For the hardware business founded by Joseph Sargent during the Civil War, success was never a lock

 

One hundred and fifty years ago Joseph Bradford Sargent came to New Haven with a pocketful of ambition and ample determination. His goal: establish a successful hardware business.

Today the company that bears his name thrives as a manufacturer of door-opening solutions (what the average person might call “locks”), since 1996 under the flag of Swedish conglomerate Assa Abloy. Sold to the Walter Kidde Co. in 1967, Sargent passed through a series of ownership changes before being acquired by Assa Abloy. The name was then changed to Sargent Manufacturing Co.

Although the parent company is headquartered in Stockholm, Assa Abloy’s American division calls New Haven home. Approximately 600 employees work at the 30-acre, 360,000-square-foot site. Assa Abloy also has a facility in Berlin, Connecticut with an additional 400 employees.

Although incorporated in New Haven in 1864 as Sargent & Co., the firm actually traces its roots to New Britain. Joseph B. Sargent had become a major stockholder in Peck & Walter Hardware in New Britain, ultimately gaining control. But when, several years later, he attempted to purchase new property to expand the business he was met with opposition.

Soon wearying of the conflict, Sargent looked for new location. A harbor with four steamboat companies to bring in raw materials and the availability of a railroad for shipping finished products made re-locating to New Haven particularly appealing. Although most people thought building a manufacturing facility for anything other than weapons during the Civil War was little short of insane, plans proceeded to construct a hardware plant.

Joseph Sargent and his brothers, George and Edward, purchased property at Water, Wallace and Hamilton Streets (land now occupied by Sports Haven and the two Long Wharf Maritime Center buildings).  Relocating 100 employees and their families from New Britain, in May 1864 Sargent & Co. opened for business. In 1866 a fourth brother, Harry, joined the company.

In later years Sargent brought many workers from Italy, most of whom settled in what today is the Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven. That location was appealing because it allowed workers to walk to work.

The new factory was strikingly modern for its day — with running water on each floor for washing, manufacturing and fire-fighting purposes and, oh yes, suitable bathrooms. Taking advantage of the harbor, which in those days came right up to Water Street, a dock on the property was renovated to accommodate coal barges as well as other ocean-going vessels. The old Pavilion Hotel was converted to house workers and their families. The company grew rapidly and by 1871 it employed 2,000 workers. Sargent workers earned 15 cents an hour for a ten-hour day, six days a week. Considered progressive, Sargent issued weekly paychecks, a rarity in those days.

By 1871 Sargent was producing approximately 1,000 items. Lock production began in 1884. By 1914, the Sargent product catalogue listed some 60,000 different items, making it one of the largest hardware manufacturing plants in the United States. The 1889 catalogue contained 1,100 pages of products. The product line has varied tremendously over the decades, including everything from cowbells and wood planes to decorative hardware for the home, such as fancy doorknobs.

To keep up with the increased production needs, plant expansion occurred at a breakneck pace. Letters of the alphabet were used to identify each new building and by 1882 the company had reached the letter V for a grand total of 22 structures on the Sargent property.

By 1907 Sargent was one of the three largest hardware manufacturers in the United States. Joseph Sargent had remained president until that same year when he passed away at age 84. During his career he also served three terms as mayor of New Haven, serving from 1891 to 1894. He also ran for governor on the Democratic ticket but was defeated.

As did nearly all American manufacturers, Sargent retooled during World War II, producing hand tools for the military as well as fuses, projectiles and bomb shackles, used to suspend bombs inside bomber bomb bays. As men went off to war, women began to enter the workforce and by the end of the war, 40 percent of Sargent’s workforce was female.

Eventually there simply was no more room to expand at the Water Street location, so in 1964 the company moved to its present location. In commemoration of Sargent’s first 100 years in New Haven, the new plant was awarded the address of 100 Sargent Drive.

Today Sargent specializes in institutional and commercial products, having abandoned the residential market altogether. All products are made to order and although some components are resourced, final assembly is done in New Haven.

It’s a long way from cowbells and padlocks to high-tech electronic door-access devices. To stay competitive, Sargent has refined its manufacturing processes, concentrating on the development of new and innovative products. Today’s product line includes bored locks, exit devices, mortises locks, electronic access controls, to name just a few categories.

Approximately 95 percent of Sargent’s products are sold in the United States and Canada. One production challenge involves the codes that dictate design and vary state to state. All products are made to order with anywhere from 300,000 to 350,000 items produced each year.

All design work is done in New Haven. Company management, which considers Sargent a technology leader, employs words such as “durability,” “variety” and “esthetics” as some of the qualities that characterize the company’s successful product line.

Of course, there is no magic formula for success in any industry — but there are some words and phrases that successful businesses seem to share — flexibility, willingness to embrace change, ability to adopt new technologies. And understanding what the market wants and developing products to fit those needs seem to be a company philosophy that has kept Sargent going for 150 years.