Great accomplishments often have small beginnings, an idea with which Liberty Electronics is more than familiar. Once a business concept found only on paper for a university research project, by the early 1990s Liberty was a fully formed corporation coming into its own. The company had deliberately focused on defense programs since its 1986 founding, meeting a specific need during the late Cold War and the Gulf War to provide high quality wiring harnesses and cable assemblies to the defense industry. That, however, was all about to change.
In 1994, Liberty President John Dumot visited General Electric’s rail plant in the nearby town of Grove City, observing as Liberty wires were put into GE locomotive engines. “It really started with just a few wires, a pretty small job,” he recalls.[i] Liberty’s management saw the need to diversify the company with projects like the GE assemblies and, working with Franklin businessman John Reib as CEO, they sought to stabilize business after the whirlwind start-up period. But they didn’t have a specific plan, until Dumot pointed out a potential issue with GE’s assembly design during his visit to the production floor. GE turned the issue right back to Liberty and challenged the company: “Can you do something better?”[ii] Liberty could indeed. Initial work brought the cost of the assembly down from $1,900 to $1,100. Unfortunately, there were 4,200 engines already in the field with the defective design, and it was only months before all of them had failed or were failing. With a disaster on its hands, GE tracked down Liberty’s Vice President of Sales Robert Hoffman while he worked out at the local YMCA to request 4,200 replacement harnesses.[iii] Liberty’s production team swung into action, putting the GE engines back into working order.
The project was Liberty’s first non-military contract, and its quality provided the foundation for the next decade of business. The early 1990s concentrated primarily on GE and rail, but as the decade wore on Liberty expanded into the larger transportation field. From its founding, Liberty focused on being “the finest, most technically competent wire manufacturing organization ever assembled.”[iv] The ambition was proved out on multiple occasions, such as in 1997, when a Bombardier division shut down its own internal wiring capabilities and handed over all its wire assembly needs to Liberty. The work was incredibly important for Liberty’s 1998—2001 period, along with other major projects like assemblies for Siemens’ light rail vehicle program for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and Atlanta’s MARTA trains.[v]
Transportation took Liberty across the United States and even into international ventures, from close at home in Pittsburgh, to Taipei, Puerto Rico, and Toronto. The company’s future looked bright as the new millennium began. Liberty prepared to move into its new Franklin plant, doubling its manufacturing space to 30,000 square feet and increasing its production capacity.[vi] The decision to stay in Franklin was a deliberate one. Despite many attractive offers to move out of state, as well as the challenge of cleaning up environmental waste from an old foundry in order to build its new facility, Liberty was committed to Northwestern Pennsylvania. Local companies and individuals were still stockholders, invested in Liberty’s success just as they had in the early days. And 256 employees started 2001 ready to continue Liberty’s 15-year tradition of quality.[vii] No one could envision the radical changes coming to the company and the entire country in the months to come.
[i] John Dumot (President, Liberty Electronics), interview with author, 2 October 2018.
[iv] Larry Snow, “Letter from the President,” Liberty Electronics prospectus, c. 1986, Liberty Electronics archives.
[v] Mark Jacoby (Marketing Manager, Liberty Electronics), interview with author, 2 October 2018.
[vi] John J. Dumot (Vice President of Operations, Liberty Electronics), interview with author, 2 October 2018.
[vii] “Employment Levels,” Liberty Electronics archives.