Back in the late 1930s, the zither, that old-fashioned musical instrument consisting of a flat wooden box with multiple strings stretched across it, played a role in attracting what would grow to become one of the largest employers in Franklin County to its now-global home in Washington, Mo.
Harold T. Lange, who in 1934 co-founded the Spoehrer-Lange Company with Hermann F. Spoehrer in Maplewood, once told The Missourian that the men knew of Washington, in part, because of the zither.
Both Spoehrer and his father played the zither, Lange said, and they were aware the instruments were then being made in Washington “by skilled craftsmen.” So when their company outgrew its location and the men began looking for a place to expand, they looked in Washington.
“The number of Germans in Washington attracted us,” Lange told The Missourian in 1992, when Sporlan purchased acreage in the Schulze Industrial Park to build its 65,000-square-foot headquarters and 70,000-square-foot distribution center.
“Germans are good at making things, they are natural mechanics and good workers.”
The community is still home to good workers, said Jenny Parmentier, general manager of what is today known as the Sporlan Division of Parker Hannifin.
Earlier this month at Sporlan’s annual employee recognition event, Parmentier recognized 10 employees with 40 years’ service and many more with 30 and 20 years. Last year, the Sporlan Division honored three employees with 50 years of service.
80 Years in Business, 75 in Washington
Just five years after founding the Spoehrer-Lange Company in a 750-square-foot room above the Cutter Machine Company at 3723 Commonwealth in Maplewood in January 1934, Spoehrer and Lange opened a plant in Washington.
“A site was found on Seventh Street, which was next to a cow pasture at the time,” The Missourian reported in 1992.
The company, which then and today makes components for the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry or HVAC/R, had a slow first year, selling just 792 assorted thermostatic expansion valves with Lange and Spoehrer building them almost one valve at a time. But sales grew quickly.
The next year, production increased to 3,800 valves and in the third year, 9,200 valves.
“The substantial increase in sales each year was partially a result of efforts made to help different manufacturers of air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment develop new equipment,” a company history reads. “Companies such as Carrier, Westinghouse and Hussmann invited Lange to their laboratories to test Sporlan valves.”
In 1944, the company name was changed to Sporlan Valve Company, although Sporlan had been the product name and part of the trademark since the beginning.
Around that time, the plant in Washington was expanded with a 6,000-square-foot addition and the company became interested in developing a filter-drier as a result of valves being returned as “defective,” not due to material or workmanship, but because of dirt and moisture.
That led to the development of the Catch-All filter-drier in 1947 and the creation of Jefferson Products Company to produce the part for Sporlan, among other things.
The two companies had a manufacturing relationship, but operated as separate corporations, although Lange, Spoehrer and a third man, Emil Moellenbrock, were the founders of Jefferson Products.
By 1950, Sporlan was a supplier to most of the major manufacturers of air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment, the company’s history notes.
The plant in Washington reached maximum capacity in the early 1970s with no room for expansion, so a new assembly plant was built on a 19-acre site in the Feltmann Industrial Park on West Main. Business continued to increase and expansions were needed at the new site in ’78, ’79 and ’86.
In 1992, Sporlan Valve and Jefferson Products entered into an agreement to purchase 28 acres in the Schulze Industrial Park to relocate the Sporlan headquarters from Maplewood to Washington and also to build a distribution center.
At that time Sporlan employed 330 people at two Washington plants (on Seventh Street and West Main Street) with a total of 200,000 square feet; and Jefferson Products employed 142 at two plants, one in Washington and a second in Owensville, with a total of 16,000 square feet.
In 1994, Sporlan’s new facility in the Schulze Industrial Park was complete.
Today the 65,000-square-foot office space is still used as headquarters of the Sporlan Division, and the 70,000-square-foot distribution center is from where all Sporlan brand products built in Washington are shipped.
Bill Miller, Sr., president of Washington’s Civic Industrial Corporation and president of the 353 Redevelopment Corporation, said Sporlan has been one of Washington’s premier industries since it came here in the 1930s.
“Sporlan found the kind of superior workers and managers, creative and loyal, here that it wanted,” Miller Sr. said. “The workers embraced Sporlan’s principles, and they profited along with the company. The expansion in Washington is proof that Washington and Sporlan are a good fit. We wish Sporlan continued success.”
Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy agreed, noting Sporlan arrived in Washington at a time before the city began aggressively pursuing industry to locate here. And they’ve been an asset to Washington ever since, she said.
