History of CB Manufacturing & Sales and the Biehn Group of Companies
Since 1965, CB Manufacturing & Sales Co., Inc. has been an industry-leading, family-owned company renowned for customer service, innovation and the highest standards of quality. Currently operating under the guidance of the second generation, the Biehn family continues to embody Charles “Charlie” Biehn’s legacy of commitment to customer satisfaction, value and consumer-driver quality. Proudly preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary, CB Manufacturing & Sales has become the premier privately-held industrial knife manufacturer and distributor in the US. Charlie’s tradition of excellence and dedication to serving the customer have become the hallmark of CB Manufacturing & Sales and its divisions.
As a boy growing up in Cincinnati, Charlie was a budding entrepreneur with a paper route and running errands for neighbors and local businesses for a nickel. As a student at Roger Bacon High School, in the evening and weekends he salvaged old lead acid batteries, cleaned and charged them, then resold them for a few dollars profit. After a stint in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne, he was honorably discharged and he and another recently discharged army pal started hitchhiking south to Florida. They stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina to visit another buddy and here Charlie stayed. It was in Charlotte that he met his future wife, Ruth, and was hired for his first “official” sales job—selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door. He was very good at it; within two years, he was sales manager.
This success led to others and when his first two children, Darlene and Charles Jr., were born, the little family was living in Allentown, Pennsylvania where Charlie was now regional sales manager for Victor Comptometer. By the time his third child was born, Joe Charlie and family had relocated to Dayton, Ohio for a position as a salesman for a local machine knife manufacturer, Simonds Warden White. In 1965, Charlie decided to fulfill a long-time dream; he started his own company.
Initially named CB Sales, Charlie represented machine knife manufacturers (including Simonds Warden White) and distributed related products for the printing and paper industries. He traveled the US from Sunday night to Fridays, calling on customers and setting up distributors for his products. His garage served as office and warehouse. His wife, Ruth, fielded phone calls and took orders while the three children played at her feet. A licensed private pilot since 1959, Charlie would joke that the reason he started his own company was “just for an excuse to fly around the country”. But that mobility and ability to provide personalized service in an era where air travel was prohibitively expensive made CB Sales a preferred vendor to his customers. By 1967, Charlie had moved his business out of his home’s garage and into a small rented office and added another salesperson and a “Gal Friday”.
But it wasn’t just his salesmanship and technical knowledge that made Charlie successful; it was also his dedication to providing his customers with the best possible service and quality. One fateful, rainy day in a phone booth in Alabama, Charlie was informed by a vendor that a promised order was being delayed yet again. And he decided that the only way he could make sure his customers’ needs were being met was to manufacture machine knives himself.
Charlie returned home to West Carrollton, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, and in 1969 leased a larger building, bought his first grinding machine, hired his first operator and renamed his company “CB Manufacturing & Sales Co., Inc.” Within a year, CB Manufacturing purchased a second machine. Some pessimists said he was pushing too fast, but Charlie said simply: “If I only have one machine and it breaks down, how can I serve my customers?”
It was not just the commitment to customer service that made CB Manufacturing successful; Charlie was also an innovator and an inventor and a problem solver, and users sought him out as his reputation grew for providing high quality knives that saved them time and money. Partnering with its customers, CB Manufacturing designed and produced some of the most innovative knives in the industry.
All successful start-up companies have to have lucky breaks and CB Manufacturing had several. The plastics industry exploded in the 1970’s and the company was at the forefront, with CB Manufacturing developing the technology and know-how to manufacture superior Pelletizer knives. In 1972, Charlie met with some representatives of a Japanese company who had developed a tungsten carbide blade. The blades were extremely wear-resistant, but also very expensive in comparison to carbon and stainless steel blades. The Japanese asked Charlie if he knew of any application where these very expensive blades could be used. Charlie didn’t know, but he took a couple of samples and tossed them into his briefcase. Not very much later, he was meeting with DuPont, and their engineers were explaining they had developed a new fiber, called Kevlar, that was very tough and had a lot of potential, but the very qualities that made it so useful also meant the standard steel staple blades used to cut it dulled or broke after one or two passes, reducing the quality of cut and increasing machine downtime with repeated blade changes. Charlie remembered the tungsten carbide blade in his case, pulled it out, and used it to cut the Kevlar staple the engineers were showing him. It went through like butter. And did again and again and again, without dulling or affecting the cut. Charlie set up the first of CB Manufacturing’s affiliated companies, Strider Corporation, to sell and distribute tungsten carbide blades throughout the US and eventually, globally, as more and more applications were found for the blades.
