A pair of Racine entrepreneurs turned an unwanted business into a global success that lives on today.
Back in 1935, Francis von Schrader (1904-1992) and Harry D. (H.D.) Rench (1901-1980) worked at electric appliance maker Hamilton Beach. The company’s carpet cleaning equipment division was managed by von Schrader while Rench oversaw the Hamilton Beach marketing and advertising functions. As a sideline, Rench operated the Ideal Tub Co., which made small, foldable tubs for laundry and bathing.
Opportunity came knocking that year when Hamilton Beach wanted to divest its underperforming carpet cleaning product line to focus on other products. The pair jumped at the chance.
Their purchase included 35 completed carpet cleaning machines and a sizable parts inventory. Two new companies were created – von Schrader Manufacturing Co. to sell the machines, and Rench Manufacturing Co. to produce the equipment and cleaning supplies.
“They were two personalities who got along great separately,” said Fritz Rench, H.D.’s son.
Both businesses set up shop in the Racine Industrial Plant (now the Racine Arts & Business Center), a sprawling factory complex at 1405 16th St. that had originally housed the Racine Wagon & Carriage Co. in the 19th century. The partners were able to hit the ground running, Fritz Rench said, because an existing business, Schartow Iron Products Co., was already in the building and capable of assembling the electric-powered carpet cleaning machines.
The business partners worked hard at their areas of expertise to make and sell the machines and supplies to independent business owners. These owners used the machines and supplies to provide cleaning services to commercial businesses and private households.
Product improvements were made as the businesses grew. H.D. Rench was awarded a patent in the late 1930s for a solvent-based powder designed to be brushed into carpets with a broom. The powder absorbed the soil until it could be vacuumed out This dry product was needed because some types of carpet fibers would absorb the moisture from cleaning solutions.
During World War II, Rench Manufacturing produced bomb fuses as a subcontractor for farm equipment maker (and temporary defense contractor) Massey Ferguson. Fritz Rench said that because a health condition prevented his father from military service, the work was done at cost as his contribution to the war effort.
By the 1940s, however, the Racine Industrial Plant (that had housed successful start-ups like Modine Manufacturing Co., Webster Electric and Midland Container) was falling into disrepair. Rench and von Schrader bought the property in 1944 and immediately started to make upgrades.
(Visit the Spirit of the Racine Entrepreneur exhibit from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, June 18. The exhibit space, on the second floor of the Racine Arts & Business Center, 1405 16th St., will have a special display of 42 milk bottles and other items from long-gone local dairies.)
After the war, H.D. Rench made more improvements to the dry carpet cleaning product. He and Herb Harris developed a carpet cleaning machine designed with two horizontal brushes.
The HOST dry extraction system, formulated with environmentally friendly “green” ingredients, was introduced in 1956. The machines and cleaning compounds – produced and sold by Racine Industries – are marketed to operators of cleaning services and do-it-yourself rentals.
The von Schrader company continued with a foam-based cleaning system and machines for cleaning carpets, upholstery, walls and ceilings. Its markets are independently owned commercial cleaning businesses. The company received an export award in recognition of its international presence in 1974.
The Rench family acquired von Schrader Manufacturing in the 1980s.
The equipment and cleaning supplies for both companies are still produced at the Racine Arts & Business Center. Each (von Schrader and HOST) operate training schools housed at RBC for equipment buyers and users who come to Racine from around the world.
“Racine has been a great place to do business,” said Fritz Rench. “You have people with the skills you need. Plus, you’ll find that one entrepreneur is willing to help out another.”
(Material for this story came from the Spirit of the Racine Entrepreneur exhibit at the Racine Arts & Business Center, 1405 16th St.; Racine Heritage Museum archives, company websites and Wikipedia.)
(Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because on Wednesday, June 26, from 6 to 8 p.m., the Racine County Eye will hold Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night at The Brickhouse, 316 Main St. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.)