Anyone who’s ever gone hiking will tell you that the only thing more satisfying than the view from the top is reflecting on the effort it took to get up there. Building a business is a similar endeavor — you begin with a fixed goal in mind, and then find the people, equipment and processes it will take to get you there.
Welding & Gases Today interviewed members who are marking significant milestones in their journey to the top. We asked what investments they have made to get them where they are today and what initiatives they plan on undertaking to achieve the next level. Their responses were as varied as the members themselves, and we hope they entertain, inform and inspire you as you continue to grow your business.
What does it take to build a family business that will last 100 years? “Great employees and a willingness to change with the times,” said W. “Pat” Garten, president of Sutton-Garten Company. Sutton-Garten is celebrating its Centennial Anniversary this October, and Garten sees that as a win for small businesses everywhere.
Garten attributes much of his company’s success to its greatest asset, the employees. The feeling is clearly mutual — Sutton-Garten staff average over 15 years of employment with the company.
“The people we’ve been lucky enough to find to work for us understand that the customer drives our business, and they are always on the lookout for new opportunities,” Garten said. This includes providing quality products and backing them up with technical knowledge and first-rate service.
Here are some highlights of their first 100 years:
Founder W. “Ray” Garten began his career in the welding department at the Prestolite Company in Speedway, IN. Prestolite manufactured automotive lamps and lighting systems and was owned by industrial pioneers Carl Fisher and Jim Allison, who started the Indianapolis 500.
When the company was sold to Union Carbide, Garten was transferred to Chicago, where he met Charles R. Sutton. In 1918, Sutton and Garten founded Sutton-Garten Company and returned to Indianapolis to begin operation as the first independently owned Prestolite distributor in the state of Indiana.
During the 1930s, the supply business suffered, but the repair business continued to thrive. In fact, no one was laid off from Sutton-Garten all through the Great Depression.
In 1960, W. “Bill” Garten became president of the company, and when he passed away in 1974, Pat Garten became president and has managed the company ever since. Since then, Ben and Matt Garten have joined the team to become the fourth generation to work at the company. In 1986, the company was recognized by the National Welding Supply Association as the oldest distributor in the United States under continuing management.
In 2007, the company was honored with the American Welding Society’s Image of Welding Award.
Today, Sutton-Garten provides quality welding and cutting equipment, supplies and gases to the metal-working industry. They also rent and repair welding and cutting equipment, offer weld training and certifications, produce dry ice and provide bulk gases to the food and beverage market.
What does the future hold for Sutton-Garten? “Always adapting our business to serve our customers,” Garten said. “We are currently implementing a phone app for our sales representatives.” They are also looking to add tablets to provide instant product data at their customer service counter.
Depke Gases & Welding Supplies, Inc.
Depke Gases & Welding Supplies was founded in 1928 as Depke Service Company. Today, the company is a distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases, welding and cutting equipment, safety supplies and related welding accessories.
“It’s been a great run, and we’ve managed to adapt as time goes on,” said President Curt Towne. Over the years, the company has invested in new products and processes to improve productivity. “We added an automated filling plant and keep our employees trained and up to date,” Towne said.
Depke’s technical experts include welding engineers, certified weld inspectors, gas delivery system specialists, filler metal consultants and abrasive selection experts, as well as a variety of industry partners designed to bring value to their customers.
The approach to service at Depke has always been simple — provide the best answers to any issue as quickly as possible and see that the solution is carried out as promised. They accomplish this through experienced staff, continual training and a shared belief in doing what’s right for the right reasons.
“We enjoy being involved in cutting edge technology,” Towne said. “For example, one of our customers is researching the use of nitrogen blanketing in the construction of circuit boards.” This process eliminates oxidation, reduces waste and improves the quality of the joints.
Depke merged with Weldstar in early 2018 but continues to operate autonomously. The merger provides the benefit of shared resources, noted Towne. “We will gain efficiencies between the two companies and are transitioning to the same software now.”
John Tillman Company
With a carefully made pair of leather welding gloves, California craftsman John Z. Turney founded a company in 1928. Shortly thereafter, his employee John Tillman, a seasoned welder, assumed ownership, giving the brand its trademark name. Tillman quickly rose to be known as the top manufacturer of quality welding gloves and leather protective garments and is now owned by UK conglomerate Bunzl.
Today, with headquarters in Compton, California, and facilities in Georgia and Indiana, the John Tillman Company focus remains on providing premium products to the welding and safety industries, according to Beth Dahlke, general manager. “Today we have over 1,500 items including an entire line of PPE (personal protective equipment). While most of Tillman’s products were originally manufactured in the U.S., many are now imported but are made to the highest quality for which the brand is known,” Dahlke emphasized.
