Celebrating 100 years of ITW GSE

ITW GSE celebrated its 100th Anniversary at its Odense factory in Denmark earlier this year, GHI looks back at its historic roots that turned it into one of the world’s major GPU manufacturers of today.

Some people are born ahead of their time and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come – Axel Åkerman was such a man.

Born in 1896 at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Denmark and more than 50 years after Hans Christian Ørsted, who made history with the discovery of electric currents creating magnetic fields, Åkerman’s own fascination with electricity led to his own ingenuity coming to the fore. Little did he know when he opened his electrical workshop in 1924 that it would become a global pioneer in innovation that we know as ITW GSE today.

When Åkerman started the business, which he named after himself, its sole focus was repairing electrical motors, batteries and autoelectric equipment, but in the 1950s it started producing transformers and automatic voltage stabilisers that would become the core business of Axel Åkerman until the late 1980s.

In addition to this, something significant happened that would change the trajectory of the company. In 1958, a local airport manager who happened to be a friend of Åkerman asked him to manufacture a small 28 VDC rectifier to start up a small aircraft.

It was such a success that from that time onwards hundreds of 28 VDC ground power units were sold in the whole of Scandinavia and in the Netherlands under the trade name of AXA GPU. Shortly after that, the company then started supplying 400hz units for larger, commercial aircraft.

AXA 28 VSX GPU at Beldringe Airport, Odense

As the company grew the employees were at the heart of the company’s success, very similar to today at ITW GSE, with Åkerman never failing to celebrate and mark the company’s anniversaries. One employee once remarked at the company’s first jubilee in 1949 how the company Axel Åkerman and the person Axel Åkerman were so entwinned that the company’s history was identical ‘to that of the person Axel Åkerman’.

His drive for product and service excellence still form very much a part of the company’s DNA and values and

his passion for business and a heart for the employees was passed down to his sons Ove and Kjell when they took over responsibility for the company during the 1960s and 1970s respectively.

Under Kjell’s skillful management in particular, three significant milestones occurred: the rebranding of the company from Axel Åkerman to AXA Power in 1985, the first electric GPU was developed in 1987, known as the AXA GPU, and in 2000, AXA Power was acquired by US giant Illinois Tool Works (ITW). ITW had already moved into aviation ground power four years earlier when it acquired Hobart which had been making GPUs for commercial and military aircraft in Troy, Ohio since the 1940s.

This was seen as a bold and visionary move on the part of Kjell who saw the value of his family-run business joining the US conglomerate for its longevity. In 2013, AXA Power along with Hobart were rebranded together as ITW GSE along with other brands such as Houchin to reflect the affiliation to ITW and the rest, as they say, is history.

With two factories in Palmetto, US and in Odense, Denmark, ITW GSE, today is made up of around 160 employees across both sites and is one of the 82 business divisions within ITW that represents around 800 businesses, operating in more than 50 countries.

ITW GSE is now a major global supplier of 400Hz ground power units and cooling systems (pre-conditioned air units), cables and hoses.

The US Palmetto facility hits safety milestone of 2,500 days without any incidents

Celebration time
In February this year, the company celebrated its special 100th Anniversary at its site in Odense, Denmark and honoured the work of its founder Axel. Keeping with company tradition, week-long celebrations were held at the site, culminating with a huge party at the First Hotel Grand in the city centre where speeches and announcements were made alongside singalongs and dancing to mark the special milestone.

Even Kjell, Akerman’s son and his wife Vibeke joined the festivities to share the joyous occasion, and left a poignant note to Åkerman that read, “If you had been here today, you would have been happy, probably a little proud and certainly in a great mood, to see the company for which you laid the foundation and set the direction evolve into. In the preparations for the anniversary, it has become clear that your values are still standing: honesty, good craftsmanship, the honour of delivering good quality so that customers can feel safe and foresight, and caring for each other like a family.

”It was purely an employee-focused event to celebrate their contribution to the success of the company. Along with the site employees, the company’s sales representatives from Europe, Dubai and Singapore along with their partners, and even the factory’s local neighbours were invited to join in with the festivities to create happy memories for all to look back on. A special collage of the company’s 100-year history was also unveiled during the week to mark the 100-year history.

“We’re both so proud and honoured to have been able to celebrate our 100-year anniversary,” said Poul Elvstrøm, Vice President and General Manager of ITW GSE.

