W.C. Bradley Co. History
Columbus, Georgia 31902
Telephone: (706) 571-6056
Fax: (706) 571-6084
Founded: 1887 as Carter and Bradley
NAIC: 335221 Household Cooking Appliance Manufacturing
The goal of the W.C Bradley Co. is to attain leadership as a multi-brand supplier of high quality consumer goods focused primarily on home leisure lifestyle markets and distributed through a variety of channels.
- William Bradley and Samuel Carter buy a cotton factoring company.
- The company is renamed W.C Bradley Co. after Bradley buys out Carter.
- Bradley becomes chairman of Coca-Cola Company and serves until 1946.
- Bradley dies.
- The company make its first Char-Broil grill.
- The third generation of the family begins running the company.
- Stephen Turner Butler becomes the fourth generation to head the company.
- Lamplight Farms Inc. is acquired.
- The company adds to its lighting business by acquiring Tiki Corp.; the company acquires Zebco Corp.
- The company forms its Home Leisure Group.
- The company announces the closure of its plant in Columbus and the transfer of manufacturing to China.
Family owned and operated by a fourth generation, the W.C Bradley Co. is a Columbus, Georgia-based company best known for its Char-Broil barbecue grill division, which is a major producer of gas, charcoal, and electric grills sold under the Char-Broil and Thermos labels. It also manufactures grills for Costco and Sears under the Kenmore brand. Char-Broil is part of the W.C Bradley Co. Home Leisure Group, which includes several other businesses. A full-service fulfillment company, Bradley Direct oversees the company's Grill Lover's catalog and web site business while also offering third parties its call center services, order processing, and shipping capabilities. Operating out of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, the Lamplight subsidiary offers indoor lamps and scented candles and outdoor torches, sold under the Lamplight and Tiki labels. Zebco is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company that designs and makes fishing tackle. The W.C Bradley Co. also runs the PGA Tour Stop, a 31,000-square-foot golf apparel, shoe, equipment, and gift store located in the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida. Finally, the company operates the W.C Bradley Co. Real Estate Division, which develops and manages more than 60 commercial and residential properties in the Columbus, Georgia market.
Company's Founding in the 1800s
The W.C Bradley Co. has been involved in a wide range of commercial activities since it was founded in 1887 by William Clark Bradley and his brother-in-law, Samuel A. Carter. Bradley was born in 1863 on his family's plantation in Alabama. He moved to Columbus, Georgia, in 1885 and went to work at a cotton factoring company called Bussey-Goldsmith. In 1887 he married Sarah M. Hall and soon became partners with her brother. They bought Bussey-Goldsmith, renaming it Carter and Bradley. They quickly moved beyond cotton factoring and began producing fertilizer for cotton farmers as well as launching a wholesale grocery business. Bradley also became involved in the banking business, acting as one of the founders of the Third National Bank and the Columbus Savings Bank, which would eventually merge and one day form the basis of a major financial services company, Synovus Financial. Bradley bought out Carter in 1895 and changed the company's name to W.C Bradley Co.
During the final years of the century, Bradley entered the textile industry. In 1896 he and a partner took over the largest textile operation in the South by acquiring the massive Eagle and Phenix Mills. He then supplemented the business by constructing the largest cotton warehouse in the South, which also would be put to good use by another venture in which Bradley participated during this period. As head of the Merchant and Planters Steamboat shipping line, he began shipping groceries and fertilizer, as well as passengers, down the Chattahoochee River to cotton plantations as far away as Florida. The boats then returned with cotton for his warehouses and mills. In 1917 he bought five of those downriver plantations, establishing a farming division that would grow into one of Georgia's largest family operations.
