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Business rolls along for ball bearing maker

While marking 75 years in business is a fairly singular accomplishment, claiming your product is “Made in Danbury, used in outer space” is unique indeed. Barden Corp., a ball-bearing manufacturer at 200 Park Ave., is the only company that has done both.

“It’s a combination of making quality products and having the desire and determination to satisfy our customers,” said Plant Manager Brian Williams. “I know it’s a cliché, but the pride we take in innovative solutions rather than just being ‘Bearings R Us’ has made the difference.”

Ball bearings

Since 2002 Barden has been a segment of German manufacturer Schaeffler Group, as part of that company’s $650 million acquisition of FAG Kugelfischer; the latter purchased Barden in 1990 for $131.1 million. While revenue figures for Barden — which also has a plant in Winsted — were not available, Schaeffler itself posted 2017 revenues of $17.1 billion, a 5.9 percent increase over 2016.

The Danbury firm came to life in the midst of World War II, when Theodore Barth and Carl Norden — whose surnames were combined to form “Barden” — joined forces to make precision ball bearings for Norden’s bombsight. The problem, Williams said, was that “they couldn’t find a manufacturer who could produce the bearings necessary for the quality and precision needed. They were literally forced to do it themselves.”

Within two years, Barden was established well enough with the military to receive an “E” (for excellence) award from both the U.S. Army and Navy. Growth has continued apace, as Barden’s products today are used in sectors ranging from the military — including bearings used to make the current Seawolf class of nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines “more quiet at full speed than its predecessor was idling at the dock,” in Williams’ words — communications satellites, GPS weather and communications devices to high-performance machine and medical tools and automotive applications.

The company is also active in aerospace, with its super-precision ball bearings used in NASA’s Mars rovers and the Cassini spacecraft, which dove into Saturn’s atmosphere last September. Such projects, Williams said, prove Barden’s quality and durability: “It’s not like you’re going to get them back to recalibrate them — once they’re out there, they’re out there, and they’ve got to perform.”

A pair of 1955 floods at Barden’s original East Franklin Street location in Danbury led to the move to Park Avenue, where Barden overlooks the airport and Danbury Fair Mall. “If flood waters reach here, we’ll need to build a large wooden boat and start pairing animals off two by two,” Williams quipped.

Today the company maintains about 420 employees in Danbury. Williams noted that Schaeffler has remained active in its operations, having invested some $55 million in Barden since taking it over; the majority of that money has been for systems and equipment upgrades, he said.

Georg F.W. Schaeffler, family shareholder and chairman of Schaeffler’s supervisory board, attended an April 17 event to mark the Danbury firm’s 75th anniversary, alongside Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.

“Connecticut’s manufacturing industry is a significant driver of innovation and exports, and world-class companies like Schaeffler are largely the reason why,” Malloy said. “Schaeffler’s commitment to our state and our residents is proof that Connecticut is a great place to do business, and I look forward to many more celebrations as this wonderful partnership continues to flourish.”

Williams said that, for all the hoopla, Barden is determined to remain focused on the job at hand. “Being able to celebrate the last 75 years was of course a wonderful thing,” he said. “But equally important is looking forward to what we can do in terms of continued diversification and working with our customers for the next 75-plus years.”


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