As an eight year old orphan, my grandfather, Adrian P. (“A.P.”) Bardet,immigrated to the United States from France in 1903. Arriving in San Francisco to be raised by his aunt, grandpa graduated from a technical high school, served a 4-year journeyman machinist apprenticeship, and thereafter worked at a reputable “iron works” in the City, building and overhauling industrial machinery for the gold and silver mines still operating in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in Nevada.
At 25 years of age, A.P. Bardet founded Pioneer Motor Bearing Company in San Francisco in 1920 with a few partners he would soon buy out.
The “motor” in our company’s name evokes our formation at the height of the American Industrial Revolution and the emergence by then of the new and fast-growing automotive market. Our company name reminds us of our deep roots, when automobiles were commonly called “motor cars”. Back then, Pioneer manufactured new bearings primarily for auto parts stores and independent garages, serving these customers, and dealerships too, with a rapid response bearing repair service.
Long before the term was popularized, from the day we opened our doors Pioneer was devoted to “customer service”. Grandpa and his team had to be in order to survive our first nine years and then the Great Depression. From automobile dealerships and independent garages throughout northern California, they received at the Greyhound bus station in the morning damaged bearings to be repaired. They rushed them to the shop, performed necessary repairs and returned them on an outgoing bus that evening, routinely providing one-day turn-around service.
Although these days it is impossible to provide a same-day repair service for large bearings weighing up to 10,000 pounds, today the legacy of rapidly responding to our customers’ requirements is the core of our company’s culture.
During World War II, when the San Francisco Bay Area was a major center for the U.S. Navy, Pioneer grew necessary capacity to meet the demands of the regional hyperactive marine and industrial markets.
The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941 interrupted the college education of my father, William P. (“Bill”) Bardet. But by 1947 he had returned to Stanford University, earned his B.S. degree in Industrial Engineering and joined Pioneer. Dad still comes into work today, using e-mail to communicate his cogent suggestions in his effort to contribute to our continuous incremental improvement. I believe he has been in the babbitt bearing industry longer than any other living person in North America.
Dad’s lasting achievements were leading Pioneer out of the automotive market and into the industrial, marine and power generation markets we continue to serve to this day, while at the same time establishing a professional in-house engineering capability for the company.
In 1956, because of our expanding capabilities and growing demand for industrial and marine bearings, Pioneer became a qualified supplier to Western Gear Corp. and the marine divisions of Westinghouse Electric and General Electric. Then in 1958, Pioneer moved from San Francisco to a larger manufacturing plant we built in the City of South San Francisco.
By 1960, Pioneer completed its withdrawal from the automotive industry to focus its energies on marine, industrial, and power generation markets. At the same time, we adopted as standard procedure the use of in-process and final ultrasonic testing of the integrity of babbitt bonds to bearing shells, with in-house personnel appropriately trained and certified by independent authorities.
During this period, Dad hired good machinists who became the “next generation” of Pioneer’s leading skilled craftsmen, many of whom stayed with the company for 30 or more years. Among them, leaders arose, including Don Wengler, who served as Shop Foreman for years before becoming Western Technical Services Manager and one of the leading practical experts in the U.S. on the art and science of babbitting (who was called upon in the 1990’s to provide advice and consultation to ABB on site in Mannheim, Germany). Don was a member of the team that helped design, staff and equip our new North Carolina plant.
The same week in 1965 that Don joined Pioneer, Dad hired Steve Bonino, who rose to become Production Manager at our South San Francisco plant, and who moved to North Carolina to head up our new operations there four months after we opened. Today Steve is our Vice President and Chief of Operations, with 45 years of experience with Pioneer and the manufacture and repair of bearings. Not long after Don and Steve were originally hired, Al Hayes joined Pioneer for a career of over 30 years, rising to become Production Manager and, with Don and Steve, one of the “pillars of the company”.
In 1964, on a handshake, Dad formed what became a 27-year association with the Glacier Metal Company, Ltd., at the time Europe’s largest plain bearing manufacturer. After Pioneer initially served as a sales representative of the industrial and marine products of Glacier for a few years, Glacier created a wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary, The Glacier Metal Company, Inc., and appointed Dad to run it for more than two decades before Glacier imploded in restructuring and division after division was sold off or closed down.
With Glacier as a mentor, Pioneer’s knowledge and understanding of fluid film bearing technology grew exponentially during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was a time when tilting pad journal bearings were introduced on a large scale, computer technology arose to predict bearing operational performance, Glacier owned more than 50% of all world patents in existence on bearing materials and retained more than 50 bearing engineers in a central research, development and applications engineering center.
Under Dad’s leadership, Pioneer established its own engineering department in 1966, appointing Leon (“Holly”) Hollingsworth the company’s chief engineer. Holly had enjoyed a long career at Western Gear Corp. and had a wealth of practical engineering experience. In the late 1960’s, Holly invented our Fluid Pivot® technology, and with the help of his assistant engineer, Drew Nelson (now a professor at Stanford), developed both our JC and JS Fluid Pivot design styles.
By the early 1970’s, we introduced to the market our Fluid Pivot Tilting Pad Journal Bearing, with pads relying not on conventional mechanical pivots but operating on a self-generated hydrostatic film of oil in addition to the hydrodynamic film.
Soon thereafter, Dad won our first OEM customers for the bearing: Solar Turbines; and Cooper Energy (now Rolls-Royce), both of which continue to purchase Fluid Pivot bearings to this day.