“They have provided quality jobs to our community, and certainly many families in Washington were raised and sent their children to college as a result of their parents working at Sporlan,” said Mayor Lucy.
“When I think of Sporlan, I think of a long commitment to the community and our citizens,” she added. “They have been a leader, an important part of our community.”
Job Security, More Global Presence
In 2004, the Sporlan Valve Company was purchased by Parker Hannifin Corporation, “the world’s leading diversified manufacturer of motion and control technologies and systems, providing precision-engineered solutions for a wide variety of mobile, industrial and aerospace markets.”
In fiscal year 2013, Parker’s sales exceeded $13 billion.
Ten years ago, many people in Franklin County worried what the sale would mean for the Sporlan brand, but Parmentier said it was always a good thing.
“It increased the sales immediately and added a few Parker locations,” she said.
“It took similar products that Parker already had and joined them under the Sporlan umbrella, so products are sold under the Sporlan brand name and the Parker brand name. And then they all became Sporlan Division.”
Parker purchased Sporlan because it was “a good business, a good brand,” said Parmentier. And Parker helped to make that even better through its knowledge of lean manufacturing.
“They brought . . . operational experience and excellence,” she said. “That is really what has afforded Sporlan the opportunity to grow and become profitable and a global company.
“It’s given people job security and global presence.”
Since the purchase of Sporlan, Parker has invested heavily in Franklin County with lean principles, capital equipment and making the plants safe and a better environment for the employees, said Parmentier.
“It was a good fit for Parker, and good for everyone involved,” she remarked. “Parker has taken the company to the next level and made it what it is today.”
Today Sporlan Division of Parker Hannifin includes four facilities in Washington — headquarters/distribution center and Plant 3, both in the Schulze Industrial Park; Plant 1, which is the old Jefferson Products building on Eighth Street; and Plant 2 on West Main Street in the Feltmann Industrial Park.
There also are two small plants in Owensville.
Across those six facilities and including the sales force for those components, Sporlan Division employs 1,150 people. That makes it the second-largest employer in Franklin County behind Mercy Hospital Washington.
Worldwide, the Sporlan Division employs more than 1,700 people, Parmentier noted.
Earlier this year, the global sales team came to Washington to celebrate 80 years of the Sporlan brand. People came from Europe, Brazil, China, Australia and India.
Today Sporlan Division of Parker Hannifin is the largest U.S. manufacturer of air-conditioning and refrigeration components.
Customers include worldwide names like Carrier and Trane, Hussmann, Hill Phoenix, True Manufacturing, as well as wholesalers and distributors in the after-market.
Residential, Commercial and Transport Markets
Even as technology changes and advances, there are still some products Sporlan has made from its beginning. The G Valve is one.
To most people that probably doesn’t mean much, but anyone who has an air conditioner installed in their home benefits from the products. Sporlan Division produces parts for residential air conditioning as well as commercial and transport markets.
“A regular household consumer could very easily find a Sporlan TEV or Catch-All filter-drier on their system,” said Parmentier. “And if they don’t have one, they should.
“It flows refrigerant,” she explained. “It regulates what we call the superheat in the system and makes it run. It tells it when to release more refrigerant so your house gets colder and stays the even temperature.
“The Catch-All catches all the contaminants in your system.”
Sporlan Division doesn’t sell to the “white goods” or appliance market for things like refrigerators and freezers, but it does serve the commercial market.
“We do a lot of supermarkets. Any refrigerated or frozen dairy case could have several Sporlan products on it,” said Parmentier, “mechanical and electronic products.”
Think ice cream and slushy machines, anything that cools or freezes or refrigerates, Parmentier said, and the trucks that transport these items too.
Size doesn’t matter. Sporlan Division can produce components for something as small as a slushy machine or as large as a rooftop chiller for a major warehouse, said Parmentier.
“From a home air-conditioner unit of 4 tons, up to a rooftop unit of 150 tons,” she remarked.
‘Innovate for Our Customers’
Looking ahead to the future of Sporlan Division, Parmentier said, “The goal is always to have the innovative product or solution for our customers, and based on all of our history, we lead the industry when it comes to mechanical TEVs and flow control products.
“We feel like we can provide those solutions, so we’re looking for new ways to provide those solutions to our customers while not forgetting where we came from, not forgetting what our core business is and what we’ve always been really good at.”
That will continue to make Sporlan Division an excellent place to work for future generations. Already the company has employed second, third, even fourth generations.
“We pride ourselves on that,” said Parmentier. “Providing a good work environment.
“We have a strong product, strong heritage, and Parker has made it stronger and secured the future.”