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The All-Clad Story: Quality That Lasts a Lifetime

All-Clad remains under the ownership of Groupe SEB. 55 years after its inception, the Canonsburg-based manufacturer continues to churn out arguably the best cookware money can buy—all thanks to John Ulam’s metallurgical genius and, of course, a small stroke of serendipity.


Born in the middle of the Roaring ‘20s on April 18th, 1924, All-Clad founder John Ulam earned a degree in metallurgy from the University of Pittsburgh in 1948 at the age of 24. After working in the steelmaking industry as a metallurgist for a decade, he started Composite Metal Products, a company that specialized in bonded metal technologies.

Founded in 1958, Composite Metal Products was Ulam’s first venture—and also his shortest-lived. He exited the company in 1967, a mere nine years after founding it, and used the proceeds from the sale to start Clad Metals, Inc. in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (Home to about 10,000 people and located roughly 15 miles from Pittsburgh, the town remains to this day the site of the company’s headquarters.)

Clad Metals initially patented a high-pressure, low-temperature roll bonding process, which it used to manufacture electronic and industrial products for a variety of commercial clients. In the first few years of its life, the company sold avionics to aircraft manufacturers, car parts to automakers, and ballistics to defense contractors. The company even secured a contract with the U.S. Mint for cladded metal coins, which allowed the federal agency to discontinue minting coinage using 90% pure silver.

The Accidental Birth of All-Clad Cookware

Though being an entrepreneur and metallurgist occupied Ulam in his professional life, he managed to make time for leisure. One of his main hobbies was cooking, but he found the solid aluminum cookware that dominated the consumer market in the ‘60s to be disappointingly flimsy and prone to discoloration.

Even worse was the fact that aluminum corrodes when it comes in contact with acidic ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar. When it does, it leaves behind a metallic aftertaste in the food. Luckily, aluminum is not toxic to humans, but the flavor is nonetheless unpalatable.

Dissatisfied with the cookware on the market, Ulam decided to use leftover scraps of bonded metal—specifically, stainless steel clad with an aluminum surface—from the Clad Metals company workshop to make himself a pan.

Surprisingly, he found his aluminum-cladded stainless steel pan to be far superior to the solid aluminum ones. Since it had a steel core, Ulam’s cladded pan was more durable than the competition, and yet it conducted heat just as well.

Most importantly, Ulam’s cladded prototype didn’t create a metallic aftertaste in the food it cooked—even if the dish was prepared with ingredients that would normally cause aluminum to corrode.

Satisfied with these results, Ulam incorporated a subsidiary company called All-Clad Metalcrafters and began manufacturing steel cookware cladded with aluminum exteriors. Ulam started to sell his products locally—first at trade shows and later at restaurants.Ulam’s big break came when a Bloomingdale’s corporate buyer took an interest in his cladded cookware. The luxury department store soon began to retail his pans in locations across the country, leading to a dramatic uptick in sales.

Better yet were the reputational benefits of having Bloomingdale’s as a channel partner. Consumers who saw and purchased All-Clad cookware at the high-end chain regarded it as a luxury good—products whose quality and durability more than compensated for its hefty price tag.

Hoping to further drum up sales, Ulam introduced different varieties of metal-bonded cookware. Soon, All-Clad’s inaugural aluminum-cladded stainless steel cookware series—which it marketed as All-Clad Master Chef—were accompanied in Bloomingdale’s by two other product lines: All-Clad Stainless, which was produced with one layer of stainless steel sandwiched between two layers of aluminum (rather than one), as well as All-Clad Cop-R-Chef, which featured an aluminum-bonded stainless steel interior cladded with a thin copper exterior.

Regrettably—and ironically reminiscent of the solid aluminum cookware that had recently dominated the market—consumers found the copper layer in the All-Clad Cop-R-Chef cookware series to be prone to corrosion. As a result, Cop-R-Chef was discontinued and replaced with All-Clad LTD, a series that swapped out the copper exterior for a layer of hard-anodized aluminum, making it sturdier and corrosion-resistant.

The company also followed up with two additional series: All-Clad D5, which was promoted as an upgrade to All-Clad Stainless because it featured five alternating layers of aluminum and stainless steel as opposed to three, along with All-Clad Copper Core, which came with an aluminum-bonded copper core cladded with a stainless steel exterior—sort of like the discontinued Cop-R-Chef series, but in reverse. Both the All-Clad D5 and Copper Core series remain in production today.

All-Clad After John Ulam: Sam Michaels’ Pittsburgh Annealing Box Co.

By the 1980s, All-Clad had become the largest and most profitable Clad Metals subsidiary.

Ulam, meanwhile, was in his sixties and in poor health. Lacking relatives or heirs who wanted to run the business, he sold All-Clad Metalcrafters to Sam Michaels—the owner of the Pittsburgh Annealing Box Company—in late 1988.

John Ulam died on February 1st, 1989, just several months after the acquisition closed. By the time of his death, he had authored over 75 patents related to innovations in metallurgy and cookware design, many of which remained with All-Clad after the sale.