Tillman has managed to avoid many 21st century merchandising challenges, like Big Box Store competition and internet selling. “We sell exclusively to distributors,” explained Dahlke, “and the strength of our reputation for consistently made superior products has enabled us to maintain a strong business.” Although it keeps an eye on market trends, so far the company has not been impacted by the rise of robotic welders, which require no PPE.
Going forward, the John Tillman Company will continue to invest in its number one asset — its employees — through training and development. New technologies for its operations are also part of its strategic plan for the future.
West Penn Laco, Inc.
Family owned and operated since 1928, West Penn Lacquer, now known as West Penn Laco, started in business as the first supplier of automotive lacquer coatings in the Pittsburgh market.
In the 1940s, West Penn Laco recognized the customer value of delivery service, but the war effort made acquiring trucks difficult. A Plymouth Coupe was modified by removing the trunk lid, enabling it to accommodate 55-gallon drums of thinner and other automotive refinishing products. As West Penn Laco’s transformation into the delivery business began in earnest, a Studebaker was acquired in 1948 and permitted expansion into the gas and welding supply business.
The 1970s saw enormous growth in industrial and medical gases, and what was once a side business became a much larger part of the company. Today, West Penn Laco supplies Western Pennsylvania’s automotive refinishing, welding and industrial gas needs. Their client portfolio includes businesses in the automotive refinishing, construction, fabrication, manufacturing, HVAC, medical research and utility industries.
“Staying on the cutting edge with technology, maintaining a stable work force and supplying the customer what he wants, when he wants it, at a competitive price has ensured our continued success,” said President Howard MacKay. West Penn Laco started with a single location in East Liberty and opened their fifth location in 2017.
What does the future hold for West Penn Laco? “For the business to remain successful well past our 100-year anniversary and into our fifth generation of family ownership,” MacKay said.
Purity Cylinder Gases, Inc.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Purity Cylinder Gases, Inc. is an independent and locally owned welding supply and gas distributor with over 160 employees throughout Michigan and Northern Indiana.
The company was established in 1938 by Edward Butterfield, Glenn Garman and Howard Sweet. Like many distributors, Purity was experiencing supply challenges and met with other companies to find solutions. These discussions led to the formation of the National Welding Supply Association in 1945.
In 1960, employees Ken Nyhuis, Glenn DeVries and Don Wyngarden purchased and continued to grow the company. Today, Purity is on its fourth generation of ownership and third generation of family ownership.
Currently serving the automotive, furniture building, metal fabrication/construction, food process and medical industries, the company stocks a large supply of welding consumables, safety equipment, industrial supplies and tools. Purity owns three fill plants that produce oxygen, argon, CO2, nitrogen, specialty gases and nitrous oxide. They also have a dedicated acetylene plant.
What does it take to continue growing after 80 years in the welding supply and gas distribution business? “Our success comes down to our employees and their commitment to customers, suppliers and the industry,” explained President Douglas Nyhuis. “We can have buildings, cylinders, hard goods and trucks, but it doesn’t amount to anything unless we have employees who are engaged in the business.”
Future plans for Purity include opening their 15th location before the end of this year and continuing to invest in their employees. “Employee training and development returns value to both the business and our customers,” Nyhuis said.
The Gasflux Company
In 1938, William Ulmer founded The Gasflux Company to market a new and improved brazing method that introduced flux automatically into the flame, improving the wetting action and producing stronger welds. Ulmer’s first employee, Thomas “T.J.” Farquhar, was hired to promote the new process to fabricators, and he eventually gained majority ownership. The business has been in the Farquhar family ever since.
After weathering lean times during World War II, Gasflux grew quickly during the post-war manufacturing boom. Bicycle and metal furniture manufacturers became a steady customer base, followed by air conditioning and refrigeration clients.
By the 1960s, Gasflux had outgrown its original plant and under the leadership of then president Bill Farquhar, T.J’s son, investments were made in capital equipment and company facilities. “We went from half a building to half a block,” said current President and Chairman Bob Farquhar.
Bob watched much of Gasflux’s manufacturing base head overseas in the 1990s. “I decided to make this an opportunity instead of a loss by following our customers,” Farquhar explained. “Gasflux opened distributorships all over the world, and today we are an international company.”
The original Gasflux product remains at the core of their business. By continuing to build around it with synergistic brazing accessories and processes, and with a fourth generation of Farquhars on board, Gasflux is poised to begin its next 80 years of supplying superior quality brazing products.
Willard C. Starcher, Inc.
Spencer, West Virginia
Willard C. Starcher, Inc. was founded by Willard Starcher in 1938 and operated from a garage behind his home in Spencer, WV. Concerned that manufacturers were going direct to customers, which would hurt his young company’s hard-won business, in 1948 Starcher banded with other distributors to form the National Welding Supply Association to represent the interests of the independent welding supply distributor.
Today, the company is owned and operated by John and Carol Hill and Mary Beth Titus. It is still a family business, with John and Mary Beth being the grandchildren of Willard Starcher. Carol Hill succeeded her husband John as president in November 1989 when he was recalled to active duty to serve as a helicopter pilot in the Gulf War. Upon his return, the company continued to expand.