CB Manufacturing & Sales was also building a reputation among machine manufacturers as providing the superior quality product that OEM’s require. To meet the increasing demand for their manufactured goods, CB continued to grow—adding employees and facilities. Purchasing a 10 acre former pig farm on the outskirts of Miamisburg; he built offices, factory, and a small warehouse, about 10,000 square feet in total—it seemed impossible they would ever fill up all that space. Within 10 years, the building had doubled in size. Surrounded by cornfields, Charlie would grin and say, “We’re the largest knife company in the “country”!”
Charlie loved machinery and cannily acquired some of the largest and most precision technology available, not only to manufacture knives, but CB Manufacturing became to “go-to” for other metal-fabricating companies who did not have the same specialized machines. Sub-contract grinding and became and still is an important department of CB Manufacturing.
From the very beginning, CB Manufacturing was—and still is—a “sales-based” company, concentrating on servicing and supplying the customer with what he wanted, rather than focusing on specific products. CB Manufacturing has always been a “full-line” knife company, making industrial knives for the plastic, paper, wood, steel and many other industries. As the 1980’s unfolded and computers and communications became more sophisticated, like many other industries, CB Manufacturing started reaching beyond the shore of the United States, both exporting and importing product. A survey of customers showed that depending on the industry and the application, some customers were more concerned about price and CB Manufacturing found they could meet the needs of those customers’ needs by sourcing some knives and blades overseas, while continuing to produce in-house parts that required specialty materials, extremely tight tolerances, exotic geometry or needed to be manufactured and shipped with an extremely fast turn-around.
As CB Manufacturing’s business model evolved, Charles Jr.—“Chuck”, had joined the company. He started off as a janitor after school, moved up to general laborer, then machine operator. All-in-all, he spent five years in the factory before moving into the offices, gaining experience he says is invaluable to his later, more responsible duties. Chuck was followed into the family business by his sister, Darlene, and then brother, Joe.
It was in the mid-80’s, soon after Chuck was named sales manager at CB Manufacturing, that he developed a personal friendship and business partnership with Frieder Lutz, whose family had been fabricating metal products in Solingen, Germany since the 1700’s. As the demand for swords had diminished through the centuries, Lutz has turned their focusing on producing thin, razor-type blades. Chuck and Frieder negotiated an agreement with CB Manufacturing handling all of the USA business for Lutz, with the distribution to be undertaken by a newly developed division of CB Manufacturing: American Cutting Edge, more commonly known as “ACE”. This turned out to be an extremely successful relationship as working together, ACE and Lutz dominate the thin blade arena, in markets as diverse as archery broadheads or medical blades used for LASIK surgery.
At the very end of the decade, the Biehn Family purchased Certified Heat Treating, a going concern in Dayton, Ohio. Although they had recently started a small in-house heat-treating company to better control the quality of the metal treating of CB produced blades, this acquisition vaulted them into commercial heat-treating in a big way. Joe Biehn was sent to work there and learn all he could. Eventually, he was named General Manager and President of the company and is acknowledged throughout the Miami Valley for his almost encyclopedic knowledge of heat-treating processes, which are an amazing combination of science and art.
Also in the 80’s, CB Manufacturing grew again, erecting more offices and warehouse space across the parking lot from the original building. A production facility was also added and Certified Heat Treating was moved from its leased building in downtown Dayton to Miamisburg. In 1993, the Biehn family purchased a small cutting tool company, renamed it Certified Tool & Grinding, and constructed a state-of-the-art building alongside the other properties. Collectively, the collection of sales and production facilities is called “The CB Campus”.
