Tuesday, November 11, 2008
A happy 100th
Reimers reports record sales
By Lorraine Halsted
The Winchester Star
Clear Brook — When Mike Stottlemyer started working at Reimers Electra Steam
32 years ago, the company was producing electric steam irons as fast as the textile industry was scooping them up. Now Stottlemyer spends each workday
welding steam boilers at the 24-employee business on Martinsburg Pike (U.S. 11) north of Clear Brook.
The market for commercial electric steam irons has long since vanished. A large chunk of Reimers’ customer base disappeared when the textile industry started
shipping jobs overseas in the early 1990s. To fill the void, company officials decided to boost their production of steam boilers, the bulk of which
had been sold to textile industry customers for use with their electric steam irons. Stottlemyer said he and other employees were uncertain how the
company would fare with steam boilers as its flagship product.
“It was very difficult in the beginning,” he said. “Some people got scared about it. But then the boilers started taking off.”
Reaching a milestone
After more than a decade of expanding its line of steam boiler products, Reimers is celebrating its 100th anniversary with record sales, despite the
nation’s current economic slump. Roger L. Burkhart, Reimers’ president and owner, said worldwide sales of the steam boilers have helped to insulate
the company from the effects of the downturn. “The economy hiccuped on us once in October,” he said. But that only affected production for about five
days before it picked up again. A.E. Reimers built his first steam boiler about six years after starting his company, but only sold a small number
of them during the early years.
He established the company after patenting his main product, the industrial-use electric steam iron, in 1908, Burkhart said. In 1921, the company encountered
some hard times and declared bankruptcy. It then re-incorporated, and Reimers gained a new business partner, N. K. Tavender. Tavender’s son-in-law
L.J. McCormack took over the company in the early 1940s. It was then conducting a high volume of business with O’Sullivan Rubber Co. in Winchester.
Reimers supplied the company with heating elements for equipment used in its rubber shoe heel production.
(O’Sullivan remains in Winchester, but now produces vinyl and alloy films for the automotive industry. )
McCormack moved Reimers’ production facility from New Jersey to the Winchester area in 1947, so it could be closer to O’Sullivan and still within a day’s
drive from its New York-based sales office, which operated until 1978. By the time Burkhart bought the company in 1986, he said, employees had been
assembling about 5,000 commercial-grade irons per year. Each sold for between $300 and $400.
“It was a niche,” Burkhart said. “It was a good niche.”
The company’s steam-iron sales were strong until the early 1990s when approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the door for the textile
industry to take advantage of cheaper labor overseas. “The free trade agreement resulted in the garment industry, which was labor-intensive, to leave
the United States,” Burkhart said. “We lost about 60 percent of our business.”
A new game plan
As Reimers’ market for steam irons disappeared, it began expanding its steam boiler production. The company now makes three basic boilers that can
be customized for thousands of uses. Its biggest sales come from the boxy table-top boilers that cost about $1,000. The majority are purchased for
jewelry cleaning, Burkhart said, while other versions of it are designed for a variety of uses, such as cleaning dentures and blocking cowboy hats.
The medium-sized cylindrical steam boilers, which stand about three feet high and sell for about $8,000 to $10,000, are used for multiple processes such
as dry cleaning, instrument sterilization, and steam baths. The large five-foot-tall rectangular steam boilers are used primarily by larger manufacturers
for a variety of industrial heating processes.
A rocky transition
The transition from irons to boilers wasn’t as seamless as Burkhart had initially hoped it would be. Several years ago, sales dropped and work hours
were reduced. “Three-and-a-half years ago, we were hanging on, but we were not making a lot of money,” Burkhart said. Then he discovered Web site optimization
and pay-per-click advertising through search engine giant Google. It wasn’t long before the Internet marketing techniques started boosting sales, he
said. “Within 90 days of getting involved, we could see a turnaround. And each year it got better.”
During the first year of Burkhart’s Internet marketing initiative, steam boiler sales increased 16 percent. In the second year, sales made a smaller 4
percent jump, while this year, sales have moved up another 10 percent so far. Reimers now sells about 1,600 steam boilers a year, and the company can
produce about 2,000 versions. The pay-per-click advertising is also driving sales for the largest industrial-sized boilers, which sell for as much
as $35,000 apiece. “Historically, we sold one or two a year,” Burkhart said. Now Reimers sells 15 to 20 of the large steam boilers annually. “This
pay-per-click has really turned us around,” he added.
An international reach
Although Reimers has sold its products to international markets since the early 1960s, sales in other countries have doubled as a result of the online
marketing. Several years ago, the company opened a subsidiary in China — Tianjin Reimers Electra Co. Ltd., east of Beijing. Sales have yet to
take off. The company, which employs a handful of people, has hit some snags in navigating Chinese laws that regulatesteam boiler production and in
finding the proper venue to market the products. “We did a market study there,” said Burkhart’s wife Anne, the company’s corporate secretary and treasurer.
“There is a very good market there. We just haven’t found the right sales team.”
Perhaps the most noticeable change at Reimers for longtime employees is the technology now used in the manufacturing process. Ralph Shirley, 73, who
assists with quality control at Reimers, said the robotic welding machine makes everyone’s job much easier. “They weld all the ends of these boilers,”
he said as he ran his hand along the rounded edge of one to check the seam for leaks. When Shirley started working at Reimers 42 years ago, the company’s
production was still geared toward steam irons and the work was more labor-intensive. “We did everything then by hand,” he recalled, including the
welding. Stottlemyer said his robotic welding machine has cut production time by 40 percent. Like Shirley, he doesn’t miss the earlier days, when welding
meant dealing with the heat and big plumes of black smoke blowing in his face. All he has to do now is enter a program, and the robot takes care of
The Winchester Star