In addition to hardgoods and equipment, the company offers compressed industrial, medical and specialty gases.
“We are a traditional independent welding distributor,” President John Hill explained. “Our employees have certainly been a major factor in the success of our business. We have also had the opportunity to supply niche industries such as the oil and gas pipelines in the area.”
Looking to the future, Hill intends to continue to invest in the company’s delivery fleet. The trucks get a lot of wear and tear, and repair facilities are few and far between in rural West Virginia. “Our first customers are over an hour’s drive away,” Hill explained.
Hill also intends to continue investing in his employees. “My personal goal is to continue to increase the professionalism of all of our employees in each area of expertise, and that means train, train, train,” Hill said. He noted that the company makes extensive use of the GAWDA consultants in that area, who provide on-site training for everything from fill plant operations to hazardous materials.
Bickett Machine & Gas Supply, Inc.
Bickett Machine & Gas Supply has served Ohio’s Scioto Valley since 1948. Over the years, it has evolved with the local economy, from supplying foundries with industrial gases in its earlier days to offering medical gases and custom metalwork today.
Chief Financial Officer Maureen Coburn explained that hard work and a willingness to adapt to changing conditions have kept Bickett in business for the last 70 years and will keep it going in the future. “We’re not a big box store, so we can provide the personal service that our customers appreciate,” Coburn said.
Along with a complete line of welding and safety supplies, Bickett carries the largest hydraulic hose and fitting inventory in the area. The company also has a full-service machine shop that does everything from repairing and balancing driveshafts to fabricating ornamental railing and gates. Eric Lewis oversees the welding supply division, while Jeff Ellis directs the machine shop division.
In 1999, the company invested in a state-of-the-art pumping station to supply oxygen to area hospitals and medical supply houses. The company also has its own fill station for propane, with exchange stations in both Ohio and Kentucky.
Coburn’s advice to anyone starting out would be to “avoid signing up for everything.” She pointed out that while diversifying is important, scattering your efforts in too many directions tends to stall forward motion. “Do a few things and do them very well,” she advised.
Bug-O Systems Canonsburg, Pennsylvania
Solving problems efficiently put Bug-O Systems in business and keeps it there. A family-owned company celebrating its 70th year, Bug-O began as D.R. Electric Company selling equipment, like the Livesay Multipurpose Machine, which was designed to speed up the cutting and welding process in the manufacture of WWII landing craft. Company founder H. Edward Cable eventually acquired the Livesay patent in 1954 and continued to develop portable and automated welding and cutting products, operating as the Welding Tool Corporation. The transition to today’s name came shortly thereafter. CEO Chip Cable, third-generation family leader, explained, “One of our early products was a friction drive machine. These were known as bugs, so we labeled our first model the bug-0 (bug dash zero). Customers read this as ‘Bug-O,’ which became our trademark name.”
In 2008, the company made a significant investment in new facilities, moving its manufacturing plant, corporate headquarters and training facilities to the South Point Industrial Park. “Showcasing our products in this magnificent new setting has made all the difference in the world. Business immediately improved,” Chip said.
Bug-O enters its 70th year with a firm plan for the future. “Customer needs and applications are the basis of Bug-O’s growth and innovation,” said President Matt Cable. “We are in the midst of product redesigns so that our equipment can interface with the latest fabrication systems. This means Bug-O is working on more plug-and-play device compatibility and more flexible and portable products for everything from small projects to cross-country pipelines around the world.”
Butler Gas Products Company
In 1948, John A. “Jack” Butler opened Butler Gas Products in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Back then, Pittsburgh was known as the Steel City, and Butler prospered as they served the numerous welders in the area.
When the steel industry began to collapse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Butler chose to follow the gas business and positioned themselves as a regional gas manufacturer and distributor. Gas sales now constitute 90 percent of the company’s business.
Today, CEO John T. “Jack” Butler II heads the company, alongside his daughter, EVP & COO Abydee Butler Moore. Speaking with Jack Butler, you can’t help but be engaged by his enthusiasm. “We are so lucky to be in the gas business,” Jack said. “Between the great people and the opportunities, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
To provide agility in a changing marketplace, gas sales are diversified into six areas: fabrication, construction, specialty gas and medical, process gas, retail and wholesale. Butler sells all forms of packaged gas, including bulk and microbulk in oxygen, argon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Helium, methane, acetylene and hydrogen are manufactured, mixed and repackaged on-site. Pure gases up to grade 5/UHP are also available.
Reinvestment is the key to their continued success, Jack explained. They decide where to reinvest by asking key questions: “Will it provide a positive cash flow? Will it provide a 20 percent return every year? Will it pay for itself in five years? If the answers are yes, yes and yes, we go ahead.”
