The 108-year-old manufacturer of industrial casters and carts is now in its fourth generation of family ownership and management and President Dave Lippert, great-grandson of founder John A. Weigel, hopes it has a fifth and sixth generation, at least.

With each succeeding generation, he says, the number of family members who are familiar with the business and have spent time in it gets smaller and smaller.

“My brothers and I and our cousin spent summers here, working in the office and doing different things. We learned about the business by being here,” says Lippert, who manages the company with his brothers and cousin.

Larry Grypp, president of the Goering Center for Family and Private Business at the University of Cincinnati, says only about four out of a hundred family businesses survive into the fourth generation. Reaching the fifth or sixth generations is even more rare.

Wedged between Dixie Highway and the railroad tracks, about two miles from downtown, Hamilton Caster is the oldest continuously owned business in Hamilton. That’s saying something because the city has a long industrial history that includes well-known names like Beckett, Mosler, Rentschler and Champion Paper.

It’s also one of the oldest caster manufacturers in the United States and one of just a handful of domestic manufacturers of wheels to move all manner of carts and other objects.

In the early 1900s there were half a dozen caster manufacturers in Hamilton alone, says Lippert. Today there are scarcely that many caster manufacturers in the entire United States.

“Imports have greatly affected our whole industry,” says Lippert. “Casters are increasingly made off shore, especially for lighter items like TV stands and desk chairs—the type of casters you’d find at Home Depot or Lowe’s.”

The recipient of the Hamilton Heritage Award for Outstanding Community Involvement a couple years ago, Lippert has also co-authored a book about the importance of U.S. manufacturing, Bringing Jobs Back to the USA.

Hamilton Caster has survived by diversifying. It is the only U.S. caster maker producing both casters and industrial carts. And it specializes in engineering and producing highly customized industrial casters for companies in the motor vehicle, mining and aerospace industries among others.

For example, about a year ago, the company built the largest set of casters it ever produced, each weighing 8,000 pounds and five feet high, for the Defense Department.

“We called it colossus,” says Lippert. “It was custom engineered and built. “

That would have impressed Lippert’s great-grandfather John A. Weigel, the son of German immigrants who was born in Hamilton in the midst of the Civil War. 

An entrepreneur, he started the caster business in a rented garage in 1907 after working as a machinist for the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railroad. 

“He was a tinkerer who liked to make things,” says Lippert. One popular item was a shoe rack caster used by early 20th century shoe stores that would roll racks of shoes onto the street in front of the store to attract customers.

“They sold a gazillion of those casters,” Lippert says.

The small company was incorporated in 1910 and then, as today, shareholders were family members. In 1920, Weigel moved the business from its crowded plant on Hanover Street to a new 17,000-square-foot plant on the company’s current site, then considered a rural area.

In the late 1920s, the company diversified into non-powered factory trucks and handcarts with acquisition of Cincinnati-based H. Zering Manufacturing Co. After struggling through the Depression, majority control was acquired in 1939 by Ralph Lippert, an advertising manager for American Products Co. in Cincinnati, and his wife, Esther, Weigel’s daughter.

The company was being managed by the third generation in 1960s when it expanded again, acquiring Towsley Trucks, a maker of industrial wheeled handling equipment.

After his father, Bob Lippert, retired in 1994, Dave, who had joined the business in 1982 as a project manager, was elected president. His brother, Steve, was elected executive vice president; brother, Jim, was named secretary and sales manager, and cousin, Mark Lippert, was named vice president of marketing.

One unwritten rule is that family members have to work outside the business before coming back to work there fulltime. Dave didn’t initially plan on joining the family business, earning an engineering degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy and spending several years as a pilot instructor.

“After looking at the military lifestyle,” Lippert says. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it for another 15 years.” 

Early in his tenure as president, Hamilton Caster embraced lean manufacturing practices. 

“We did it before it became critical [for manufacturing]. When we got to 2008 and everything fell off the face of planet, we were hurt like everybody else in manufacturing, but we never went negative. We always made money.”

Another important element in Hamilton Caster’s longevity is its workforce.

“We’ve always been blessed with people who stay here a long time,” Lippert says, estimating the average employee tenure is around 20 years.

“We had a guy retire late last year who worked here 47 and a half years. He had been hired by my grandfather and saw three generations here.”

To help maintain the family’s connection to the business, Lippert has started writing a quarterly newsletter just for extended family members.

“It’s kind of Hamilton Caster 101 stuff, just to let them what we do so they know what this family business is all about,” he says.

Lippert, who has two grown daughters—one an Air Force physician and the other married with a family—says: “My daughters have done a little work here but not that much.” 

A couple of nephews are interested in entering the business. Recently, Jamie Bellman, a fifth generation family member, joined the company as a truck driver.

“It will be interesting to see how it will go, if we make it to the sixth generation,” says Lippert.

Hamilton Caster remains optimistic. To mark the 100th anniversary in 2007, the company commissioned a history entitled, The Hamilton Caster Story: The First 100 Years.