By: TERRY DAVIS
The story of Uni-Hydro Inc. and its patented line Ironworker metal fabricating machines is intertwined with the story of three generations of the Dvorak family.
Chuck Dvorak, the 41-year-old president of the Cosmos-based manufacturer, is quick to say that Uni-Hydro's family extends well beyond the Dvorak bloodlines. He includes all the workers who have toiled to make it what he calls the largest company of its type in the United States. Its only true rival is a South Dakota company making machines based on his grandfather's original designs.
In the metal fabricating world, the names Dvorak, Uni-Hydro and, yes, the small Meeker County town with that out-of-this-world name - Cosmos - are well known. Every Ironworker machine that leaves Uni-Hydro carries a builder's plate with the name of Jim Dvorak, Chuck's father, listed as designer and Cosmos as the place of manufacture. Those machines are used worldwide.
Through an upcoming program on cable television's the Discovery Channel, the Dvoraks, Uni-Hydro and Cosmos will be known by a much wider cross-section of the United States. In early November, a film crew from Pat Summerall Productions in Texas visited Cosmos to create an episode for the Discovery Channel's "Champions of Industry" program. Former NFL player and broadcaster Pat Summerall will narrate the show.
"He (Summerall) is very interested in showing American-made items," Dvorak said. "I believe they did a patent search and linked all our patents by name. They seemed pretty thrilled, I felt, because they usually get a lot of big business executives, but ours is a little family owned business. All our workers' jobs are just as important as mine."
53 years of innovation
Chuck Dvorak's grandfather, Joe, initiated the family's adventure in manufacturing when he invented the original ironworker machine in 1949. Joe's sons, Frank and Jim, contributed to the company, Frank with his interest in manufacturing and Jim in marketing and sales. That Dvorak Ironworker machine was built in Cosmos until 1967, when Joe Dvorak's failing health caused him to sell out to the South Dakota firm. After that, the brothers moved forward with their own designs. Frank Dvorak obtained a patent on a plate shear in 1968, while Jim Dvorak obtained a patent in 1973 that was related to his father's original design.
Today, the two largest ironworker machine companies in the world are Uni-Hydro Inc. and the South Dakota company that purchased Joe Dvorak's original designs. As his company's slogan says, Chuck Dvorak believes Uni-Hydro is "A Cut Above the Rest."
The Discovery Channel broadcast, expected to be sometime this month, is a "very rewarding acknowledgment" of his families' work in revolutionizing the ironworking industry, Chuck Dvorak said.
Prior to the development of his grandfather's first ironworking machine, it was extremely difficult for small shops to have a machine capable of punching, cutting and bending plate. The expense was too great.
"My grandfather's machine enabled anyone, even a small shop, to be competitive with larger companies," Chuck Dvorak said.
Though many of Uni-Hydro's machines end up on manufacturing floors or maintenance departments of such companies as Coors Beer, General Motors, Ford, Mary Kay Cosmetics and even the U.S. Navy's repair and supply ships, approximately 120 per year are purchased by farmers for use in their farm shops. He estimated that 70 percent of the steel used by Hutchinson Manufacturing Co. goes through a Uni-Hydro Ironworker and Plate Shear at some point.
"As important as my grandfather's machine was for people in 1949, my father's products are about twice as strong with about 30 percent more capacity," Chuck Dvorak said. "When my father's machine hit the market, it was light and reinvented the market."
Grew into the business
Chuck Dvorak literally grew up in the ironworking industry. He and his father always "hung out" together, with Jim giving Chuck enough free rein to try new things. Chuck was exposed to just about every job in the company beginning in about 1975.
Chuck graduated from Cosmos High School in 1979, and eventually took over marketing of his father's products through his own separate business -- Uni-Hydro Power Sales. About 40 weeks a year Chuck was on the road in an old Dodge pickup selling products from his father's company, known then as Dynamic Specialties.
In about 1984, Jim Dvorak was diagnosed with leukemia. Jim gave Chuck, then 23 years old, the keys to the company and said he was going "to find a cure." Eighteen years later, Jim, having beaten the deadly disease thus far, stays in close touch with his son from his home in Florida.
In 1985, the Dvoraks merged Chuck's marketing firm and the manufacturing company under the name Uni-Hydro Inc. About 1995, Chuck obtained a patent for a larger, two-part machine based on his father's original design. "Dad said, 'This is a whole system. It requires a new patent,'" Chuck said. "Dad always allowed me to make mistakes I needed to make to learn how to do it right."
Uni-Hydro Inc. has several two-generation employees. Dvorak is proud, too, that several employees have learned the trade, contributed to the company, and then have gone on to start their own ironworking shops. Today, his sister, Carolyn Kurth, also works for the company.
"The best asset of this company has always been our employees," Chuck said. "We're a family owned company, but the family is also everyone who works here."
The company has been caught in the same economic downturn others have struggled with for two years. Its work force is down to 45 as orders have been cut. Ironically, the company is hurt by the long reliability of its products. As ironworking companies downsize or go out of business, a lot of used Uni-Hydro products end up on the market taking sales away from new models.
"We compete with our own machines because they last so long and are are easily repaired. That is also why people buy our product," Dvorak said. "We'll small, but we can still crawl."
Chuck Dvorak is happy that Summerall and the Discovery Channel picked Uni-Hydro for an episode of "Champions of Industry," because he believes it will give his father and the company's employees the due he thinks they deserve.
"Maybe for one brief moment my father might recognize how his life's work has benefited so many people's lives," Chuck said. At the same time, it will acknowledge the team effort involved, too. "You don't create, design, develop, market and sell 28 new designs in 30 years unless a lot of contributing help is present. I feel the show will capture our true nature in believing that everyone here works together," he said.