Cee Kay Supply
St. Louis, Missouri
Cee Kay Supply opened for business on November 3, 1948, as a distributor for the National Cylinder Gas Company, a manufacturer of gases and welding equipment. Cee Kay was founded by Ralph Chase and Ralph Knight, who derived the name of Cee Kay using the “C” from Chase and the “K” from Knight.
On December 6, 1955, Sales Manager Paul Dunn purchased Cee Kay Supply. At the time, there were three employees and sales of approximately $100,000 per year. Today, Cee Kay has 110 employees and sales of $30 million per year.
Paul Dunn retired in March 1979, and his son, Tom Dunn, took over as president of the company. According to Dunn, the key to Cee Kay’s longevity is “the coworkers who serve our customers and each other. They are the ‘heart’ of the company. We have a work-hard culture, but we also get together often as a company with our families to have fun. Our passion is making things better every day.”
In November 1997, Cee Kay moved its headquarters to a 120,000 sq. ft. building on 6 acres. Cee Kay Supply currently services within a 100-mile radius of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Future plans include the addition of a dry ice manufacturing location in Joplin, MO, and expansion into other areas.
General Distributing Company
Great Falls, Montana
General Distributing Company was founded in 1948 as a distributor of batteries and tires. Shortly after the company’s inception, Glenn E. Bliss was hired. He purchased the company in 1957 and immediately added welding equipment and supplies to the company’s product offerings. By the time Glenn Earl’s son, Glenn F. Bliss, joined the company in 1971, welding supplies and equipment had grown to be an important market.
Today, General Distributing Company’s business is evenly split between gases and welding equipment. The company caters to a mix of industry, agriculture, education and the medical community, which includes many of Montana’s key hospitals. Laboratories, universities and industrial customers rely on the company’s bulk tanks for the storage of liquid nitrogen and oxygen. A significant part of the company’s growth has been in cryogenics and the sale, installation and service of manifold systems.
Over the years, the company has grown into six locations across Montana, serving the enormous geographical area of what is commonly known as Big Sky Country.
General Distributing Company takes pride in the technical expertise of their employees and provides continuing education in soft skills, such as customer service and computer training, as well as product knowledge and technical training. To that end, the construction of a new training and demonstration lab is currently underway at the company’s headquarters in Great Falls.
“Our biggest investment has been in our people,” third-generation President Glenn W. Bliss said. “We have long-tenured employees with technical product knowledge and a driven desire to provide exceptional customer service across Montana.”
GTW Welding Supplies
GTW Welding Supplies was founded by William Loding in 1948. The family-owned company has been operating out of Greenville, MI, for 70 years and is the area’s leading supplier of industrial, medical and specialty gases, welding supplies, safety equipment and hydraulic hoses and fittings. They also have a second facility in Ionia, MI.
GTW performs hydrostatic cylinder testing, machine repair and warranty service. They also provide ISO machine certification and quality testing standards. Local microbreweries are one of the specialty markets served by GTW.
GTW is a big proponent of training and regularly hosts demonstration labs on new equipment and processes.
According President and Owner Jeff Loding, the secret to their longevity is “continuity of management, loyal customers and building relationships.” In the future, Loding hopes to see controlled, moderate growth of the company to ensure continued quality service for their customers.
Norco, Inc. was founded in 1948 as the welding supply division of the Nordling Auto Parts Company. In 1968, the division was purchased by Larry Kissler. At the time, Norco had 15 employees and two locations. Today, it has over 1,300 employees, 80 facilities and is the largest independent welding supply and gases distributorship in the United States.
Norco CEO Jim Kissler distilled the major factors that have contributed to Norco’s exponential growth over the past seven decades. “There are three keys to our success: experienced people, continuity of management and reinvestment in the company,” he explained.
“Employees are our most important asset,” Kissler said. “They know the customers, the pricing and the idiosyncrasies of the supply system.” To preserve this asset, Norco formed an ESOP to retain and reward employees for their longevity.
“Experienced management is key,” he continued. The company has had only three owners in 70 years, and Jim’s daughter Nicole Kissler will take over when he retires, extending the company ownership into a fourth generation.
“Continuous reinvestment is also essential,” he noted. Within the last month, Norco opened a new 86,000 sq. ft. building on a 6.3-acre campus in Meridian, ID. To provide an idea of the scale of this company, that enormous building was constructed with one primary focus in mind, to consolidate and centralize billing functions.
One of the core values of Norco is giving back to the communities it serves. One-twelfth of the company’s shares are allocated to charitable giving through the Kissler Family Foundation, which amounts to more than $1 million each year.
Thompson Brothers Welding & Industrial Supply
In 1948, brothers Don Thompson and Clarence “Tommy” Thompson converted one corner of a roller rink into a small showroom and started selling welding supplies. Seventy years later, Thompson Brothers Welding & Industrial Supply has grown into a leading regional distributor in southeast Kansas, northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri, serving the welding, industrial and automotive markets. According to President Rick Thompson, hard work, honesty and integrity are the values that have shaped the company.