As successful as Bradley was in his many endeavors, the venture that made him an immensely wealthy man was the investor group he helped to organize with Earnest Woodruff. In 1919 they paid $25 million to acquire a struggling Coca-Cola Company, a purchase that almost did not materialize. Because the group was unable to borrow the money as a syndicate, Bradley had to personally borrow $4 million in New York to save the deal. Coca-Cola was first concocted in the 1880s by Dr. John S. Pemberton, and under the leadership of druggist Asa G. Candler the company became a thriving enterprise and a well-known brand. But Coca-Cola's growth was slowed by sugar rationing during World War I and slipped into a state of flux when Chandler retired in 1916. A bad sugar purchase after the war threatened the company's existence and ruptured relations with its bottlers. Coca-Cola was in need of modernization, both in terms of equipment and leadership, and the company received both in the new ownership group. Bradley became chairman of the board, and Woodruff's son, 33-year-old Robert Woodruff, soon became president. Woodruff guided the company through the Great Depression of the 1930s and then oversaw a period of tremendous growth during and after World War II when Coca-Cola become an American icon and the company emerged as one of the country's first multinational corporations. Bradley served as chairman of Coca-Cola's board until 1946, after which members of his family continued to hold significant interests in Coca-Cola stock.
Bradley had one child, Elizabeth, who in 1917 married D.A Turner. Turner then became involved in Bradley's business ventures and was groomed to succeed his father-in-law. Nevertheless, Bradley remained very much in charge and active for another three decades. The W.C Bradley Co. continued to diversify during the 1920s. It established the Bradley Manufacturing Company after buying the Hamburger Cotton Mills in 1920 and later in the decade bought a majority interest in the Columbus Iron Works. A maker of armaments during the Civil War, the Iron Works in the 1870s produced the first commercial ice-making machines. Bradley expanded the plant's product lines to include wood and coal burning heaters and stoves and horse-drawn farming equipment, products without much future potential. In 1949 the Iron Works introduced a new item, producing its first Char-Broil Barbecue Grill.
Along the way, many of Bradley's ventures became outdated. In addition to dropping cast iron stoves and horse-drawn plows, the company exited the steamboat business and during the 1940s sold off its textile mills. In the final years of his life, Bradley, a very religious man, established the W.C and Sarah H. Bradley Foundation in 1943, an organization that would contribute millions of dollars to a wide range of charitable, cultural, and educational causes. Bradley died in July 1947 and was replaced as chairman of W.C Bradley Co. by Turner.
Grilling Gaining in Popularity After World War II
Although the bulk of the Turner family's wealth continued to come from Coca-Cola, much of its business activities centered around its barbecue grill product. Prior to this time, many houses featured brick or stone fireplaces in the backyard where outdoor cooking was done, and sometimes incinerators were modified to accommodate grilling. Many people created their own barbecue grills and smokers out of wine barrels, oil drums, trash cans, water heater tanks, and metal roofing. The wood they used as fuel, however, was far from convenient. Then, Henry Ford found a way to convert the sawdust and scrap wood that were left over from the making of wood frames for his Model T automobile to fashion charcoal briquettes. His new business, The Ford Charcoal Company, would become better known for its location, Kingsford, Michigan. Although intended as a heating fuel, Kingsford charcoal was soon discovered to be perfectly suited for outdoor grilling. After World War II many veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to purchase vast numbers of suburban homes complete with backyards and patios. Barbecuing became even more widespread, although makeshift grills were still the order of the day. The introduction of the Char-Broil grill was perfectly timed, as manufactured grills now began to replace homemade affairs. In the early 1950s, George Stephen, part owner of Weber Brothers Metal Works, a Chicago sheet metal shop that produced half-spheres welded together to make buoys for Lake Michigan, invented the kettle grill by joining two of those half-spheres with a hinge. The Weber grill would go on to become a major force in the fast-growing grilling industry and Char-Broil's chief competitor.
For many years charcoal grills dominated the marketplace, but in the 1960s gas became a viable fuel, although these early units were connected to natural gas lines and thus anchored in place. Char-Broil added gas grills in the 1960s while Weber continued to concentrate on high-end charcoal grills. In 1973 the W.C Bradley Co. moved its manufacturing operations out of the Iron Works and into a modern plant in Bradley Industrial Park. (The Iron Works would be preserved as part of the Columbus Iron Works Trade and Convention Center.) Around the time of the move, propane tanks were introduced, marking a significant change in the grilling industry. Propane made gas grills portable, so that they could now be stored indoors during the winter. Weber made an attempt to incorporate gas into its line of grills, but quickly gave up, deciding instead to focus on charcoal grills. But by the mid-1980s, however, gas grills were beginning to make significant gains, despite a price that was much higher than charcoal grills. Many consumers were simply won over by the speed and convenience of gas. Sales of charcoal grills peaked in 1988, then steadily lost ground to gas grills. Char-Broil, and other competitors like Sunbeam, had claimed a major stake in the gas grill market before Weber was able to use its brand recognition to seriously enter the race with its Genesis line of high-end gas grills.
