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The first 100 years: Racine’s Reliance Controls hits century mark

The first 100 years: Racine’s Reliance Controls hits century mark


RACINE - Dave, Jeff and Mike Flegel are fortunate that their grandfather, Benjamin Flegel, was a watchmaker and also a tinkerer.

They owe their current jobs and company, Reliance Controls, in large part to him. This year that company, an employer of 50 to 60 people, turns 100 years old.

Benjamin Franklin Flegel's original invention, in 1909, was a time switch that turned electrical devices on and off at preset times. The first one was mainly used by shopkeepers to turn their store lights off, said company President Dave Flegel.

"He could see that all the shops up and down the street had the same problem: They wanted lights on at night, but they had no way to turn them off when they didn't want them on," he said.

Benjamin started his company in Warren, Ohio, in 1909 but brought it to Racine two years later, to a third floor on College Avenue in Downtown. Reliance Controls, now at 2001 Young Court, is in its fourth local location, a 30,000-square-foot building constructed in 1998. Reliance also has another 10,000 square feet at 1820 Layard Ave.

In the early decades, the business grew based on time controls - although they are widely manufactured now by others. "Companies that came after us basically copied us," said Jeff Flegel, executive vice president for sales and marketing.

Reliance still makes time controls such as the ones that turn billboard lighting on and off. About 90 percent of the country's billboards are controlled by Reliance timers, the Flegels said.

Its timers also are used with machinery, electric water heaters and oil wells, which must be rested periodically so the wells don't run dry.

Shift in strategy

For Reliance, timers now make up only a small share of a very large market. The company's bread and butter today is the manual transfer switch. In the early 1980s, the brothers saw that as the better opportunity, Dave Flegel said.

"We pioneered the product category," Jeff said.

The main focus is transfer switches for portable generators; they allow a generator to be connected to household circuits. If the power goes off, the generator can immediately take over.

Linking a product to portable generators may not sound like big business. But the Flegels said there are 10.6 million generators in the country. Few are sold in Wisconsin, where protracted outages are rare. But in some parts of the country, outages are much more common and repairs slower to come.

Reliance makes more than 500 different kinds of transfer switch kits which are sold through Home Depot, Lowe's and some hardware stores.

Reliance benefitted from huge sales in 1999, as the Y2K issue scared countless people into buying generators. Those sales bumped Reliance's employment to more than 100 that year.

"We told them it wasn't true," said Jeff Flegel - but people bought generators and transfer switches anyway.

"It's either 'my minister' or 'my wife,' " that convinced men to buy the generators that year, said Mike Flegel, senior vice president. "And you don't have to talk very much to convince a guy to buy a gadget!"

Today, Reliance has 36 active patents and continues to create new products - many at the suggestion of customers who need particular problems solved. And the vast majority of the manufacturing is still done in-house, in Racine.

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Michael "Mick" Burke covers business and the Village of Sturtevant. He is the proud father of two daughters and owner of a fantastic, although rug-chewing, German shepherd dog.

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