Rick’s son and Marketing Manager Ryan Thompson pointed out that a strong family connection has been one of the most important factors in their continued success. “We work and play together, and it’s just made us stronger,” Ryan said. “We take a lot of pride in our family name and business, and we hope to continue into a fourth generation.”
The loyalty and commitment of their staff has also been crucial. “We have employees who have been with us for 25 and 30 years,” Ryan said. “That level of experience is invaluable both to us and our customers.”
Plans for the company include going digital in the field by equipping drivers with tablets for data and order entry and scanners for tracking bar codes. “This will allow our drivers to immediately respond to customer questions regarding stock and prices without having to wait to hear back from the home office,” Ryan said. The project is currently underway, and the goal is to implement it by the first quarter of next year. They are also making investments in their fill plant and transitioning to palletized filling to improve efficiency.
Welders Supply Company of Louisville
Welders Supply Company of Louisville specializes in distributing welding equipment, gases and supplies and was founded in 1948 by the late Louis Wright Sr. It remains family-owned today, and owner Louis Wright Jr. operates the company with the same goals established by his father 70 years ago: to provide quality products, timely service and technical assistance for their customers.
“Taking care of the customer is number one,” said President Larry Simpson. “We don’t have voice mail at our company. When you call us, the phone is answered on the first or second ring, and then the person you want is paged to the phone. You will always reach a person, not a mailbox.”
When you reach that person, it’s essential to make them feel valued and important, Simpson advised. “People will forget what you do and say, but they will never forget how you made them feel,” he explained. It’s this level of customer service that has allowed the company to grow from a small 2,500 sq. ft. office in 1948 into a new 75,000 sq. ft. distribution center today.
Embracing technology is also important to the company. They have invested in cylinder tracking and online customer account access so that customers can review cylinders, delivery tickets and account balances, as well as place orders and more 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. “We are getting ready to pilot the use of mobile apps for field personnel,” Simpson said. “That will allow our sales representatives and drivers to provide an immediate answer to the questions of whether we have an item in stock and how much it costs.”
Anthony Welded Products
Simi Valley, California
Working for a welding supply distributor, Anthony Salvucci saw the growing need for cylinder handling products and began building them in his garage. Demand for his wares grew quickly, and in 1958 he formed Anthony Welded Products with his son Frank Salvucci Sr. Today the Simi Valley, California, business is still in the Salvucci family, has two manufacturing plants in the U.S. and offers a complete line of cylinder carts, stands and racks — a model for every purpose.
President Frank Salvucci Jr., the founder’s grandson, reports, “From the start, we grew our company by building solutions. Our products grew out of the applications we found for our customers’ problems. We still find new distribution and storage solutions by paying attention to our customers’ needs and challenges, and today, we have a catalog of over 500 models from which to choose.”
CEO Elsie Salvucci explained that product innovation in both its industrial and medical product divisions is at the core of the Salvucci business. “With additions like ergonomic handles, lighter-weight framing materials and user-friendly designs, the company is constantly reengineering and adding to its line,” she said.
The formula for the continued success of the family business includes the addition of a fourth generation of Salvuccis. “Markets change, but our approach to business remains the same,” said Frank Jr. “We are problem solvers in the distribution and storage of gas, and we go where the cylinders are.”
City Welding Sales & Service, Inc.
John Coffey founded City Welding Sales & Service in 1958 and his son, Shawn Coffey, has run it since 1980.
“I was harnessed as the engine of the business when I was only 20 years old,” Shawn said. “My dad opened a new company and when he handed this one over, he basically said, ‘Son, this is the deep end of the pool, and I suggest you learn how to swim.’ So I did.” Sadly, John Coffey passed away in April of this year. He was 88 years old.
“The gas industry is an ever-changing dynamic,” Shawn pointed out. “Lately we have been in a cycle where the big fish are swallowing the little ones, and it can be vexing figuring out where to get gas when the number of suppliers is dwindling. For example, helium is on such a tight chain that if we lose one production plant it results in a huge problem. Manufacturing your own would be tremendous, but that equipment costs titanic fortunes.”
City Welding has weathered many gas shortages over the years. This year helium and argon are in short supply and last year, it was nitrous oxide. Shawn’s advice to new startups would be to: “Remember that you are in the cylinder rental business, so in times of shortages you need to prioritize your existing customers. Also, if you can cover your overhead with the sale of gas, you are knocking it out of the park.”
World-renowned for the development of various testing equipment, FIBA Technologies began in 1958 as Mass Oxygen Equipment, an industrial and medical gas distributorship in Melrose, MA. Today, the company has facilities in seven states and in Taiwan.
