Biography of Biography or History

The Austin Company (f. 1878), a carpentry and contracting business, was founded by Samuel Austin (1850-1936), a young carpenter who had left his native England for the United States after hearing about the Chicago fire of 1872, expecting that the city would need skilled craftsmen to help it rebuild. After stopping in Cleveland, Ohio, to visit friends from his hometown, Austin decided to settle in Cleveland instead. He quickly became known for quality work, and in 1904 he and his son Wilbert J. Austin (1876-1940) incorporated as The Samuel Austin & Son Company, an engineering and construction firm focused mainly on industrial plant projects. Their first major construction project was the National Electric Lamp Association in East Cleveland in 1912. During this period, Wilbert J. Austin devised "The Austin Method," a unique bundling of engineering, construction and design services intended to streamline the building process. In 1914, Austin & Son introduced four prefabricated building plans for clients to choose from; this added a new dimension of efficiency to the construction process. In 1916, the company name was changed to The Austin Company, Engineers and Builders. Wilbert J. Austin also devised the "Controlled Conditions" plant, which was a major improvement over the hot, stifling factory environment of the day. Such a plant controlled factors like light, noise, temperature, and humidity to create a better working environment and reduce production costs.

The efficiency of The Austin Method ensured that The Austin Company grew rapidly during World War I, as the defense industry burgeoned. Following the end of the war, Austin opened its first overseas office in Paris, France, to take advantage of Europe's need to rebuild. The Austin Company also opened several field offices in the United States during this period.

This rapid growth came to a halt following the stock market crash of 1929. Fortunately, however, Austin signed a major contract to build the Gorky Automobile Plant (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod abbreviated GAZ) and accompanying Socialist workers' village in Nizhny Novgorod (renamed Gorky), Russia. This project essentially enabled The Austin Company to survive the Great Depression. During this period of slow business, The Austin Company also refocused its efforts from construction to research and development, introducing insulated steel buildings and porcelain-enamel service stations, which became important to the rapidly growing petroleum retail industry.

The Austin Company saw a dramatic increase in business during World War II, picking up numerous construction jobs from defense clients such as Boeing, Consolidated Vultee, and the United States Navy. The invention of the H-section welded truss, which provided a ready solution to some significant engineering problems, contributed to a reduction in construction costs - and thus a corresponding increase in business.

As the United States industrial economy grew during the post-World War II period, so did The Austin Company's client list. Austin's contributions to the pharmaceutical and broadcasting industries were particularly significant, as were its contributions to the growth of department stores and the retail industry, notably Montgomery Ward and the Severance Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Overseas operations continued to grow throughout the 1950s, particularly in western Europe, Australia, and Argentina.

Business slowed from the 1970s through the 1990s, as once profitable domestic and international field offices began to close. Exceptions included Austin's work for computer-related industries and a major project in Japan, the Kansai International Airport. In 1984, The Austin Company was purchased by the National Gypsum Company; the move was engineered by National Gypsum in an effort to stay afloat. In 1990, ownership of Austin was transferred to the National Gypsum Company Settlement Trust, after National Gypsum was forced to declare bankruptcy due to compensation paid to victims of asbestos-related diseases. In 2005, The Austin Company was purchased by the Kajima USA Group. Although business has declined since the heyday of World War II, Austin still maintained its headquarters in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Mayfield Heights as of 2017.

Click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History entry on The Austin Company