History of the Biehn Group of Companies
Born an entrepreneur, Charlie Biehn as a young boy, weeded his family’s and neighbor’s yards in Cincinnati, Ohio for a penny per weed. As he grew older, he delivered newspapers, sold magazine subscriptions and collected old car batteries and refurbished them. During the summers he spent on his great-uncle’s farm along the Ohio River, he and his brother would get frogs along the riverbank and sell them to the local butcher.
A year after he graduated from Roger Bacon High School in 1951, Charlie entered the U.S. Army as a member of the 82nd Airborne division. After his term of service, he and a buddy decided to find their destinies by “touring the country”. Their thumbs got tired right around the Charlotte, North Carolina area. They located another old military pal who had settled in that area and the three of them set up a bachelors’ pad. Charlie looked around for a job and found himself one day selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door. An extraordinary salesperson who combined charm with in-depth knowledge of his product, within the year Charlie was the regions’ #1 salesperson and among the top five in the nation. He next went to work for Victor Comptometer, a company that manufactured and sold the first commercially successful mechanical adding machines. Again, ambition, initiative and salesmanship took him far; eighteen months later, he became Victor’s youngest Regional Sale Manager and was transferred to head up the office in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
During his time in Charlotte, Charlie had courted and become engaged to Lillie Ruth Strider and Ruth married him a year later and followed him to Pennsylvania. They bought a nice little house and started producing children; first Darlene, followed by Charles Jr (Chuck). In the meantime, ambitious and always seeking new challenges, he took a job in Dayton, Ohio at Simonds, Worden and White, an industrial paper knife manufacturer and distributor of printing supplies, such as cutting sticks, paper drills and drill blocks. They settled in the Miami Valley where their youngest child, Joe, was born.
Things were going very well until the recession of the 1960’s hit. Simonds, Worden and White restructured and sold off portions of their business and laid off employees. Charlie was one of them. It was 1965. He was thirty-two, had a wife, three small children, and a Chihuahua. They had just broken ground to build his and Ruth’s dream house. Another man might have hit the classified ads. Charlie decided this was a great opportunity to start his own business.
Naming his company CB Sales, Charlie worked out of his rental home’s garage brokering machine knives. Never afraid of hard work, Charlie would head out on Sunday night and makes sales calls all week to return Friday night. In the meantime, the new house was finished and he and the family moved in. It was one of the first houses in the development, so on Sunday afternoon, Ruth and the kids would stand out front and wave him off as he drove his little red Volkswagen Beetle across the undeveloped lots. There was no money, so some nights Charlie would sleep in the car and then bathe, shave and dress in a gas station bathroom. He ate crackers and cheese and chocolate milk for meals. His good friend, Sky Livingston, worked for another knife manufacturer and if he was also out on the road, he’d invite Charlie to share his hotel room. They’d take turns calling on customers. It was a crazy life, gone all week, spending Saturdays on paperwork, sometimes robbing Peter to pay Paul, but slowly, inevitably, CB Sales started gaining ground. Within a couple of years, Charlie’s friend, Sky, was able to join him at CB Sales as his first employee. Then things really started happening. Charlie and Sky were the Dynamic Duo—natural salesmen, passionate at what they did, constantly pushing their way out of the box. Their skill, knowledge and experience helped win them customer after customer. They were hungry too, for success. They sold almost anything their customers wanted: saw blades, steel rule dies, butcher knives, tape and many other odd products. They were out on the road every week; back at the house, Charlie’s wife, Ruth, took business calls, hastily shushing the kids and dog when the work line rang.
Initially they created a small office and warehouse in the basement of the house, but before long it had outgrown the area and they moved the office to a small storefront in West Carrollton, Ohio, the small town outside Dayton where Charlie and Ruth had built their house. As part of the business plan, Charlie and Sky started setting up distributors all over the U.S., mainly selling cutting sticks, paper drills and knives to the paper industry. They worked with various domestic factories that made specific knives for CB to sell, but when yet again a partner factory was late on delivery, Charlie decided to start manufacturing knives himself. And so CB Manufacturing and Sales was born.
In 1969, CB moved to a larger building and bought the first of many machines. Charlie knew little about manufacturing, but he was a voracious learner and with the help of some new people and a little ingenuity, he was soon making machine knives himself. When Charlie bought his second grinding machine, his father (who had joined him in the business) told him he was crazy, but Charlie said: “If I only have one machine and it breaks down, how can I serve my customers?” From the very start, the culture Charlie fostered at CB was customer satisfaction, an attitude that prevails today.
All start-up companies have lucky breaks; for CB, it was the explosion of the plastic’s industry in the 70’s. CB learned the technology to manufacture Pelletizer Knives and for years dominated the industry. In addition, Charlie was an avid amateur pilot; he liked to say one of the reasons he started his company was so he’d have a reason to fly and visit his customers! He invested in a small single engine personal aircraft and suddenly he had a whole new advantage over his competitors. In his little Comanche, he could easily and personally service customers all over the United States, particularly the petrochemical companies located in the Southwest and along the Gulf Coast. In an era where air travel was still very expensive and not always convenient, Charlie could be at a customer’s facility within hours to discuss a product, help problem solve, even make an emergency delivery.
Soon the small factory was overcrowded with machinery and Charlie bought ten acres of land outside the West Carrollton city limits. They used to joke CB was “the largest knife manufacturer in the country”—-almost all the others were located in the city! The new 10,000 square foot building that was built seemed huge and Charlie never dreamt back in 1971 that some day they would need 10 times that space!
