The spirits of 300 factory workers in Gastonia and Shelby will take wing with a Wright brothers replica of the Kitty Hawk on December 17th next month. Their company's lineage dates directly to Orville and Wilbur Wright, as well as to aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss.
Yet the celebration of 100 years of manned, powered flight is only one among many reasons for the North Carolina employees of Curtiss-Wright Controls, Inc. to point with pride to the wild blue yonder. These mechanically proficient Tar Heels count the most technologically advanced aircraft in the U.S. military among the recipients of the parts they make and refurbish.
When George J. Yohrling, president of Curtiss-Wright Controls, lists the military applications for his company's hydraulic and electronic parts, names such as the Black Hawk helicopter, Lockheed F-16 fighter and Global Hawk surveillance aircraft roll off his tongue. Passenger airplane maker Boeing is the firm’s biggest civilian customer.
Curtiss-Wright Controls is the motion control segment of Curtiss-Wright Corporation, a multi-national provider of highly engineered products and services
for the aerospace and defense industries. The Wright Aeronautical Corporation, originally formed by the Wright brothers, merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company founded by Glenn Hammond Curtiss in 1929 to form Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which will be 75 years old in 2004.
Although the company today consists of three distinct business segments, it traces its origin to Orville and Wilbur Wright only through Curtiss-Wright Controls. “We were Curtiss Propeller Division in the original Curtiss-Wright Corporation,” Yohrling points out, “so this entity is the only one that ties its roots directly to the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss.”
Yohrling is a transplanted New Jersey native who takes special pride in running the fast-growing motion control segment from 52,000 square feet on Gastonia's Northwest Boule-vard, hard by Interstate 85. The Gastonia facility, with 55 employees, makes and repairs replacement parts only for both military and commercial aircraft. A larger plant – 150,000 square feet, 260 workers – in Shelby produces new equipment only.
When the company opened its initial Carolina facility in Shelby in 1985, it started with only 64 employees. Fueling Yohrling’s pride is what the company has become. It is a diversified provider of highly engineered products and services for the aerospace and defense industries that continues branching into new markets. The firm boasts 1,400 employees worldwide, including facilities in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. In this country, it has plants in Massachusetts and Florida as well as both northern and southern California.
“When I took over as president [five and a half years ago],” Yohrling says, “We were about $102 million in annual sales. We’ll pass $300 million before Thanksgiving this year.”
Diversification Fuels Growth
Diversification is a major growth impetus, Yohrling believes. When he took the presidency, the company’s entire business was in aerospace, 70 percent commercial and 30 percent military. It primarily provided aircraft parts called rotary actuators and overhauled them periodically.
Production was not without its problems, though. The parts rarely wore out and both the military and civilian aircraft markets were prone to down cycles.
“I wanted to diversify, so we played out a strategy that enabled us to expand our product base through acquisitions,” Yohrling explains. “Certainly our core business is aviation. We’re never going to leave that, that’s what our reputation is built on. But we wanted to get into ground defense in a very big way.”
So he bought a Swiss company that makes turret drive and track stabilization systems for armored vehicles, principally for European customers. Since that company’s products used electronic controls, he decided to grow that business with acquisitions in Massachusetts and California. That led to supplying the main mission control computer for the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, the unmanned surveillance aircraft used in the Iraq War.
“Electronics have to be refreshed and upgraded on a much more regular basis,” Yohrling points out. “In ground and air products, we’re getting away from hydraulics and
getting more into electronics.”
With technology, Yohrling plans more expansion such as the successful adaptation of the technology behind tank stabilization systems to tilting high-speed trains in Europe. And he wants to do more with automation, such as the equipment the company makes for the Swiss chocolate industry.
Currently parts replacement is approximately 25 percent of the company’s business and dropping in favor of new parts and equipment. Besides Boeing and Northrop Grumman, customers using Curtiss-Wright Controls components or motion control systems in aviation applications include Bombardier, Lockheed and Sikorsky. Customers for the company’s armored fighting vehicle products include General Dynamics and United Defense.
Industrial products include propulsion controls, valves, industrial automation, printing machinery and position sensors. The company is building a growing business in
joystick controllers and controls for powered wheelchairs and off-highway vehicles. Major customers are John Deere, Eaton Hydraulics and MAN.
Carolina Workers Produce
Important as product diversification is, Yohrling quickly adds that the productivity and adaptability of the Carolinas workforce has been another key in the company’s skyrocketing performance.
Yohrling is proud of the arrangement the company has with Cleve-land Community College to train prospective Curtiss-Wright Controls employees in special company-designed courses. That keeps the Shelby workforce technically proficient. For the Gastonia workers, there is Federal Aviation Admin-istration training school and a good bit of in-house instruction.
