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Varflex Celebrates 100 years in Rome by Rome Sentinel

ROME — For 100 years, one prominent manufacturing company has quietly and efficiently kept its nose to the grindstone, right in the heart of Rome.

But what exactly does Varflex do? The name has been a part of Rome for a century, but do you know what goes on inside the factory walls at its 512 W. Court St. location?


Since May 1924, the Varflex Corporation has been making insulating sleeves for electrical wiring, which protect the wiring from hot and cold temperatures, high voltage, abrasions and more. Their products can be found in everything from household appliances to Harley-Davidson motorcycles to Apache helicopters.

They’ve also begun to expand into producing high-quality fibers and yarns out of materials like Kevlar, nylon and Nomex.


“Any place you need to protect a wire from some kind of element” is where you are likely to find a Varflex-made item, said President Dan Burgdorf.

The sleeves are primarily fiberglass yarn, braided into a hollow tube. They can be made anywhere from 20,000ths of an inch to up to 6 inches in diameter.

They have nearly 1,000 braider machines in operation at their main plant on West Court Street, where they’ve been located since 1946. They opened a second plant on Success Drive in 2015 for their fiber business. The company employs about 140 people, many of whom have been working for Varflex for decades, Burgdorf said.

“The braiding technique hasn’t changed much over all those years,” Burgdorf said. “We’re still here 100 years later. We haven’t packed our bags and moved yet.”

Their clients include everyone from General Electric to Harley Davidson to the U.S. government, with many international sales as well. And it all started with a couple of guys in Rome who had an idea for a business.


Humble beginnings

“Sleeving back then was called ‘spaghetti tubing.’ Nobody was manufacturing it here in the United States. It was mostly manufactured over in Germany and being used for, what we understood, in radios,” Burgdorf explained.

Two brothers, Charles and R. Harry Jenny, joined with their brother-in-law, James E. Griffin, and opened the first electrical sleeving company in the United States in the back room of their auto repair garage. In 1924, radios were only in about 1% of households, Burgdorf explained, and that grew to 75% of households by 1937.

The name “Varflex” came from combining “varnished” and “flexible,” company officials said. It wasn’t long before they closed the repair shop and focused entirely on Varflex. By 1939, their new fiberglass braiding product was on display at the New York World’s Fair. During the height of World War II, Varflex was instrumental in the proximity fuse innovations for the Allies, used in anti-aircraft guns and field artillery. Back when it was originally founded, the company used strictly cotton, with varnish,” Burgdorf said. “In fact, they believe that’s what caused the plant to burn down in 1942.” The cause of the fire was never known, though company legend suggests spontaneous combustion in a pile of freshly saturated cotton sleeving.


Ever expanding

Though their first plant was destroyed, the company had purchased their West Court Street plant only a few months prior. It had been a textile mill in the 1800s and was quickly turned into the base of Varflex operations. They have since expanded to more than 100,000-square feet, with an additional 60,000-square-feet at their Success Drive location. They’ve also been very canny about their equipment. Though they’ve added some technological upgrades over the years, many of their braiders are decades old, with some even dating back to the 1930s, officials said. “One of the things about Varflex, if they didn’t have cash, we didn’t buy it. We never went out and bought things on credit,” said Burgdorf. “As a result, the company is very solvent. We’re debt free. We have no debt.”


Charitable foundation

The original founders died in the 1960s and 70s, and the children of James Griffin continued on his work. Siblings William and Dorothy Griffin spent their whole lives with Varflex, with Dorothy dying in 2015 at the age of 100, and William dying at age 94 in 2019. But they had no children of their own to whom they could leave the company. “They didn’t feel they needed the money, selling the company just for the sake of selling it,” Burgdoff explained. The Griffins also didn’t want some larger company to come in, strip Varflex for parts and run it into the ground.

Ownership of Varflex was transferred to the Griffin Charitable Foundation, which was formed out of William and Dorothy’s individual charities. The foundation is set up in such a way that it protects the company from ever being sold or dismantled. The foundation also uses its money to help fund various social and civic projects throughout Rome and the surrounding area, including healthcare, education, food pantries, human services and more.

“The Griffins had always been very charitable. Not just through their charity foundations, they would just open their wallets, just open their pocket books,” said Dyann Nashton, community liaison for the Griffin Charitable Foundation.

“They just didn’t mind taking care of the community. They had a strong philosophy of looking after their own. They wanted to Varflex to continue on for many years for their employees.”

 

Written by Sean I. Mills

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