Aurora Metal Company

By Dave Hipp and Adapted from “Forever a Foundry” by Bob Emory

Aurora Metal was founded in October of 1899 by three men, Russell Colby, Dr. “Doc” Gustav Thurnauer, and Isaac Furgason, who resigned in 1900. They had purchased land on the corner of West Park and Highland. The purpose of the company was to reclaim metallic lead from the waste left over by Aurora Smelting and Refining and use that lead to manufacture hardware and decorative items.

Colby and Thurnhauer had both worked at Aurora Smelting and Refining until the smelting works were shot down in 1898. Russell Colby had been a school superintendent for eight years. He was very active in the community, a member of the Board of the Merchants Bank and active with the Aurora Community Chest. He was one of the founders of the Aurora Country Club and the President of Aurora Metal. Doc Thurnauer was a chemist, educated in Germany, and came to Aurora in 1894. He, too, was active in the community and a founder and first President of the Aurora Social Service Federation which later became the Aurora Community Chest, the forerunner to the United Way. He was on the Board of the Aurora Public Library for 35 years.

The first major breakthrough for the company came in 1905 when it began producing a piston rod packing material for steam powered train engines designed by Doc Thurnauer. In 1914, John LeMay joined the company. John had graduated from the University of Chicago and developed methods for manufacturing the packing material. The principles of centrifugal casting and hydraulic forming were groundbreaking, and his manual on die-casting principles are still in use today.

Aurora Metal grew with the railroad industry until the 1930’s when the diesel engine replaced the steam engine and their main market decreased. Facing foreclosure from its primary bank and in the heart of the Depression, Aurora Metal was in serious trouble. Russell Colby died in 1933 from a brain hemorrhage. Alfred Lauder was a well-respected citizen in Aurora. He was a director of the Merchants Bank and had begun his career at Lyon Metal, becoming V.P. of Sales and Marketing. He left Lyon to become a consultant. Merchants’ concern with Aurora Metal sent him to meet with Doc. Lauder’s report was serious, leading Doc to bring him on board as a General Manager, with LeMay’s agreement.

LeMay’s development of vacuum die-casting were focused on aluminum bronze. This particular alloy and the quality of the new process opened new markets in the printing industry, the dental industry, and finally the automobile industry. Aurora Metal returned to profitability in 1936. Lauder became President in 1938. Aurora Metal became a war-time supplier, making gun mount parts for the Navy, landing gear parts for Bendix, mine-sweeping parts, aircraft cannon parts, and many other war-related contracts. During the war, union organization efforts had become very active. Aurora Metal faced a vote between no union, the machinist union, or a grass roots union of only Aurora Metal employees. The Metal Workers union won and still represents the employees in 2000 and beyond.

George Peters joined Aurora Metal in 1941 after graduating from Michigan State in engineering and working five years in Detroit for Sutton Tool. He spent much of his time securing additional war-oriented businesses. He became Vice-President on sales, manufacturing, and engineering in 1944 upon the retirement of John LeMay in 1944. Post-War, the key to Aurora Metals’ success meant replacing defense business and diversifying from the automotive business which was over 75% of Aurora Metals’ output as the auto companies geared up in the late-1940’s. Aurora Metals’ niche was that its processes and methods could produce a finished part while other foundries produced castings requiring further machining by the customer.

In the early 1950’s, a new process called Kronig was invented in Germany that used resins to coat sand which had unique properties for making cores and molds to form parts replacing metal molds. George Peters decided to experiment with making their own cold coated sand and after discussions with his friend, Ash Barber of Barber-Greene, they tried the principles used in asphalt plants. The experiments worked, and Aurora Metal was producing a hot coated sand that didn’t require flammable materials. Barber-Greene delivered a mixer and conveyors, and the plant was installed on Jericho Road, and a new division called Faskure was begun in 1959.

George Peters became President in 1954, and Lauder became Chairman and remained semi-active until his death in 1961. The Lauder family owned 90% of the stock upon his death, and Mrs. Lauder became Chairman of the Board, but was not active in the business. In 1967, upon the advice of George Peters and her friend, Lee Stephens of Stephens-Adamson, she sold her interest to an investment group called Lawrence & Sons. The new Board was Peters, Lauder, Frank Voris from the Merchants Bank, and two individuals from Lawrence & Sons.

By the end of the 1960’s, Aurora Metals’ sales were in excess of $5,000,000 annually, had a reputation as a high quality non-ferrous foundry, and Faskure was the largest commercial coated sand producer in the world. Faskure had opened a second plant, and the foundry was outgrowing its facility on West Park. Capital was required and negotiations began between Lawrence & Sons to sell the company to Y&O, which was in a related industry. Y&O provided the capital to produce a new 55,000 square foot plant off of Aucott Road in Montgomery. Y&O also assigned the operation of Federal Bentonite, a producer of bentonite clay based in Wyoming, to the Aurora Metal company.

By 1975, Aurora Metal had three divisions with George Peters as President and CEO. All three divisions were healthy and under excellent management, but there was no successor. An extensive search for a younger successor was undertaken. It resulted in the selection of Jim Pearson who became V.P. of Administration in 1975. The next major change was the sale of stock of Y&O to Panhandle Eastern. Under Panhandle, George Peters retired in 1981, but remained Chairman of the Board of a re-named Aurora Industries, and Jim Pearson became President and CEO.

By 1982, Panhandle was facing difficulties, as were many companies in the energy sector. This created strains in the relationship with Aurora Industries. Pearson and Peters began talking about a buy-out. With extensive negotiations lasting over two years, the leveraged buy-out was consummated with the sale of Federal Betonite to IMCO, and the purchase of the remainder of Aurora Industries by Peters, Pearson, and four other executives. A new Board consisted of Pearson, Peters, Urban Hipp—retired from Barber-Greene, Bill Glenn, and Dr. William Blackburn. Because the company was so heavily leveraged, the decision was made to sell Faskure to Acme Resin, an old Faskure competitor. This sale in 1985 allowed the new owners to pay off the bulk of the debt and become a foundry again.

In 1987, the company was approached by Derlan Industries of Canada, which was seeking to invest in private companies with a unique manufacturing niche, and Aurora Industries fit that pattern. As none of the owners, Pearson, Peters, Gene Kluber, V.P. Finance, and Bill Jens, had children who expressed interest in the business, they agreed to sell out under an incentive arrangement that retained the active management. Derlans’ ownership lasted until 1995 when they became financially pressed and asked Pearson to purchase an ownership percentage and to explore other sources of ownership. Hiler Industries, a LaPorte, Indiana foundry was interested and bought Aurora Industries from Derlan, changing the name to Aurora Metals Division, LLC, which is operating today under that structure. Dave Bumbar became President in the early 2000s and continues to operate the company.