May 2012

One Man, One Company, and a Million-Dollar Idea that Changed the Industry Forever

George Beiderwell wasn’t the CEO of a major corporation, he didn’t have a MBA or a PhD; he was just a union ironworker who saw a way to fix a problem. Yet his idea forever changed the face of the construction industry and improved the safety of generations to come.
They say that necessity is the mother of all invention and, for George, the old adage definitely held true. As a union ironworker, he watched for 15 years as his brothers received gashing cuts, disabling eye injuries, and were even strangled or fell to their death while using the old, over-the-shoulder methods of carrying tie-wire. He was determined to come up with a better, safer system for tying rebar, and in 1951 the Ideal Tie-Wire Reel was born.

At the time, George was working as a foreman at an atomic energy plant in Paducah, Ky., and overseeing about 100 ironworkers. He had been playing with the idea of the reel for a while and, after much trial and error, had come up with what he considered a good working model. Feeling certain that it was a vast improvement over the current system, he decided to field test the reel and outfitted his men.

His workers immediately recognized that it was a vast improvement over the current method—perhaps too much of an improvement—and because of this, they were resistant to working with the reel. They feared that it would put many of them out of work. But George convinced his men to give the reel a try, and they quickly discovered that not only was it safer and more convenient, it also drastically cut down on wire waste, 
allowed them to increase tying speed by six to eight ties per minute, and enabled them to finish projects 30 percent faster. The reel didn’t make workers obsolete, as they had feared, but instead improved their productiveness and made them more valuable to the contractors.

Inspired, George decided to try selling his reel part-time, but after two years was having little luck. He was ready to give up, but his wife, Dixie, convinced him that not only should he move forward, he should put all of his focus into marketing his reel. Buoyed by her faith, George quit his job as a foreman, and the Ideal Reel Company officially opened its doors in 1953, with both the Beiderwells making it their full-time work.

While George handled production, Dixie was the driving force behind marketing the reel. She discovered that she had a real flair for the task, and her specialty was direct mail marketing. Her work was so innovative and successful that, in the late 1960s, Dixie was recognized for her direct mail campaigns by the Dartnell Institute for Business Research.
The Ideal Reel began to catch on, and the company partnered with manufacturers of tie-wire to produce the coils that fit the reel in exchange for fabricating reels for their companies. For the first few years, the Ideal Reel Company was dependent upon these manufacturers, but as use of the reel grew, the wire business exploded. George was able to build his first coiling machine in 1957, and the Ideal Real Company started selling tie-wire as well as reels, becoming the largest tie-wire producer in the United States during the 1960s and 70s.

Business was booming and George and Dixie were busier than ever, putting all of their time into making their company a success.

Though they had no children of their own, George and Dixie found a surrogate in Wayne McKenzie. Wayne, who would later become the next owner of the Ideal Reel Company, met the Beiderwells through his girlfriend, who just happened to be George’s niece. The two became close, and when his father died while Wayne was in high school, George stepped in and filled the void left by his passing.

Wayne graduated from high school and moved on to college, working all the while, with his employer encouraging him to get his law degree. But Wayne was not happy and was questioning the path he was on, so when George approached him in 1970 about coming to work at Ideal Reel, he considered it a sign. George offered to pay him half as much and work him twice as hard, but he also promised that someday Wayne would own the company. It was an offer that proved impossible to refuse.

Wayne’s first day with Ideal Reel was December 23, 1970, and he likes to joke that he had to work Christmas day but didn’t even mind because he was so excited to get started. In George’s company, Wayne found the challenge and rewards for which he had been searching, and when George retired in 1985, Wayne, along with two other employees, purchased the company. In time, he bought out his two partners and today is the sole owner of the Ideal Reel Company.

George Beiderwell’s patent for the tie-wire reel has long since run out, and the Ideal Reel Company is no longer the only player in the game. There are other companies who produce the reels, most of them in China, but Ideal Reel is still the only one that is manufactured in the United States from 100 percent US-made components. Nowadays, the majority of their reels are sold through distributors, but Wayne still sells directly to union halls at the same discounted rate. Distributors don’t like this, as it cuts into their sales and profits, but he feels that it is important to make the reels affordable for the union ironworkers.

Wayne continued his close relationship with George until Beiderwell’s passing in 1990. True to the generous nature he had always displayed, George left his estate to charity. One of his greatest passions in life was always education, and a large part of his legacy is invested in Kentucky state colleges. His estate now sponsors scholarships that provide tuition for undergraduate students who are interested in the construction trades and demonstrate financial need. These scholarships cover education for all trades and put approximately 75 people through school each year.

After his death, it was important to Wayne that George Beiderwell, a man that he had come to both admire and love as a father, would be remembered for the important contribution he made to the construction industry. Last November, he traveled to Washington and met with the general officers of the Iron Workers Union. He presented them with one of George and Dixie’s cherished mementos—a chrome-plated Ideal Tie Wire Reel, which will be housed in the union’s history display as a reminder of the man and his legacy.