CEO Jack Finn, son of founder Frank Finn, explained, “We entered the testing market to develop a better means of non-destructive testing for tube trailers. In 1981, we introduced our Acoustic Emissions Testing process and in 1991, our Ultrasonic Testing process. Both methods offer a more efficient and less cost-prohibitive testing process and have put FIBA on the map as a major brand in the gas containment industry.”
In 2003, FIBA began manufacturing their own seamless pressure vessels, broadening the company’s reach. Today, it is the only completely vertically integrated gas containment equipment supplier in the world, reports John Finn, director of operations. FIBA plans to continue to lead the development of containment equipment with its Type 4 composite pressure vessels. Capable of producing hydrogen fueling vessels with working pressures up to 1,000 bar, the company has its eye on emerging hydrogen fueling applications, according to Chris Finn, director of sales.
“Demand for our products and services continues to grow globally and we expect the next 60 years to be busy,” said Jack. “We plan to grow through innovation, and most importantly, through the efforts of our staff. Our people have always been at the core of our success.”
Haun Welding Supply, Inc.
Syracuse, New York
In the 1930s, Orval Haun realized that the welder he was using could benefit from a redesign, but his company didn’t want to change it, so he began manufacturing and selling welders out of his garage, sparking a quest for innovation that would continue for the next four generations.
In 1958, he founded Haun Welding Supply along with his son Ken Haun. Haun sells welding equipment and supplies, all types of gases, power tools, consumables and safety products. They also have an onsite service department and a welding school.
President Mark Haun started working for the company when he was only 12 years old. His wife Janine and their three sons (Josh, Erich and Kyle) followed in his footsteps, and today the family remains focused on sharpening “The Haun Edge,” a company mission to provide continuous improvement in the areas of customer service, innovation and efficiency.
One of the major segments served by the company is industrial, medical and specialty gases. In 2011, Haun upgraded and fully automated their main fill plant, which has one of the longest fill islands in the country. “Haun now has 10 fill plants — five full fill plants and another five that just do oxygen,” said Josh Haun, director of operations and marketing.
Their latest innovation? Automated tracking of tens of thousands of warehouse products, a project that is nearly complete.
Holston Gases, Inc.
Founded in 1958 by Pat Baxter and Bob Walsh, Holston Gases has now grown to 27 locations in six states and is one of the largest independent suppliers of welding gases, propane and restaurant CO2 gas in America.
Holston was headquartered on the Tennessee River for 50 years, and in 2012 built a state-of-the-art gas fill plant and distribution center on I-275.
Each of the company’s locations is led by a general manager who oversees the administration of that branch. “At Holston, all decisions are made at the local level rather than in the ivory tower of a corporate office hundreds of miles away,” President and CEO Robert Anders explained. “Companies that centralize decision-making tend to lose touch with both the local market and the local employees. Decentralization has allowed us to grow into a large company while maintaining that small-company focus and a sense of family for our employees.”
Holston’s 60th Anniversary Celebration included dinner for 600 on the Festival Lawn of the World’s Fair Park, followed by a program in the Tennessee Amphitheatre. The crowd included current employees as well as several Holston alumni who worked for the founders at the beginning of the company.
Chairman of the Board Bill Baxter said, “We were honored by the tremendous turnout of our employees from all over the Southeastern United States. And we were especially delighted by the attendance of several of our retirees who played such an important role in the early stages of the company’s history. We stand on their shoulders today, and the success we have in the future will be to their credit.”
Kalas Wire and Cable
In 1958, the founding partners of Kalas Wire and Cable created a wire and cable business in Denver, PA, and used their wives’ initials (Katherine and Linda and Sue) to form its unique name. Sixty years later, Kalas is a $150 million operation with 500 associates, proud of its reputation as a leading manufacturer of copper wire and cable and value-added assemblies.
President and CEO Jack Witwer grew up in the wire industry and now leads the organization as a third-generation family member. Noted for the breadth and diversity of his customer base, Witwer’s deep knowledge of the business enables him to skillfully manage products across multiple markets.
“I am proud and humbled to be able to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Kalas,” Witwer said. “While we have grown and evolved, the important things have remained the same. Our commitment to quality, our passion for service and the loyalty of our talented associates are what make Kalas so special.”
Central to its success is Kalas’ unique vertically integrated business and production model that allows for a comprehensive and technical approach to applications. Rooted in looking for new and innovative ways to deliver value to its customers, the company invests carefully in its people. Leadership teams are made up of those with diverse backgrounds and tenured functional experience who can develop products and help shape the company’s marketing strategy.
Going forward, Kalas plans to continue to advance new ways of serving its customers through collaborative partnerships and technical expertise and looks forward to 60 more years of growth.
Hanover, New Hampshire
In 1968, Dick Couch, then an engineering student at Dartmouth College, and his professor, Bob Dean, set out to solve an issue with plasma arc cutting, an unwieldy and costly process at the time. Within about six months, they had developed a water-injection process that substantially improved the plasma process, and Couch formally founded Hypertherm, Inc. Working out of a two-car garage, Couch and five associates spent the remainder of the decade perfecting their new technology.
