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100 years: Twin Disc go from farm yard to global powerhouse

by Jeni Bone 7 Nov 21:46 PST
Twin Disc Gallery © Jeni Bone

John H. Batten was born into the Twin Disc business; the fourth generation in a company founded by his great-grandfather in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. At 53, he is at the helm of the global company that designs, manufactures and distributes power transmission equipment for marine and industrial applications.

Recently, John visited the Twin Disc Pacific HQ in Brisbane, Australia, where he discussed the origins of the company, its evolution, and what his hopes are for the brand, the business and the industry in the next century.

100 years is a major milestone, how has Twin Disc, Inc. commemorated the centenary so far?

We are celebrating with many events around the globe throughout 2018.

The most significant event was the official opening of the new Heritage Gallery at our US headquarters, which celebrates where we have come from, showing the evolution of technology from the original Wallis tractor with the first Twin Disc clutch in 1918 to the present day.

There's a section dedicated to the decade that defines the very backbone of Twin Disc throughout its 100-year history, the lead into World War II, when Twin Disc was commissioned to design and supply marine transmission for the Higgins Landing Craft that were used throughout the South Pacific and the D-Day invasion.

More than 40,000 landing craft (or LCVPs) served US troops during WWII, and most did not come back. They were either destroyed in conflict or left in theatre, eventually repurposed as fishing boats, crew boats and work vessels. Because those vessels were in use and needed to be serviced, the little company from Racine gained customers around the world, which introduced Twin Disc to lifelong partners in Europe, Asia and Australia.

In September, we hosted our Global Distributor Meeting with distribution teams from 6 continents and 33 countries. We celebrated Twin Disc's history, partnership and growth, and outlined our future strategy. Of course, we celebrated with the friends and colleagues who were instrumental in achieving this remarkable milestone.

To top it all off, we are in the process of sourcing an original landing craft from World War II, which our Perth office located. That will be a fascinating addition to the Heritage Gallery.

How did Twin Disc's vital role in WWII develop into pleasure craft?

The 1979 oil shock and energy crisis led to a recession in the US. What followed in the 80s was an oil surplus, which caused the oil price to drop dramatically and boat ownership became more affordable. There was an explosion of pleasure craft, which spurred the development of the marine transmission range.

Where are Twin Disc products manufactured?

Our main manufacturing headquarters is in Racine. We have a marine transmissions factory in Belgium, Technodrive in Italy and a propeller factory in Switzerland.

What made Racine such fertile ground for industry?

Racine is a small town of around 80,000 people, colonised by many Danish, Swedish and European immigrants in the late 1800s and again after the World War I. My family was among them. They were pioneering people; tight knit, ethical and resilient.

They were farming people with a knowledge of wagons, tractors and combustion engines. Many more came to Racine from Chicago attracted by the work, which led to a population boom.

That era was hugely productive in Racine, which is home to SC Johnson, Modine Manufacturing, and Heinrich Company. My great-grandfather, P.H. Batten, used to fish with H.F. Johnson and Art Modine. They were friends with each other and with their customers.

What are the values that have endured over the 100 years?

The "secret" to a strong business is always reinventing and always trying to do the right thing. My great-grandfather was fond of quoting his good friend and business partner HF Johnson Sr., "the goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in business."

He meant that the quality of your word and your products, respect for employees and genuine commitment to customer service, are the foundations of a successful business.

Without those ethics, the loyalty of our employees and those bonds with our customers the business would not have lasted 100 years.

What was your progress through the company?

I went to University and studied History, achieving a BA and going on to work in marketing in the ski resort town of Vale. It was important to me to acquire skills and experience from beyond the family business. Then I completed by second degree in Mechanical Engineering.

I joined Twin Disc in 1996 as an Application Engineer and then served as Commercial Manager of Marine & Propulsion Products. I was based in Europe for a few years, and then took on the role of COO from 2008 to 2013. I became Chief Executive Officer and President in 2013.

How many countries does Twin Disc have a presence in?

Twin Disc has 11 distributors worldwide: Australia, China, Singapore, India, Japan, USA, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

How significant is the Australian market?

Australia is a significant market for all our products, particularly marine. The ingenuity and innovation of the Australian marine manufacturers and the input from end users have pushed us to adapt and improve products. Australian boating conditions, particularly for the commercial fleet, such as cray fishers, are extremely harsh. They operate fast, lightweight, aluminium boats and their feedback has been invaluable for enhancements to Twin Disc marine control drives, among other systems.

Recreational boating in Australia is part of the culture, and local boat brands are proactive in working with Twin Disc Pacific on innovative, customised solutions for customers.

What is the impact of the acquisition of Veth Propulsion?

Technology is constantly changing and to keep ahead, we have to evolve. Veth specialises in propulsion and rudder propellers, bow thrusters and generator sets for ships, which is a perfect fit for us. Veth is a pioneer of new technology, such as electric and diesel hybrid propulsion.

For two years prior to the acquisition, Twin Disc was a distributor for Veth in key Asian markets, then throughout North America. Our companies share similar cultures based on providing customers with high-quality products and leading design, engineering, and manufacturing services.

Acquiring Veth strategically expands our global market opportunity, increases our size, scale, and scope within the marine industry. This is part of our continual strategy to diversify our geographies, markets, and products.

What excites you about the next 100 years?

We have long-range plans for the future, we are serious about succession planning and working on that with the Board.

There are strategies in place to ensure a skilled workforce and efficient distribution channels. We are establishing an Aftermarket Spare Parts facility 8 miles from our headquarters in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, and a new factory in Lufkin, Texas. We saw sales increase 43 percent in fiscal 2018 and the growth continued in the first quarter of fiscal 2019. We need additional space in Racine facility to accommodate the growth. Our new location in Texas, along with enhanced operational efficiencies, will help us continue to grow and develop to keep pace with our clients' needs, allowing us to provide exceptional value and superior service along the way.

Every day is different. We are a global business, so our customers, products, markets are constantly changing and we are alert to their needs. As engineers, we are required to solve new and intellectually challenging issues, which can often lead to the development of new products.

On a personal note, I love Twin Disc products and I love boats!

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