Fourth Generation Taking the Helm in the Late 1980s
While Char-Broil grew into an industry leader, the W.C Bradley Co. underwent changes in leadership. D.A Turner's son, William B. Turner, took over as chief executive officer in 1973, and after the elder Turner passed away in 1982 he assumed the chairmanship as well. By this time, a fourth generation was also active in the family business in the form of William B. Turner, Jr., and Stephen Turner Butler. The latter first went to work in the warehouse as a teenager and joined the company on a full-time basis in 1974. In 1987 William B. Turner retired, and his son became president and chief operating officer of W.C Bradley Co., and Butler was elected CEO and chairman.
Under new leadership, W.C Bradley Co. entered the 1990s very much focused on its grilling business, especially gas grills, which finally outsold charcoal grills in 1995. In fact, Char-Broil sales tripled from 1988 to 1995, growing at an average annual clip of nearly 20 percent, prompting W.C Bradley Co. to spend
As the grilling industry evolved, the patio began to be seen as another room in the house, and because grills were often at the center of that space, grill manufacturers were well positioned to join the race to furnish that space. In 1998 the W.C Bradley Co. acquired Lamplight Farms Inc., a Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin company that made decorative outdoor torches as well as indoor lamps and oil and scented indoor candles. The W.C Bradley Co. then added to its lighting business in late 2001 by acquiring Tiki Corp. and its well-known brand of Tiki torches, plus the Longlighter brand of general-purpose lighters. Tiki was folded into the Lamplight subsidiary, although it would remain an autonomous business. In 2001 the W.C Bradley Co. completed another acquisition, but one that was out of keeping with the company's other recent additions. It bought Zebco Corp., a Tulsa-based fishing tackle subsidiary of The Brunswick Corp. What primarily attracted the W.C Bradley Co. to Zebco was the company's similar distribution system. In 2002 the W.C Bradley Co. formed its Home Leisure Group, which included Char-Broil, Lamplight, Zebco, and Bradley Direct. Bradley Direct began in 1980 and was a full-service third-party call center and order fulfillment operation that grew out of the grilling business. This step was part of the company's effort to become less dependent on the barbecue industry, as was the launch of the PGA Tour Stop store in Florida's World Golf Village.
But the W.C Bradley Co. remained one of the leading grill makers and was willing to spend the marketing dollars to battle Weber and make Char-Broil the most recognizable name in the industry. The company launched its "Keepers of the Flame" series of television commercials, which became all but ubiquitous on sports telecasts, in an effort to reach the target audience of men, ages 25 to 49. Although the Bradley company enjoyed a good measure of success on the marketing front, it was forced to face the unpleasant reality that it could no longer manufacture its Char-Broil grills in the United States and remain competitive. Because the products could be manufactured for 25 percent less in China, the W.C Bradley Co.'s management believed it had no choice but to close its plant in Columbus, where the company had been making grills for more than 50 years, and to transfer manufacturing to China. The decision was announced in November 2004, but management promised not to begin cutting the workforce until the summer of 2005.
Principal Divisions: Char-Broil; The W.C Bradley Co. Home Leisure Group; The W.C Bradley Co. Real Estate Division.
Principal Competitors: Maytag Corporation; Weber-Stephen Products Co.; Whirlpool Corporation.
- Adams, Tony, "Columbus, Ga.-Based Company Buys Popular Outdoor Torch Firm," Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, December 13, 2001.
- MacArthur, Kate, "Boy Meets Grill," Advertising Age, April 2, 2001, p. 10.
- Wells, Garrison, "Georgia-Based Char-Broil, Grill Maker, to Buy Thermos Co.," Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, December 14, 1996.
- Williams, Chuck, "Columbus, Ga.-Based Grill Maker to Move Manufacturing Operations to China," Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, November 17, 2004.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.69. St. James Press, 2005.