Frederick worked as machinists at Michigan Scale Co. In 1890, their father, George Humphrey, sparked their first entrepreneurial foray when he convinced Alfred and Frederick to form Humphrey Brothers, a company that performed contract machine work and manufactured its own line of commercial and industrial scales.
“During the short existence of Humphrey Brothers, Alfred developed various heat-transfer devices and equipment for use in photography,” Robert Humphrey says.
In 1901, Alfred Humphrey went on to establish General Gas Light Co., which was located on the downtown Kalamazoo block bounded by Park, Water, Church and Eleanor streets and manufactured and marketed the new inverted arc gaslights that Alfred had invented. Instead of shining up, the lights shone down and provided better illumination, Robert Humphrey explains. No mean feat, considering they used a gas-fueled flame.
In a short time, more than one million Humphrey arcs lit homes, stores, factories and streets. The Radiantfire invention came next, and then a slew of other inventions such as the Radiantfire Humphrey Rotisserie, the first gas-fired overhead heater, and a redesign of the arc gaslight for use with liquid petroleum gas, or propane liquid.
Between 1920 and 1940, Humphrey grew to more than 300 employees, but not without some hard times.
“Our company almost went out of business twice,” Humphrey says. “I went through all of our board books as part of the centennial (in 2001), and they were both after world wars.”
The wars left the company hurting, Humphrey explains, because they made it difficult to find employees and locate materials. According to The Gaslight 100th Anniversary Collector’s Edition by author Larry Myland, directly after WWI, the company secretary at a stockholder meeting indicated that, “by spring 1918 Gas Company business was absolutely at a standstill.”
“A lot of people think that manufacturers got rich off the wars,” he says, “(but) 99.99 percent of the time it was all patriotic moves. In fact, (at) General Gas Light, all they did was for the war effort, and they did not make a lot of money doing it. And then afterwards the government did not feel obliged to continue on and buy what they didn’t need anymore.”
During World War II, the company manufactured equipment for military use, such as gun sights, pumps and whatever else it was suited for making. After the war ended, General Gas Light experienced profitability problems and looked for a new market. The creation of the light bulb had driven down the demand for inverted arc gaslights.
Ralph Cooksley, who invented a design for a diaphragm poppet valve, ushered the company into that new market. This type of valve incorporates a rubber poppet into a diaphragm “disk,” which makes it leak-free — an important feature in applications where leakage is unacceptable, such as the respiratory equipment market. General Gas Light bought the patent and brought Cooksley on board, in its engineering department.
The company also saw an opportunity with forced air home heating, as did a great many other companies.
“The market just got flooded with opportunities and a lot competition, and so we were hit again,” Humphrey says. “We were already not very profitable.”
Humphrey Products sold its heating division in the late 1950s, Humphrey says, to focus on its “fledgling” valve business, and in 1960 moved to its current location in southeast Kalamazoo.
“We came out here with 35 people,” Humphrey says, “and the rest is history.”
Now, with 220 employees, Humphrey Products produces pneumatic valves that are nearly everywhere — in medical devices; in the conveyors of distribution centers such as Target, Walmart and Amazon; in animatronics at Disneyland; in soft-serve ice cream machines at McDonald’s; in machines for sorting, processing and conveying blueberries; in milking machines; and the list goes on. So, while all of the inventions, historical photographs and Saturday Evening Post advertisements for Radiantfire displayed in the lobby at Humphrey Products make it feel like stepping back in time, the company has established a firm footing in the present.
“We get involved with a lot of really cool markets,” Humphrey says. “You name it, I guarantee we somehow sell valves into it.”
Pneumatic valves provide safe and precise control of compressed air or other media in a fluid-power or fluid-control circuit. “It would compare to the light switch in an electrical circuit,” explains David Maurer, president and chief financial officer at Humphrey Products, “only it controls the flow of compressed media rather than electricity. Some valves are purely ‘off’ and ‘on,’ and some valves incorporate proportional flow technology, which is more like a dimmer switch.”
The medical and life sciences industry is Humphrey Products’ biggest market, Humphrey says, with its valves used in oxygen concentrators, anesthesiology equipment for operating rooms, and therapeutic surfaces. Material handling, as at those distribution centers, represents its second biggest market.
Developing custom solutions for customers represents a great deal of Humphrey Products’ business today. In the 1990s, the company launched DaVinci Engineering to offer customized, engineered solutions. The concept was so successful that, rather than branding it separately, the company incorporated and infused it into a corporate-wide culture and offers customized services to all of its clients.
“More than half of our business is custom stuff,” and the demand continues to grow, Maurer says.
“(Customers) are trying to achieve a specific size or footprint or performance characteristic, so they want a fluid-control or an air-control circuit that is customized to their application. They just don’t want to buy the stuff off the shelf.”
Humphrey believes that this specialized work keeps Humphrey Products on the cutting edge as it helps its customers find solutions for their problems. Many times customers take the company “onward and upward,” he says, but it works in reverse too — sometimes Humphrey Products pushes its customers.
“We did that in the conveyor industry,” Humphrey says. “We had a solution for distributed control of product traffic flow within warehousing that was not there. It was all centralized control, which is very inefficient. We had a solution for that for a long time. We pushed our customers into embracing that technology, and that’s where they are today.”
Though much has changed over the course of 116 years — think of the evolution from handwritten ledgers to typewriters to computers — Humphrey believes one thing has remained the same at his company: the nature of the people. The company has always been blessed with great individuals, he says.
“It’s really a matter of what they aspire to,” Humphrey says. “How much they want to learn. And most of them are ravenous, especially the young ones.”
Many of those “ravenous” young people come on board and stay. Maurer is one of them. He started at Humphrey Products in the summer of 1984 and one year ago became only the third non-family member in the company’s history to hold the position of president and chief financial officer.
Maurer knows the company from top to bottom. He started as a student assembler, working in the summer while studying economics at the University of Michigan. The personnel manager at Humphrey Products, looking for help on a project in the sales department, knew that Maurer was attending U of M during the school year, and one day approached him with a question: “So do you know how to use these PC things?”
“This was back in the days of DOS,” Maurer says. “Everything was pre-Windows or anything like that, and (I) ended up working on that project for the next two summers.”
After Maurer graduated from college, Humphrey Products hired him in sales and marketing to perform forecasting and product planning. He continued moving upward through the company, taking jobs in assembly, general operations, manufacturing, planning, purchasing and, finally, finance.
“I rotated through a lot of areas of the company,” Maurer says, “everything but engineering. Bob is pretty much the same story. We rotate people through.”
In 1977, Robert Humphrey came on board in the sales department. The company’s current information systems manager, Patty Billingsley, also worked her way up through the company, as did Steve Mohney, the manufacturing engineering manager. Both joined the company in the late 1970s. Mike Hammond, director of product management and marketing; Larry Tuft, operations manager for Humphrey Products’ South Haven Coil facility; and Scott Ludwig, facilities manager, have also been with the company for 30 or more years. Now Humphrey’s son, Hubbard Humphrey, is a sales engineer at the company.
Maurer and Humphrey credit the company’s employees as one of its greatest strengths. Throughout Humphrey Products’ history, they say, its workers have embraced change and jumped on board with every shift in course.
“They do whatever is necessary to get us to the next step,” Maurer says.
And what does Humphrey think his great-grandfather Alfred would think of the growth and longevity of his company?
“I think he’d be pleasantly surprised,” Humphrey says with a smile.