Now at the helm of the cookware company, Michaels launched an aggressive marketing campaign through the 1990s and beyond

This built upon All-Clad’s position as a luxury brand. Michaels partnered with celebrity chefs, offering free cookware and lavish sponsorship packages in exchange for publicity.

Bill Groll, an All-Clad veteran of 43 years, remembers the ‘90s as the “big growth years”. In an article published in May 1999, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remarked the luxury cookware company grew revenues at “better than 35 percent” per year during the latter half of the 1990s—thanks in no small part to Michaels’ marketing efforts.

The Waterford Wedgwood Days: All-Clad From 1999 to 2004

On May 26th, 1999, Irish porcelain, crystal, and bone china manufacturer and holding company Waterford Wedgwood purchased All-Clad from Michaels’ Pittsburgh Annealing Box Company for $110 million. All-Clad’s $52 million in annual sales would bring Waterford Wedgwood’s total annual revenues to $807.3 million and put yet another luxury consumer brand under the control of Ireland’s largest conglomerates.

Waterford Wedgwood’s controlling shareholder was Tony O’Reilly, a former professional rugby player and, at the time, Ireland’s wealthiest person. He had lofty ambitions for All-Clad and wanted the brand to be as ubiquitous of a feature in European kitchens as it was in American ones.

O’Reilly had a point: in 1999, exports made up just 3% of All-Clad’s sales, and the cookware brand had no presence outside the United States save for a single department store in London. So long as All-Clad could steadily capture market share in Europe, the brand could prolong the remarkable revenue growth it achieved in the ‘90s.

In practice, that meant several things. First, Waterford Wedgwood expanded All-Clad’s offerings to include other kitchen products like bakeware. Next, in 2000, the conglomerate paired the luxury cookware company up with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse—this time, to promote a cheaper product called Emerilware. This more affordable, disc-bottomed series featured cladded aluminum only on the bottom of the cookware. The sides of the cookware lacked the aluminum cladding normally found across the rest of All-Clad’s products, a minor detail that did not bother more budget-minded shoppers.

Thanks to these efforts, All-Clad’s sales grew by 41% between 1999 and 2000. To further drive growth, Waterford Wedgwood purchased Spring—a Swiss kitchenware manufacturer—for €3.4 million, in 2004.

This was not the first time Spring was acquainted with the luxury cookware brand. In the 1980s, while still under the direction of Ulam, All-Clad licensed its numerous patents and technologies to Spring, and Waterford Wedgwood saw the Swiss company as All-Clad’s gateway into Europe.

All-Clad Today: A Groupe SEB Subsidiary

Despite All-Clad’s rocketship growth throughout the early aughts, Waterford Wedgwood’s other subsidiaries—like its renowned Waterford Crystal brand—were running into financial difficulties.

To quickly raise cash, Waterford Wedgwood sold All-Clad in August 2004 to French kitchen appliance conglomerate Groupe SEB. The deal valued the cookware company—then producing €18.3 million, or about $22.5 million, in EBITDA—at $250 million, or “about $50 million more than market expectations”. Spring—which by 2004 had changed its name to All-Clad Switzerland—was not included in Waterford Wedgwood’s sale of the cookware brand to Groupe SEB.

In any case, the sale netted the Irish giant a hefty $140 million profit over what it had paid for the luxury cookware company just five years prior, buying O’Reilly time to turn Waterford Wedgwood around. Tragically, Waterford Wedgwood would default on its punishing debt load and declare bankruptcy in 2009, leaving its once-billionaire helmsman penniless. Tony O’Reilly would declare personal bankruptcy later in 2016, after losing the last remnants of his fortune to creditors.

Meanwhile, Groupe SEB got to work with All-Clad. Alarmed that the cookware company’s patents were about to expire, and under pressure from more affordably-priced competitors like Calphalon and Cuisinart, the French kitchenware conglomerate began to offshore the production of some of All-Clad’s products to lower-cost countries like China in 2008.

Groupe SEB marketed this new made-in-China product line as Emeril Pro Clad, pricing it below All-Clad’s entry-level made-in-America cookware set.

But the French conglomerate wasn’t merely launching more affordable alternatives. Groupe SEB also wanted to defend All-Clad’s position as a high-end, luxury cookware manufacturer.

That’s why All-Clad introduced two new product lines in 2014: All-Clad D7 and All-Clad Copper Clad. The former series, an upgraded version of the All-Clad D5 product line, features seven alternating layers of stainless steel and aluminum as opposed to five. Meanwhile, All-Clad Copper Clad, also known as All-Clad C2, features a stainless steel interior cladded with a copper exterior.

Today, All-Clad remains under the ownership of Groupe SEB. 55 years after its inception, the Canonsburg-based manufacturer continues to churn out arguably the best cookware money can buy—all thanks to John Ulam’s metallurgical genius and, of course, a small stroke of serendipity.

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