Chuck Biehn was named President of CB Manufacturing & Sales in 1990, Charlie stepping up to claim the position of Chairman of the Board. The Biehn Family Group of Companies, casually known as BiehnCo, now consisted of CB Manufacturing, American Cutting Edge, Strider Corporation, and Certified Heat Treating and Certified Tool & Grinding. Under Chuck’s guidance, CB Manufacturing and its divisions continued to grow and thrive as Charlie enjoyed the freedom to travel and indulge in hobbies and adventures he had never had time to enjoy during CB Manufacturing’s formative years. Charlie was still very involved in the companies, but now, as he liked to say, he got to do the “fun stuff”. He invented, innovated, problem-solved, and sometimes even ran a machine! He still loved to get his hands dirty.
In 2002, Chuck Biehn added two new companies to the Biehn Group; he purchased Better Tools, a customer of American Cutting Edge’s whose product lines of hand knives and cutting devices are very successful in the floor covering and roofing industries; and started Evolution Resources. American Cutting Edge’s and CB Manufacturing’s importing and marketing expertise make them valuable as a sourcing company, contracted by other companies to locate overseas manufacturers.
In August of 2009, Charlie Biehn passed away, after a brief illness. CB Manufacturing and its various divisions were inherited jointly by the three children; Chuck, Darlene and Joe. Combined with the Great Recession, this was a time of great upheaval for the Biehn Family of Companies, and the survival of the companies is due to the strong guidance of Chuck Biehn, the hard work and dedication of all the family members, and the loyalty and commitment of the CB employees. Despite its growth, CB Manufacturing and the divisions remain very much a family-run business and “family” includes the 100+ employees who willingly did what it took to get the companies through this tumultuous time. While continuing to maintain Charlie Biehn’s legacy of Customer-Driven Service, all the companies used this period to embrace a new philosophy: Better, Faster, Leaner, Stronger, continually working to maintain their status as the foremost producer manufacturer and distributor of the highest quality machine knives and blades and provider of unsurpassed customer service in the United States.
Some changes were made. The decision was made to “lean” out BiehnCo. Certified Tool & Grinding was sold to allow the Biehn Family to focus their resources on the other businesses, and the new ownership continues to operate it successfully in its building on the CB campus. Strider Corporation, the entity created to sell tungsten carbide blades, was folded into American Cutting Edge and the Strider Corporation name was discontinued.
Since Charlie’s passing, BiehnCo has continued to evolve and flourish. Thanks to a new “re-shoring” attitude in the US, our factory is busier than ever and the Biehn family continues to invest in the newest and most capable machinery, as well as seek out smart, pro-active employees who share their commitment to service, innovation and quality. With this additional growth, BiehnCo decided that expanding the heat treating division would provide CB Manufacturing production and the heat treating customers more capacity and versatility, and the family purchased Heat Treating Inc. in Springfield, Ohio. The two heat treating divisions were combined into a single entity: Certified Heat Treating Inc, although they continue to operate from both locations, the better to serve customers both north and south of the CB campus. The combined facilities are one of the largest and most qualified heat treating companies in the region, with both registered as ISO 9001 and CQI-9.
BiehnCo is still following a strategy of growth. When the original Japanese manufacturer of the tungsten carbide razor blades decided to focus their interests in other directions, the US-based branch of the company was sold to Superion of Xenia, Ohio, a cutting tool company. In 2014, CB Manufacturing bought the assets and intellectual property to manufacture tungsten carbide and ceramic razor blades from Superion. Although American Cutting Edge is the largest seller of these blades in the world, it now has the capability to manufacture and re-sharpen these blades in their own factory in the USA.
Today, Chuck is the Chairman of the Board for all companies of the Biehn Group; CB Manufacturing & Sales, American Cutting Edge, Certified Heat Treating, Better Tools and Evolution Resources. Joe Biehn is president of Certified Heat Treating Inc. Darlene Biehn Southern serves all the companies in varying capacities, as does Chuck’s wife, Dana Biehn. Many of Charlie’s seven grandchildren have joined the company as soon as they can push a broom or file, working their way up the ladder, as did their parents. The companies now occupy over 100,000 square feet of buildings in Miamisburg, Centerville, and Springfield. Total group sales are nearly $30 million and the opportunities to expand sales and profits look very good in the future.
And Charles Biehn’s legacy of quality, customer service, and innovation still guide the missions of all Biehn Family Companies today.
He would be proud.