RYERSON email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-06-10 published
Stove maker got company cooking
Innovator steered Western Foundry Co. into supplying auto exhaust manifolds
By Allison LAWLOR Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - Page R5
An innovative Canadian businessman who transformed a small family company that produced iron stoves into the world's supplier of exhaust manifolds for cars and light trucks, has died. Dick LEVAN passed away in Brantford, Ontario, in late April. He was 68.
In 1961, Mr. LEVAN joined the Western Foundry Co. Ltd., now called Wescast Industries Inc., as a young engineer with little knowledge about the foundry business. At the time, the company, which now has more than 2,000 employees, had 32 employees who worked with primitive equipment in run-down buildings in the small, southwestern Ontario town of Wingham.
Fifty-eight years earlier, Mr. LEVAN's maternal grandfather Richard VANSTONE had been one of the first businessmen in Wingham to buy five shares, valued at $100 each, in the new foundry. Today, the LEVAN family is the company's major shareholder.
"It was his passion that has driven the growth of the company for the past 42 years," said Mr. LEVAN's son-in-law Edward FRACKOWIAK.
"He made things happen. He didn't wait around for things to happen to him."
Mr. FRACKOWIAK succeeded Mr. LEVAN, who stepped down as the company's chairman of the board in March. He was diagnosed with liver cancer.
In his early years with the company, Mr. LEVAN faced several challenges. In 1964, the same year he was elected president by the board of directors, replacing his father William LEVAN, the company got a contract to manufacture radiators for the Toronto Separate School Board. After a summer spent making the cast-iron hot-water radiators, they were installed, but when they were turned on, they leaked.
The company not only lost $64,000 replacing the radiators but their credibility in the cast-iron heating business. But Mr. LEVAN was determined to turn the company around. He steered the company toward the auto industry and in the late 1960s it started manufacturing auto parts. "He was a leader," said Clyde McBAIN, chairman of Winnipeg-based Ancast Industries Ltd. "He was a hard driver. He was tough."
Mr. LEVAN found himself faced with another tough challenge in 1978 that could have forced the foundry into bankruptcy. Ford Motor Co. recalled 65,000 Bronco transmission extensions that year, according to Wescast. The foundry took partial responsibility and worked with Ford to address the problem. As a result of the recall, Mr. LEVAN became determined to build quality control into the foundry's production system.
"He capitalized on this low point," Mr. FRACKOWIAK said, adding that today the company has an enviable safety record. "I think that was one of the remarkable things about Dick. When faced with a critical issue he could do something about it."
By the early 1990s, the company was a major supplier of manifolds for the Big Three auto makers. Under Mr. LEVAN's guiding hand, the company continued to grow over the next decade. Based in Brantford, Wescast now operates seven production facilities in North America. It also has a joint-venture interest in Weslin Autoipari Rt., a Hungarian-based supplier of exhaust manifolds and turbocharger housings for the European auto market.
Last year, Wescast announced that it had acquired Georgia Ductile Foundries L.L.C., a privately held auto-parts maker also in the cast-iron business, which manufactures suspension and brake components.
Richard LEVAN was born in New Rochelle, New York on May 30, 1934, but grew up in the town of Arnprior, west of Ottawa. He attended Trinity College School, a private school in Port Hope, Ontario, and went onto study engineering physics at the University of Toronto. He graduated in 1956 and two years later married Jane RYERSON. They had four children.
As a young engineer fresh out of school, Mr. LEVAN went to work for a refrigeration company in Brantford, Ontario, before moving to Wingham to join Western Foundry at his father's urging. Known as a demanding employer, Mr. LEVAN was respected for his hard work, directness and leadership abilities. He was someone who had an ability to "cut to the chase," Mr. FRACKOWIAK said.
An astute businessman, one of Mr. LEVAN's favourite expressions was, "Don't let your short-term greed get in the way of your long-term greed."
Over the years, his good sense of humour and ability to laugh at himself served him well. Just before an important meeting in Flint, Michigan., with executives from General Motors Corp., Mr. LEVAN discovered he had forgotten his suit. A colleague came to the rescue, offering to lend him an extra suit.
Mr. LEVAN arrived at the meeting the next day wearing the borrowed suit, the pant legs just short of his ankles. When the General Motors executives arrived, Mr. LEVAN decided to make light of the situation. "We had a lot of rain in Wingham last night," he told them.
Described as "fanatical about improvement," Mr. LEVAN was always looking for new ways to improve the company's products, which meant talking to employees and visiting them on the foundry floor, especially in the early years. On one such visit, an employee approached Mr. LEVAN complaining that he didn't have the right tools for the job. Mr. LEVAN went directly to the employee's supervisor and suggested that the problem be corrected. The supervisor, trying to play down the employee's complaints, told him the tools were fine. After listening to the supervisor, Mr. LEVAN looked at him and said: "You have to give people good tools if you want the job done properly."
Later, despite the company's success and his own personal wealth, Mr. LEVAN remained unpretentious and at his core a small-town family man.
"He liked to have the family around," said Mr. FRACKOWIAK. The family not only worked together but often spent vacations together.
Several family members continue to work at Wescast, including Mr. LEVAN's son William LEVAN, who is the company's vice-president of technology.
Outside work, Mr. LEVAN golfed, fished and was an accomplished pilot. He flew a Cessna 206 for years.
"Dick was never quiet," Mr. McBAIN said. "He liked to have fun."
Mr. LEVAN served on several boards, including Trinity College School, to which he donated generously. He also served as past-president of the Canadian Foundry Association and as past director of the American Foundrymen's Society. In Brantford and Wingham, his philanthropy was well known at local hospitals, churches and golf courses.
Mr. LEVAN, who died at his home in Brantford on April 29, leaves his wife Jane, their four children Sally, Bill, Bruce and Ginny, and nine grandchildren.
"He was more than a guy who knew business," Mr. FRACKOWIAK said.
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