“This company has always been about three things: innovation, quality and quality of life. It is a wonderful testament that collectively, as a company and as a team of 75 employees in Odense, we’ve managed to stay in business for the long-term and in a healthy state.

“We’re celebrating 100 years at the same time as we’re experiencing an all-time revenue high, breaking our records from 2019. We see that the combination of having experienced 76 years as a family business and 24 years as part of ITW has really made us who we are today, a market leader within the niche of our products.”

In 2023, ITW GSE manufactured 215 eGPUs and 280 PCA units, with expectations these two product lines will continue to perform above the market growth rate.

North America is the fasting growing area with major projects currently underway in Las Vegas and Charlotte airports. Other projects to date include those in Peru, Fort Lauderdale, Detroit and with Signature Aviation.

“On top of the 30% rise in revenue in 2023 compared to 2022, we expect additionally to grow at minimum around 10% per annum over the coming years,” said Elvstrøm, before adding, “we’re experiencing the highest backlog ever in our history, so we are ready to deliver a terrific 2024, we’ve never been stronger than we are at this very moment.”


We’re celebrating 100 years at the same time as we’re experiencing an all-time revenue high - Poul Elvstrøm

There are many milestone products that have contributed to the success of the company over its 100-year history. The Air Coil is the latest ‘customer-backed innovation’ due for release in the coming months with multiple orders lined up for Schiphol and Noida airports. It’s a perfect solution to ensure cold air distribution to the aircraft, that works perfectly alongside the EcoGate system that was launched last year. Other milestones are the successful 7400 eGPU in 2017 and the PCA in 2009 as well as the introduction of the first electric GPU in 1985, that Elvstrøm believes was the real game-changer for the company.

“Kjell was visionary enough at that time to say he believed we could develop a 400hz ground power unit, that there can be a special future for the company, and he was visionary to the extent that he said we would make its own brand name, its own kind of company when AXA Power was created – that was the game-changer. It allowed us to go further into the development of ground power units, and when we were bought by ITW it was a natural progression towards the simplification of our product line.

The opportunity was well seen by Kjell to pass the company at the right time onto ITW which was very strong company and had a similar visionary approach with the right values as us. Kjell could see that this company aligned perfectly with the employees that had helped serve him for many years.

“What is also interesting and unique is that from 1924 to 2024, we’ve only had four managing directors in this facility, which I think says a lot about the company’s consistency from being a family-run business to being part of an enterprise like ITW; it tells us how ITW respects the culture of the companies they invest in.”

Reducing energy consumption at the gate

Culture strength
The most important strength in ITW GSE, as we’ve seen during the time of Akerman and his family, is the employees. They are ‘super loyal’ to the company and there is a senior club that runs today so that people can keep connected to the company after when they retire.

“We have employees who have celebrated 25-year work anniversary with us and in some cases 40-year anniversaries. The strength in this company is the continuity and being able to maintain the talent that we develop and find ways to make the talent grow within our organisation that is how you protect your culture. The overall strength throughout our history is really that we have maintained a lot of people for a long time.”

Another illustration showing how important the employees are to ITW GSE is that noone lost their job during the pandemic.
“It was the worst possible situation you could imagine, passenger numbers dropped 61%, our business dropped 30% but we recovered quickly. Our two priorities were the safety of our employees and to see how we could collectively work on how we can win the recovery the day the market came back.

“We learned during the pandemic that our business model is strong enough to withstand any crisis the world decides to throw our way. So we had a strong recovery because we maintained our staff, because we knew that we would need them that day when things would normalise, it was critical for us as an ITW division to keep and maintain our capability to win the recovery when it came and that was exactly what happened. We were the first out of the box.”

Senior Manager Søren Clausen, who has worked at the company for 25 years as a lead technician on major airport projects around the world, including at Doha International Airport when they requested a PCA solution to be built, added: “We have a great culture here at ITW GSE and our colleagues are very helpful. The bonus is that we do exercise every day together which establishes a common ground between all of us. When we go for a run or a bike ride together it doesn’t matter whether you work on the factory floor to the R&D or sales, marketing or finance department we are all on the same level when we are out together and it makes everyone happy and increases our communication between departments.

“I think you can work with any products but if you take care of your people and have a good culture you have something really unique. Celebrating the company’s 100th anniversary with everyone was a real honour and lots of fun, and something which people are still talking about today, and I believe will continue to do so in the many years ahead.”

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