The Ties That Bind

The Ties That Bind. 

Manufacturing is a declining sector in the United States, especially small firms. A specific region affected by this decline is Keene New Hampshire, located in the southwestern corner of the state. Despite this national drop the community has still maintained a robust industrial base. The story I’d like to tell starts off in 1960, A young engineer from Brattleboro, New York had just been hired at Miniature Precision Bearings in Keene, his name, Don Brehm. 

To give some background on precision technology in Keene let’s start with the post-war industrial era of the 1950s when Keene was part of what was coined “Precision Valley”. The industrial boom of the 1940s war-era left the U.S. filled with manufacturing plants and Keene was no different. The area saw great innovation, productivity grew and the community reaped the benefits. According to Brehm, industrial jobs were so plentiful a private developer came into Keene and built a neighborhood of moderate homes to house all the new machinists. The precision industry was booming in Cheshire County, New Hampshire to say the least. Don Brehm says, “after the war, we were the only country in the world really that had that capacity. You know Germany was gone Japan was gone, so U.S. companies were able to sell those machines everywhere in the world, very, very profitable.”  

Don Brehm

When Don Brehm came to work for MPB in 1960, he left a frustrating and lackluster desk job at Pratt and Whitney down in Hartford, Connecticut. He desired a more hands-on position where his skills and mind were utilized in an exciting way. While working at MPB, he came across an article about the air bearing being used in the production of the atomic bomb. These parts were being developed for the Department of Energy by a plant in Oakridge, Tennesse. After reading about this technology Breh, saw an opportunity to produce an air bearing commercially. He pitched his idea to his employers, explaining how the technology uses an accurate roundness gauge. This would create an even more precise product, MPB was not interested. Nevertheless, they encouraged him to pursue the venture independently, and so he did. In 1962 Brehm struck out on his own. After starting off with a $4,000 loan from a community bank and a space rented from his former employer. He spent countless hours and the majority of his time growing the company from the ground up. Brehm along with his partner Dick Robbins, (a fellow engineer from MPB) developed the commercial air bearing. Brehm named his new company Pneumo, the name is a derivative of the term Pneumatic, meaning contained or operated by air. The license to innovate that MPB gave to Don Brehm was something he wouldn’t again experience professionally in his life. Instead, he would be met with fierce professional competition or ongoing limitations on his ability to innovate. After 14 years Pneumo developed a cutting-edge product that would change the precision Industry, a diamond turning lathe with an air bearing spindle, coupled with a software system called the MSG 325. The demand for Brehm’s product, the DMT (diamond turning machine) at the DoE was high. Pneumos biggest customers were sub-contractors of the U.S. government. Bill Abbott who worked in finance at Pneumo recalls, “Yes a lot of the sales, all of the diamond turning was really subcontractors of the U.S. government, the companies that made the components for the nuclear weapons, they did some very high precision work.” 

Bill Abbott interview clip

Pneumo was an innovative company, but a company that never filed any patents on their novel machines. One reason for this is they normally would innovate their own products into obsolescence. Bill Abbott remembers, “ The critical part of making these things was the workmanship that was put into them, to take an ordinary lathe and grinding machine and have them turn into parts that are accurate roundness to a millionth of an inch, it takes someone really very knowledgeable and experienced and dedicated to doing that. So, the secret in making this was in the workmanship as opposed to a patent”.  

Bill Abbott interview clip

Despite their Innovation, Pneumo still experienced financial challenges and it grew increasingly difficult to fund their technological ambitions. Brehm was put in touch by his local banker with a correspondent bank in Boston, which introduced him to a group of venture capitalists. After five years, the VC’S expected a substantial return on their investment. When Pneumo was unable to provide this return Brehm was forced to compromise and sell his company. In the years that followed would not be able to start another company, he was contractually bound into a four-year non-compete agreement with the purchaser of Pneumo. Once this agreement expired in 1984, Brehm was free to once again innovate. In 1988 Brehm and his partner Dick Arsenault founded a new precision technology firm called Precitech.

Newspaper clipping from The Keene Sentinel, 1984.

Years later Bill Abbott’s son Ken a recent engineering graduate would earn himself a spot on the team at Precitech. There he worked under Don Brehm and became one of their best engineers. After Precitech’s sale to a private equity firm in 1997, Ken would continue Don’s legacy of a small business owned precision technology operation in Keene.  

In 1998, Ken Abbott together with his father Bill founded ABtech. A firm that manufactures and designs air bearing technology. During Ken’s many years at Precitech, he established advantageous business relationships through the industry and was considered a reputable figure. Federal Products of Rhode Island called Ken, he had previously designed dome products for the firm, they proposed Ken start his own air bearing business. At the time Federal Products was purchasing products from their competitor Pneumo, Brehm’s old company which was now owned by a Rank-Taylor-Hobson in the U.K. The company still maintained some production locally. The younger Abbott agreed and ABtech was born. Today ABtech still produces some of the air bearing technology created by Brehm. I understand a sense of pride in Brehm when talking about ABtech. When I had the opportunity to tour ABtech I was thoroughly impressed by how Ken Abbott expressed that company culture and production quality were paramount in his firm. Even though Don Brehm’s companies did not stay locally owned, the path of innovation he paved still remains in Keene. This tradition persisted through the relationships and ties that exist in the local industrial community.