One hundred and one years ago, Cole Stickle sat on a bench downtown in University Park, stopping passersby, seeking investors
to launch his business.
He got more than a few sideways stares as he explained his dream of starting a company based on a technology few understood--turning water into steam power.
But Stickle at last found a believer in the device he had patented a year before, in 1905.
The Langsenkamp family--owners of an Indianapolis foundry, brassworks operation and machine shop--agreed to invest. With their support, he started the Open Coil and Purifier Co. in 1907. It made a product to purify the water used in steam-driven power plants.
The company changed its name to Stickle Steam Specialties in 1923. Five generations later, the 15-employee operation continues to thrive.
Stickle's survival is even more miraculous than the founder's ability to solicit investors from a park bench. Only 30 percent of family businesses survive the transition from the founders to the second generation, according to a recent study conducted by the Mass Mutual Financial Group and the Raymond Family Business Institute. Only 10 percent survive the transition to a third generation. Though there have been outside investors, the Stickle family has always been majority owner of the company, which is still profiting from the concept that launched the business.
The initial focus for Stickle was devices that removed lime and calcium from water. Now, its products also remove oxygen and other non-condensable gases, so steam can achieve maximum heat and boilers don't become clogged.
Bud Stickle, 59, who has been president for 31 of his 36 years with the company, discusses its past and future flanked by his 31-year-old son, Chad, the company's vice president, and his 80-year-old uncle, Fred, who has been with the company six decades and still runs the repair division.
With Bud's other son, Michael, 40, managing the office, and Chad progressing through the ranks, the company appears to have steady leadership through a sixth generation.
Hooked by Indiana's hard water
The company's founder and his family came to Indianapolis in search of the "crossroads of America," and the nation's most impure water.
"They needed a market that had hard water, and no place has more impurities in its water than here," Bud Stickle said. "They thought, 'If we can make [the technology] work here, we can make it work anywhere.'"
The Stickles made a name for themselves in the late 1800s operating a sawmill in Sandgate, Vt. For years, they put up with impurities in the water, which clogged the steam lines that powered the giant saw blade.
The Stickles responded by pioneering water purification methods that are now employed in almost every boiler room in North America, said Bruce High, plant manager of the Wade Utility Plant at Purdue University.
"You can't just take water out of the ground or a river and turn it into steam," he said. "At the pressure and temperatures it takes to turn water into steam, any contaminant can clog the system."
Virtually every power plant in operation has a "purifier" or "deaerator" similar to those invented by Cole Stickle. Some of the technology he invented is also used in the water softener and household water-purification industry, but Stickle's company chose to concentrate on the steam industry.
The Stickles first opened shop at 502 S. Pennsylvania St. The company needed more room by 1925 and moved to 2215 Valley Ave. It is still at that location, nestled in an industrial area off of Massachusetts Avenue, not far from Interstate 70.
The company's growth curve has been steady, with few downturns, Stickle said. It even prospered during the Great Depression, a testament to the necessity of its products. Board meeting minutes from that time show executives decided to give stockholders a dividend because the firm was doing so well.
"We don't sell a luxury item," Stickle said.
Bringing business sense
Bud Stickle said the men who forged the company through the first four generations were "brilliant engineers who could make anything."
That ability came in handy when the company was asked by the government to build steam-driven power plants to heat U.S. Army and Navy barracks nationwide during World War II. The company earned an Army Navy E Flag, one of the highest civilian honors for the company's efficiency and contribution to the war effort.
"This is a company well-known in this industry for their abilities as problem solvers and trouble-shooters," said Kevin Hart, co-owner of Indianapolis-based Combustion Systems Inc., which has done business with Stickle Steam for 30-plus years. "They can come up with custom solutions. It's part of their heritage. And it's one of the things that sets them apart."
Stickle's equipment found its way into some of the state's largest institutions, including St. Vincent Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, the Indiana State Women's Prison and numerous schools and corporations, such as Eli Lilly and Co. and Rolls Royce Plc.
Stickle credits a conservative approach for the company's longevity.
"We're a small company, so everybody has to work," he said. "We found if we came into work every day, and did our job, that gave us the opportunity to come into work the next day. That theory sustained us for 100 years.
"And no Stickle was ever overpaid, I can assure you that."
Company records show the founder was paid $100 a month, and the firm's third-generation president, F.A. Stickle, was paid $135 a month in 1935.
Though company officials today don't disclose their salaries--or the company's revenue--salaries are likely a bit higher than they were three generations ago.
Stickle said revenue in 2007 tripled over 2006 during a record year. Industry experts estimate Stickle Steam's revenue is in the low- to mid-eight-figure range.
The company is booked solid with jobs through May, with many more pending for 2008, Stickle said. Another record year could be in store.
He said small projects carry a price tag of $30,000 to $100,000, with larger projects running about $1 million.
The steam maker, which has nine full-time and six part-time employees--not including the two office dogs and a cat that wander the premises--has always stayed lean. When projects take off, the payroll temporarily grows to 50 or 60, Stickle said.
In a century of doing business, Stickle said, the company has had only one major layoff.
Busier than Santa's workshop
Holidays are especially busy for Stickle Steam.
"It's the only time our clients are willing to shut down their plants" to allow equipment installation or modification, Stickle said.
This Thanksgiving, the company had five projects from Oklahoma to North Carolina going simultaneously.
Stickle Steam has seen a few lean times, the worst in 1998. It has a long history serving paper mills and the corrugated industry. When a downturn hit that industry in the late 1990s, it smacked Stickle hard.
"The phones stopped ringing," Bud Stickle said. "Everything just went silent."
Stickle said it was the closest the company has come to closing its doors.
"Nobody wants the business to die on their watch," he said. "That's a great motivator."
As clients began cutting in-house maintenance crews, Stickle started emphasizing service and installation. That strategy coupled with a rebound in the paper industry helped the company rebound.
Though steam technology has been around many years, Bud Stickle said the company has survived through innovation and adaptation.
"Some people view steam as some kind of turn-of-the-century technology," he said. "Steam is a part of every process we do today, including the production of food and metal and wood processing."
While the company was built on the backs of engineering-minded men, Bud Stickle chose to study business at Indiana University.
"I had an opportunity to bring business management to the company," said Stickle, who became company president when his uncle, Cole A. Stickle II, died in 1976.
Bud Stickle saw an opportunity serving the corrugated industry, where steam heat is used to help the cardboard adhere to glue and to drive moisture from the board.
"In the corrugated industry, they really only have one competitor nationally," said Jim Curley, editor of Board Converting News, a New Jersey-based publication covering the corrugated business. "They have a solid niche."
The company's focus means 90 percent of its business is outside Indiana. Stickle employees haven't made a cold call in years and they do little marketing, other than attending trade shows.
Seeking ways to continue growth, Chad Stickle, a Purdue University School of Technology graduate, spearheaded the launch of a division focused on fabrication and installation.
While Chad Stickle thinks the company must adapt to grow, he has no intention of veering from the blueprint that has helped it survive since that day in University Park.
"I think we'll keep plugging away like we have for 100 years," Chad Stickle said, "and keep figuring out a way to keep coming to work every day."