International Yacht Company Celebrates 150 Years of Manufacturing in America Based in New Bedford

Edson Corp. to Celebrate 150th Anniversary
NEW BEDFORD — If you’ve been in business since the Lincoln administration, you must be doing something right.
The Edson Corp., a marine accessories manufacturer in the North End, can make that claim. It’s been selling innovative pumps, high-tech steering systems and a slew of gadgets for boating enthusiasts since the year before Honest Abe took office. And all of its products bear that once common but increasingly rare label, “Made in America.”
The milestones have been many, but none as big as the one the company will celebrate in 2009: its 150th anniversary.
Edson has survived several major wars, the Great Depression and decades of overseas competition to become one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in Massachusetts and the United States. Even as the nation struggles through a new economic crisis, Edson president Will Keene said the company will persevere with its long-held values intact.
“Our core principle is that the customers come first, then the employees and then the owners,” Mr. Keene said, playing off the meaning of CEO. “The business model is about making money. We run to make money, but we don’t run to be greedy, either. We like to be fair, honest and balanced.”
Will, who owns Edson with his brother, Hank, said he takes a “paternalistic” approach to running the business, choosing not to adopt the selfish corporate attitude he sees so prevalent on Wall Street. That’s why the turnover rate among the company’s 27 employees is so low, he said.
“I try to stay as aware of what’s going on in my employees’ lives as best I can. Some accuse us of being too paternalistic. I never felt we have been. Our employees expect respect from us, and we expect a certain amount of respect from them.”
Edson World Headquarters is located in an unassuming 18,000 square foot, one-story brick building on Duchaine Boulevard, tucked away in New Bedford Business Park. But behind the modest walls, workers continue to churn out thousands of durable accessories for fishing vessels, fancy power boats and yachts alike.
And to think, it all began with one man’s notion that a simple pump could filter water and sewage from leak-prone boats.
Jacob Edson founded the company in Boston in 1859 to manufacture the diaphragm pump, which he invented to keep commercial fishing boats dry on the high seas. Gloucester-based fishing fleets at that time had to contend not only with undependable weather forecasts, poor food and frequent illness, but leaky boats that often distracted them from reeling in fish. The pumps bailed water and waste out of the ships’ bilges, allowing the men more time to fish rather than flush the ships out themselves.
Edson’s invention gained popularity on land, too. In the late 1800s, as populations in metropolitan areas swelled, the company introduced the first horse-drawn honey wagon to pump septic tanks. There was little difference between the pump used for the dirty work and the diaphragm pump, which by that time had become a mainstay on most commercial vessels.
After marketing the diaphragm pump proved successful, Mr. Edson pioneered other products for commercial mariners, including deck rails, cabin vents and steering systems. By the time Mr. Edson retired, he had more than 60 patents to his name, Will said.
As Edson products became more widely available, the company began a relationship with America’s Cup and turned its attention to recreational boating. Edson started outfitting sailboats and yachts with steering systems, wheels, deck plates to secure rigging, flag staffs and stanchions.
When Mr. Edson saw a need for a product, he built it, and his company continues to develop products for niche markets, which is why it remains successful, Mr. Keene said. Edson believed in quality, ingenuity and innovation, and I don’t think we’ve strayed too far from his values.”
During World War II, Edson equipped naval and merchant marine vessels with emergency steering systems and pumps. Today, the company regularly ships water pumps to U.S. troops in Iraq. Hank Keene said he feels proud to know something his company produces is being used for good on the other side of the world.
Will Keene said the company has never been afraid to be bold with its ideas for new products, citing a foot-operated foghorn as a long-ago example. Edson has been manufacturing goods for so long, the company’s products regularly turn up in antique shops, still in great condition, he said.
The company moved from Boston to the New Bedford waterfront in 1949 to more affordably manufacture its products. There, the company was in the thick of the action, side by side with fishing fleets and sailboats, many of which were equipped with Edson gadgets. Henry Keene, father of the current owners, purchased the company in 1956 and moved it to its home off of Phillips Road in the mid-1960s to cut costs.
“We didn’t need to be on the waterfront to do what we do,” Will said.
Edson shook things up again in the 1980s when it developed holding tank pump systems for marinas, yacht clubs and municipalities. Will said the company, with the help of its “Green Team,” became a leader in environmental cleanup efforts.
Will and Hank purchased the company from their father in 1989. After growing up with the company and working for it in various capacities over the years, Hank said it made perfect sense for he and his brother to steer Edson into the 21st century.
“People often say that you shouldn’t mix your hobby with your profession because it will take the hobby away from you, but once you’re bitten by the industry, it’s hard not to stay with it,” he said.
In another undertaking, Edson has played a major role in attempting to boost city tourism the past couple of years, according to Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. The company has helped the city market its port as a layover destination by shuttling groups of tourists from their cruise ships to the factory, Mr. Morrissey said.
“Edson has been very smart and savvy by partnering with the city to get those people to the factory. It’s great for the city because these people get to see firsthand that Edson is an asset that truly differentiates us from anywhere else.”
Loud, hulking machines for welding and other assembly are scattered throughout the Edson workshop, separated by lengthy shelves of finished products, ranging from stainless drink holders to satellite TV antenna mounts, popular accessories for powerboats. A warehouse at the back of the building boasts more wall-to-wall shelves, packed with raw materials waiting to be transformed.
One recent afternoon, orders were being prepared for customers in California and China. That isn’t unusual, Hank said, adding that Edson sells to both boat companies and individual boat owners. “We’re not going to turn anyone away,” Hank said.
Will and Hank’s father, now 84, still regularly visits the company headquarters.
Despite Edson’s long and stable history, the owners have not turned a blind eye to the current economic mess. Will said it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete in a global market. Ideally, the state government would give every business 150 years old or older a tax break, he said. If that were to happen, it might level the playing field enough to give those older businesses a chance to thrive.
“It used to be that ‘made in America’ meant something special. It was the gold standard,” Will said. “Now, this country is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Bruce Perry, manager of the Edson foundry in Taunton, said he has always been against moving manufacturing work overseas, where the same quality and craftsmanship cannot be found.
“It’s a tough business and you’ve got to have the talent,” he said, proudly displaying an American flag printed on his shirt sleeve.
Mr. Morrissey said the key to Edson’s longevity is the relationship between the owners and the employees, who feel a “strong loyalty and commitment” to the company.
“Edson is a strong family-owned business and it has been for a very long time. There’s an important economic component that comes from employing people locally. In order for places like this to stay in business, people in America need to focus on buying American goods. Frankly, the advantages that offshore manufacturing offer, such as pricing, then ultimately degrade the quality of life of families in cities around the country, like New Bedford.”
Will Keene said half jokingly that he wishes previous owners of the company had left him a guide book with advice about how to get through difficult times. He knows no such book exists, but he prefers to think positive. Edson has been through a lot in its century and a half, and it has fared “pretty good over the years.”
He said he believes that as long as the company keeps developing new, innovative products and crafts them with care, people will come back to spend their money.
“You can’t find this quality anywhere in the world,” Will said, running his hands over a solid teak yacht wheel in the Edson lobby. “But you can find it here.”
December 28, 2008
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