Facing enormous challenges, it took until 1976 — eight years after the company’s official incorporation — for Hypertherm to finally turn a profit, albeit a small one. Throughout those early years and to this day, Couch stayed true to his engineering roots and his overarching goal of cutting the cost of cutting metal.
“Hypertherm’s focus has always been on helping our customers reduce their operating cost and improve cutting performance so they can enhance their profitability. That’s what we continue to do today,” said Hypertherm’s Evan Smith, who took over the president and CEO role from Couch. Couch remains involved with Hypertherm as chairman of the board.
Looking forward, Smith said Hypertherm will continue to stay true to Couch’s vision of improving the fabrication process through engineering innovation. At the same time, the company plans to do something Couch did a lot of in Hypertherm’s early days: work closely to really understand the customer using its cutting products, and then develop products that meet their needs.
Mercer Industries, a division of Mercer Tool Corporation
Ronkonkoma, New York
Beginning with the sale of a humble hand file, Mercer Industries has expanded their offerings from one quality item to hundreds of premium products. “Fifty years into this business, in addition to a great file, we manufacture everything that’s needed to cut, grind or finish,” said Jim Wallick, president and son of founder Mel Wallick. Jim describes the path to the company’s long-term success as one lined with careful investments in people and technology, with no shortcuts where product quality and customer service are concerned.
As a company that sells exclusively to distributors, Mercer Industries has paid attention to shifting trends in inventory management. “In the past,” explained Jim, “our customers would buy and store up to three months of product. Today, it’s all about just-in-time inventory.” This necessitated the expansion of Mercer’s warehousing operations, which are strategically located in New York and California to serve customers nationwide. Inventory trends also prompted Mercer to install office technologies and systems to speed delivery from their storage locations.
These investments, together with building strong partnerships and offering innovative products, have paid off in continuous growth every year for the past 10 years, Jim said. “Our sweet spot is quality and price.”
As for the next 50 years, the Wallicks intend to continue to concentrate on customer needs, quality products and the speed at which they are delivered.
Mitchell Welding Supply
Whether a customer needs plasma cutters, lasers or robotics, Mitchell Welding Supply is committed to supplying any technology required in the welding industry. According to President Rodney Wray (son of owner Benson Mitchell), staying agile and in touch with industry changes has been vital to the company’s longevity.
“Our whole business is not tied up into one market,” noted Wray. “Texas is diverse.” For example, in the late 1960s, no one worked with specialized gases, and now they are best sellers. To meet the changing needs of their customers, Mitchell began mixing and pumping different gases on site.
While the products and distribution system may have changed over the past 50 years, the company’s core values and work ethic have not. As a testimony to their success, Mitchell Welding Supply proudly conducts business with many of the same customers they started with in 1968. This past February, the company opened a third location in Garland, TX, and will continue expanding to meet the needs of their customers.
What else will the future hold for Mitchell Welding Supply?
“We are upgrading our whole facility to supply specialty and medical gases,” Wray said. “Our goal is to be completely independent.”
Investing in non-traditional sidelines has allowed family-owned OXARC the flexibility to weather market fluctuations while continuing to expand. “My dad (OXARC founder Jerry Walmsley, always said that diversifying provides insurance when certain aspects of the business are down,” said President Jana Nelson. “For example, during the recession, new equipment sales were down but the service side of our business was up. Diversification kept the scales balanced.”
In addition to welding equipment, supplies and service, OXARC operates a fire equipment division, two welding schools and a weld inspection division. They also supply dry ice for the medical industry and for dry ice blast cleaning and offer an extensive list of industrial chemicals.
One of their newest revenue streams is supplying the products used in cannabis extraction. “With the legalization of marijuana in Oregon and Washington state, cannabis extraction is a huge part of our business now,” Nelson said. “There are so many medical applications, from cannabidiol pills used to treat epilepsy to lotions for treating joint pain.”
OXARC got ahead of the curve by designing the CO2 pumping system used in cannabis greenhouses before marijuana was even legalized. “We are constantly scanning the news to see where the trends are going,” Nelson said.
Their next initiative? Tagging over a million cylinders (high-pressure, low-pressure, large and small) using a bar code system starting next year.
Rye Brook, New York
Celebrating 50 years in business, Paraco credits their long-term success to both their employees and their customers. Opening in 1968 as a welding and industrial gas supplier, Pat Armentano started the company from scratch in Mt. Vernon, NY. His family continues to lead the company today with son Joseph Armentano as CEO and granddaughter Christina Armentano as executive vice president of sales and business development.
“As the youngest of 10 children, my grandfather developed a unique ability to connect with people and bring out the best in them, making him a natural and talented entrepreneur,” Christina said. “This set the stage for our success and continues to do so.”