“The people are so mechanically inclined,” marvels Yohrling of workers in both plants. “They come off farms where they grew up helping their dads and granddads with farm equipment. They are truly great mechanics and they learn very, very quickly. They also have an incredible work ethic.”
“For every product line we transferred from New Jersey to North Carolina, within six months the productivity was 25 percent higher,” Yohrling says. “A joy” is
his term for this area’s non-union environment. “Give the employees the tools and challenge them, make sure they understand how to use the tools, fully understand the expectation and how to get there,” he says. “They love to be challenged.”
Curtiss-Wright Controls rewards this attitude with pay that is “probably a dollar, dollar and a quarter above most of the other high wage payers out there,” Yohrling says. “Our benefits package is extraordinary.”
Yohrling’s workforce praise is music to the ears for Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission. “Curtiss-Wright Controls puts these skills to work for higher uses, making aircraft parts,” he says. “They’re the kind of company anybody in the United States would love to have.”
The company’s name, Hicks remarks, is magical for impressing industry relocation prospects. He sometimes treats prospects to a tour of Curtiss-Wright Controls:
“It gives us credibility when we show prospects the people working on high tech aircraft components. It shows we can back up what we say about our workforce being able to learn new skills.”
Hicks adds another reason for the mechanical acumen. The area is in the middle of textile country and mills long have repaired their own machines rather than seek service from manufacturers in Europe and Japan. The mechanical background of fixing bulky looms transfers well.
Gerry Poston, 29, says he draws on both the farm and textile traditions. Now a process technician in the Gastonia plant, the veteran of nearly nine years with the company recently moved up from mechanic. In that position, he overhauled parts for The Boeing Company’s 737s and 727s, as well as for F-14 fighter jets.
“I’ve been around tractors,” says the Shelby resident whose brother is a crew chief in minor league auto racing. “And my dad made floor rugs as a small family business.”
Poston and his wife Heather are “real excited about the 100-year anniversary,” he says, adding that they took their first trip to the Outer Banks in May to visit the aviation-
related exhibits in the Kitty Hawk area. “We came back fired up.”
The Kitty Hawk celebration centers on a re-enactment of the first manned flight with a replica of the fabric and wood Model B Wright flyer. Takeoff is scheduled for 10:35 a.m. on December 17, 2003, the same time Orville Wright first took wing. Two pilots selected for the ceremony will flip a coin to determine who operates the craft – just as Wilbur and Orville Wright did a century ago.
Yohrling, his senior management and entire board of directors will be on hand to view the commemoration and tour the newly built museum of flight, financed primarily with funds from Curtiss-Wright Controls. But company celebrations are happening already around the country, such as the one at the Shelby plant in mid-October that honored workers and their families and hosted city and county dignitaries. Also, the company is awarding college scholarships to deserving children of throughout the country.
Yohrling Answers Call
Yohrling himself can point to early aerospace influences. As a 19-year-old student at New Jersey Institute of Technology, he worked for Bell Laboratories on a tracking system used on the first seven Mercury manned space missions.
The 63-year-old earned an engineering degree from NJIT, then got his master’s of business administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He left the elevator unit
of Westinghouse Electric Company in 1976 to join parent company Curtiss-Wright Corporation, then in Fairfield, N.J.
Along the way, he and wife Elaine raised two sons and a daughter and now have two grandchildren. Between serving six years as the first-ever Democratic mayor of Randolph, N.J., and coaching youth teams in soccer, track and basketball, he “just worked up through the ranks,” from parent company manufacturing manager to director of operations for Curtiss-Wright Controls.
Shortly after the firm bought the Shelby facility, Yohrling decided a general manager on site was essential. “When are you going?” his boss asked. His answer, 18 years ago, was “Right away.”
Curtiss-Wright Controls later bought the Gastonia facility and Yohrling took over as president nearly six years ago. When he moved the headquarters of the company from Fairfield, N.J., to Gastonia in 2000, it was an affirmation of what he has come to believe in wholeheartedly: the productivity advantage of the Carolina Piedmont.
He says he’s confident his employees’ “can-do attitude” will keep the North Carolina operations up to speed with the challenges of proliferating product diversity.
For his part, Yohrling knows the future he’ll pursue. He’ll retire within three years, but he plans to remain involved with Curtiss-Wright Controls as an adviser. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” he muses, “and now I can tutor the next generation of senior management.”
He figures he’ll keep a home at Hilton Head, S.C., as well as his Gastonia house, which will be his North Carolina base because of its proximity to Charlotte, which he calls “an incredibly great city.” A Gastonia presence also keeps him close to his health support network. He has fought a hard but winning battle against prostate cancer this year. He thinks he’ll volunteer in something health related and he’s looking for other causes to support, possibly Habitat for Humanity.
He’ll have help keeping busy. Bob Morgan, president of the Gaston County Chamber of Commerce, says he’s been hoping to get to know Yohrling better and harness his skills as a leader in community work.