Not only did Charlie love manufacturing, but also he was an innovator and an inventor who loved to take on the challenge of producing a cutting tool that would last longer or cut better than it’s predecessor. He kept a pad beside his bed to jot down ideas as they came to him in the night. From the start, CB concentrated on servicing their customers and producing what they wanted, rather than just trying to sell what they could make. CB has always been a “full-line” knife company, producing industrial knives for the plastic, paper, wood, steel and many other industries. CB began to concentrate on Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), manufacturing knives and precision steel specialties to their customers’ specifications. CB found the combination of customer service and quality made them a valued vendor for many machine makers.
One of the areas of the company that has always been a nice side of the business has been Sub-Contract Grinding. In the manufacture of knives, large, special grinding machines are required, most industrial manufacturers don’t have this type of grinding machine and thus must outsource this work. Charlie’s love of machines and technology was a real boon here—eventually CB Manufacturing boasted ownership of some the largest and most capable grinders in the Midwest. In fact one grinder, the 132″ Mattison Rotary Grinder, is only one of three that existent in the world. CB became a perfect source for the sub-contract grinding business and it has continued to be an important service that they still provide today.
In 1972, CB started doing their first international business, buying small tungsten carbide blades from a company in Japan and selling it thru a newly created division called Strider Corporation (after Ruth Biehn’s maiden name). Charlie soon developed the first successful tungsten carbide razor blades and these small knives revolutionized the cutting of synthetic fiber, plastic film and other materials. Today this small division is still the most innovative arm in the companies as they focus on knives made of exotic materials and special wear resistant coatings.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, CB Manufacturing continued to grow, mostly through the sales of plastic cutting knives and custom OEM knives. Charlie’s dedication to detail and ingenuity was such that CB found their quality was generally better than the competitors and thus could be a better source than most. During this time they entered many new markets including wood chipping, plastic and tire recycling, and many others.
In 1977, Chuck (Charles Jr.) started in the factory as a janitor and general laborer. Chuck worked in the factory for five years and has often said the experience was invaluable to his later, more responsible duties. He was also a machine operator, accounting clerk, purchasing agent, salesman and sales manager before being named as CB Manufacturing President in 1990 by Charlie.
Charlie’s daughter, Darlene, started working in the office as a file clerk. She later held positions as salesperson, office manager, and resale manager, making trips overseas to visit foreign-based vendors on behalf of the company. Like his older brother, Joe began in the factory, and then gradually migrated to jobs in different departments. Because of the large need for heat-treating when making machine knives, in 1989, CB purchased Certified Heat Treating. This acquisition vaulted the Biehn Companies into the commercial heat-treating business in a big way, plus allowed CB a control over the quality and delivery of their heat treat that few other knife manufacturers have. Joe Biehn was sent to work there and eventually became President of this division.
In 1984, CB formed a successful relationship with an overseas manufacturer of thin, razor type blades and began selling their products throughout the United States. They also developed new markets, such as medical, packaging, food processing, and even hunting broadheads. This partnership eventually developed into the company known as American Cutting Edge, now known today as ACE, one of the top sources of technical razor blades in the USA.
In 1996, CB bought the first of several Wire EDM machines and now is able to offer that specialty service among the many others they provide.
After naming his son, Chuck, president in 1990, Charlie retired—every few weeks or so. He was unable to stay away from the company he conceived, loved and nurtured for so many years. Eventually though, his attention focused on more fun stuff—he became a full-time RV’er, traveling all over the country in his “house on wheels”. He also pulled behind him a customized Jeep. While he thought he was a little too old to safely pilot a plane any longer, he quickly found a new thrill—rock-crawlin’. He also took up the hobby of geo-caching, for when there were no cliffs or canyons or mountains to drive over, under or through. In August 2009, Charlie passed away, only days after setting up a parachute jump at a local airport. He was 76.
Since Charlie’s passing, Chuck Biehn has been named CEO of the Biehn Group of Companies: CB Manufacturing, American Cutting Edge, Certified Heat Treating, Better Tools and Evolution Resources. Joe Biehn is president of Certified Heat Treating and concentrates on sales and technological issues. Darlene Biehn Southern is the General Manager of Certified Heat Treating. And Charlie’s legacy lives on: Chuck’s son, Bob Biehn, worked in the factory at CB Manufacturing, sales for American Cutting Edge and CB Manufacturing, and was the Operations Manager for Certified Heat Treating. Chuck’s daughter, Amanda, worked as a salesperson for Better Tools, after having spent time working in the shipping department and as a filing clerk. Darlene’s son, Jimmy, worked as a general laborer and furnace operator at Certified Heat Treating during summers and weekends. Some day, it’s assumed, the younger cousins—Joey, Nicole, and Charlie III, will have the opportunity to join their elders in building and sustaining the company that Charlie Biehn started over fifty years ago in the garage of a little rental house.
Since Charlie’s passing, an initiative has been in process to consolidate all the BiehnCo companies under the ownership of the three family shareholders, a move that is seen as helping the company better serve it’s customers. Today CB Manufacturing and Sales is one of the largest industrial knife makers in the USA with thousands of satisfied customers and over 100 employees. Using LEAN Enterprise and more professional management techniques, the company is poised to continue it’s success well into the coming decades, always looking for ways to improve their products and customer service.