In 1979, on instinct and with very limited resources, Pat purchased Paraco Gas, a small propane marketer in Peekskill, NY. This eliminated the middleman from his growing propane distribution business and set the company on a path to become the largest privately held propane distributor in the Northeast. Since that time, Paraco has made 48 additional acquisitions, all strategic to propane.
Guided by the values of their founder, Paraco looks forward to serving their customers in the years ahead. To do so, they are investing heavily in the professional development of the sales team and in improved technology for all operations. Paraco also looks to expand through more acquisitions and is open to exploring joint venture opportunities in related businesses, including in the industrial gas space where lasting relationships exist from the company’s early days as a welding and gases distributor.
In 1968, Max Pearlman observed that the pipeline for abrasives supply to the steel fabrication industry was weak and demand for quality products high, so he founded Pearl Abrasives. Fifty years later, that small family enterprise has grown into an international manufacturing corporation.
With a mission to develop a complete line of high-quality abrasive solutions, Pearlman began introducing new products in the 1970s, beginning with the company’s trademarked Maxi Disc Radial Flap Disc. The following decades saw the expansion of the company’s catalog to diamond super-abrasives and equipment.
In the 1980s, Pearl Abrasives established itself as an industry leader in the field of high-tech diamond blades and then, in the 1990s, led the market in concrete surface-prepping equipment with its Hexpin Surface Preparation System. Designed to accommodate multiple tools, the Hexpin enabled customers to use one machine for multiple tasks. The company’s next innovation was a lightweight and more transportable tile saw series. Continuing the push for advancements in the use of diamond wheels for cutting metal, Pearl Abrasives introduced a new tool this year, its Xtreme Series Blade.
Investments, like Pearl’s new 30,000 sq. ft. state-of-the art manufacturing and distribution facility in Commerce, CA, are meant to carry the company forward in the next 50 years. Pearl is also investing in its people, particularly product managers, who are tasked with looking at applications and finding better tooling solutions.
“Pearl Abrasives was founded and built on innovation,” said CEO Dan Davidenko, “and that remains our driver for success today.”
Sidney Lee Welding Supply, Inc.
Founded in 1968 by Sidney Lee with the goal of providing the best products and the highest level of customer service, Sidney Lee Welding Supply, Inc. carries a large inventory of welding gases in cylinders and tanks, in a wide variety of sizes for all welding applications in aluminum and stainless steel. In addition, their CO2 division provides carbon dioxide for restaurants and breweries and they distribute high-purity gas and specialty mixes for medical and research facilities.
Sidney Lee also supplies special effects and set fabrication for both television and film — the vampire in the opening scenes of “The Vampire Diaries” is emerging through a fog of Sidney Lee CO2, and they have also supplied the sets of “The Fast and the Furious” movies.
If you ask President Zane Lee what’s kept his business going for 50 years, he will laugh and answer in four words: “Too stubborn to quit.” This perseverance has allowed Sidney Lee Welding Supply to make careful and measured progress that ultimately comes down to learning to do each task very well before moving on to the next one. “Right now, we’re focusing on the things you can’t put in a box,” Lee said. This includes continuous improvements in both service and delivery methods, such as upgrading to full microbulk capacity for nitrogen, oxygen and CO2.
The biggest gamechanger for the company occurred when they opened their second location in 1995 because it meant they were beginning to operate at scale, Lee said. The business has now grown to five locations across Georgia.
Weldcoa was founded in 1968 by Dick Bennett, an inventor who created the company’s core products such as the Sur-Loc pallet system. Current president and co-owner Hector Villarreal joined the company in 1995 as its first marketing employee. “Dick experimented with all kinds of products to improve gas distribution,” Villarreal explained, “and he encouraged his employees to do the same.”
Maynard “Bud” Koltz, current vice president and co-owner, joined Weldcoa in 1996 and took up the challenge of creating the next generation of company products. Koltz had grown up installing plant equipment and is credited with Weldcoa’s next big innovation — modular, pre-built fill plants — which revolutionized fill plant construction. With Gary Schuman, Weldcoa’s director of automation, Koltz then developed an automated filling system, the Sur-Fill, adding another major product to the company’s portfolio.
More recently, Weldcoa introduced its next generation of automated systems for the specialty gas market. “We put Don Renner, our engineering sales manager, and Tom Badstubner, GAWDA’s FDA and Medical Gases Consultant, in the same room with Bud and Gary and amazing things happened,” Villarreal said. “Together they developed the IQS Blend Cell and the Digital Lab Assistant.”
With a view to the future, Weldcoa has invested $2.5 million in robotic welders, lasers and other automated equipment to enable the company to build more products of the highest quality.
“Weldcoa is lucky to have young talent in our engineering department to leverage new manufacturing technology,” Villarreal said. “Fifty years after our founding, we are unrivaled in our ability to develop new products for gas distribution and get our solutions to market quickly.”
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