It was the beginning of the Great Depression, and the American economy had sunk to an abysmal depth. Desperate for business, David Jacobs called all of his contacts and managed to get an order from Chevrolet. Time was of the essence, so he called in one of his employees and together they fired up the boilers that powered the steam hammer, forged the parts, loaded them into a wheelbarrow and trundled them to a rail car on the Illinois Central mainline immediately adjacent the plant’s property. The order was delivered, and they continued coming in as a result.
“The man who helped David Jacobs keep the company afloat had a job for life, which was actually written into the official records, and he worked here well into his nineties,” according to Justin McCarthy, vice president of sales and marketing at Clifford-Jacobs Forging Co. “So that’s the ‘can-do’ attitude that helped this company weather the depression, and it’s something we carry with us to this day.”
The story actually began some years earlier, in 1919, when Jacobs had gone to the bank seeking the funds to start a new forging operation. The president told him they wouldn’t be able to make the loan, but that one of the bank’s officers, Cass Clifford, had recently come into an inheritance and might be interested in making an investment. He was, and the two men went into business together, with Clifford as the financial mastermind and Jacobs, who already held a number of patents, as the engineering “idea man.”
Adversity had already visited the enterprise when its original plant in Urbana, Illinois — it is now located in nearby Champaign — burned down in 1923. “It was in an old railroad barn, which was made of wood, and our furnaces were burning oil in those days, so when you mix oil and fire and wood, that’s not a good match,” McCarthy says. “So we relocated to our present facility on 38 acres of land, which gives us plenty of room to grow, and we currently have 180,000 square feet under roof, with a steel yard that’s about 150 yards long.”
Its list of customers is also quite long, with those in the early days including Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac, and especially Caterpillar. “We actually have a plaque from Caterpillar in our boardroom honoring years of continuous service dating back to 1921,” McCarthy says, “and there aren’t many forging companies still around that can claim that distinction.”
Clifford-Jacobs can also claim a long history of military service, since it had the largest forging hammer in the world at the beginning of WWII, which allowed it to produce important armaments for the war effort. That relationship with the defense industry continues to this day, with the company producing forgings for Chinook and Apache helicopters, M-1 tanks, and F-18 and F-22 fighter jets. But it’s always looking to new markets, as well.
One of those markets involves standby power, which fills that all-important gap between the instant power goes out and generators kick in — crucial for hospitals, offshore oil platforms, and Web-based companies that can’t afford to spend a second offline. Still, including its stalwarts — such as defense, off-highway construction, mining, materials handing, rail transit, oil and gas, and trucking — the company keeps a keen eye on diversification.
“We see our accounts as valuable assets to be skillfully managed, and they virtually represent a Fortune 500 portfolio,” McCarthy explains, “but we do our best to make sure that no one account or market dominates our business activities. And we fold our profits back into the company. We’ve invested more than $7 million in recent years, and we’ve seen monumental growth as a result — which has a lot to do with the leadership of David Sulzbach, who became the company’s seventh president in 2002.”
But the blueprint for Clifford-Jacob’s success was drawn up many years ago, when two men invested in a dream and did the hard work necessary to make it a reality. “We’re still a privately owned company, and conservatively managed, which I believe has not only allowed us to survive, but to prosper,” McCarthy says. “In 2005 alone we grew by 60 percent, and by continuing to apply the principles laid down by our founders, we look forward to significant growth well into the future.”