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Staring Down Sandy

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Despite heavy odds, distributors and suppliers on the East Coast were not to be out-whacked by Sandy. Contingency plans proved helpful.

  

On the East Coast this past week, a storm the likes of which has never been seen hit with such brute force that at least 87 people were killed, businesses and schools were shuttered, transportation came to a grinding halt, half of New York City went dark for days. Lower New York City was flooded and without power.  Bridges and tunnels were closed. And if you were able to get into the city when one bridge reopened on Thursday, you better have two more people with you in your car, or you were turned away.

In Levittown, PA, power outages shut down oxygen concentrators, and patients were scrambling for help, calling EMS, hospitals and emergency management.  When the large, electric-powered concentrators fail, patients resort to using small portable oxygen tanks, which empty within a few hours. So many calls were coming into the companies that refill the oxygen tanks looking for refills that they could not keep up. Patients were urged to contact their oxygen supply company to find out about the soonest refill and to consult their doctors to determine if they should be hospitalized.

As bad as it was in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland, New Jersey appeared to get the worst of it. Houses in coastal cities were swept away. Phone calls to two distributors located in Sandy’s path have gone unanswered for several days.

I called GAWDA members located in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania to learn how they were coping with the aftereffects of the storm. As of today, Thursday, November 1, some are still without power and phone service. Seaboard Welding Supply, located two miles from the beach in Oakhurst, NJ, had no water damage, but without power, the phones weren’t working, and they were searching near and far for additional generators.  Vice President Richard Nowell said that calls to the company were being transferred to cell phones, and they were receiving requests from emergency management re filling medical oxygen supplies.  Without power, though, they could not generate oxygen.  

Some GAWDA members indicated that their homes were in trouble, as were those of many employees. 

AWISCO has several locations in the New York City area and thankfully, none were impacted. Some employee homes, however, were in trouble. Vic Fuhrman, vice president of sales & marketing, pointed to the dwindling supply of gas, closed roadways, and bustling storefronts shuttered and shut down. “This is something that we will be facing for a lot of years,” Furman says.

These are just a few small examples of the past few days.  The big question remains: When all is said and done, how much impact will Superstorm Sandy have on local businesses and the wider economy? How much has been lost during these days? Disaster modeling company Eqecat estimates Sandy caused up to $20 billion in insured losses and $50 billion in economic losses. According to the Insurance information Institute, Hurricane Sandy now ranks as the fourth-costliest catastrophe ever in the United States, behind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the September 11 attacks of 2001, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

With so many of our gases and welding customers feeling the impact, what will this mean for our businesses going forward?

 

 More on Emergency Prep and Disaster Planning
Awaiting the Storm’s Price Tag

Video:   How Small Businesses Can Rebuild After Sandy 

Distributors Develop Emergency Action Plans

Six Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

PHMSA’s Emergency Response Guidebook

 

Putting The “Service” In “Service Technician”

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

A service tech—be it a welding equipment repair technician or cryogenic installation technician—must be many things. A technician must be skilled, of course. But skill can be gained through training. Perhaps as much as anything, a technician must be able to interact and communicate with customers. It’s right there in the name—service technician. And great service is not an attribute that is easily taught.

One distributor manager noted recently that service techs are not like salespeople, who are used to being singled out and praised for meeting their goals. Well, all of that is about to end. With Service Technicians Month in our midst, Welding & Gases Today is doing everything it can to recognize the industry’s technicians. And because this aspect of customer service is so important, we want to reward the best example of customer service from a service tech.

During the month of September, W&GT is holding its first ever Customer Service Technician Contest. The concept is simple: share your stories of service techs delivering great customer service. Then it’s up to members to vote on which technician tale is most deserving. Deserving of what? I’m glad you asked.

GAWDA’s supplier members have kicked in to help us honor the industry’s best purveyor of service. The winner will receive more than $500 in prizes provided by industry suppliers. We’ll reveal details of the prize throughout the month of September.

So what do you have to do to take part? It’s simple. Head on over to the Welding & Gases Today group on LinkedIn and look for the discussion called “Customer Service Technician Challenge.” Add your story to the discussion any time during the month of September. Here’s a tip: the earlier you add your entry, the more time people will have to vote for your story.

Finally, it’s up to industry members to cast their votes. To vote, visit the discussion on LinkedIn and simply click the “Like” link under your favorite story. Voting will continue throughout the month of September and run until October 15. You can vote for more than one, so you don’t have to worry about a “better” entry popping up later on. Just be sure to check back every few days for new entries.

So show us your customer service in the spirit of Service Technicians Month—and win some great prizes in the meantime. Visit the main contest page for full details and the latest updates.

UPDATE: When we set out to create this contest, we had a goal of at least $500 in mind. Since the writing of this blog, I found out that Abicor Binzel has generously contributed $500 in cash for the contest winner. I can’t reveal any other prizes just yet, but needless to say, there’s much more to come. The winner will receive more than $1,000 in prizes.

Congress Talks About Medical Gases

Friday, March 9th, 2012
Congressional Hearing on Medical Gases

LifeGas President Michael Walsh testifies before Congress.

If you are a follower of mine on Twitter, you may have noticed that there was a Congressional hearing about medical gas regulations on Thursday, March 8. Among the many issues discussed were the regulatory challenges facing medical gas manufacturers and distributors. The underlying problem is that medical gases like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide are currently subject to the same regulations as pharmaceutical drugs, despite entirely different manufacturing distribution processes. Many in the gas industry believe that FDA needs to develop regulations that are targeted at medical gases specifically.

The industry has made a lot of progress on this front recently, as evidenced by the proposed Medical Gas Safety Act (HR 2227), introduced by Rep. Lance and cosponsored by members from both sides of the political aisle. The Congressional hearing was another step forward, as the industry was given a forum to plead its case. The Compressed Gas Association was represented by LifeGas president Michael Walsh.

In watching the hearing, I was shocked to learn that gases like oxygen are considered “unapproved drugs” in some venues. The problem, as Walsh explained, is that many customers are scared off by the “unapproved” label, causing them to cancel orders. The Medical Gas Safety Act would help resolve this by creating a process for medical gases to gain approval.

Another issue is expiration dates, which some government agencies attempt to enforce on medical gases. Walsh says, “Oxygen is an element of the periodic table. By its basic properties it will never expire.” Overall, Walsh was extremely well spoken. Let’s hope Congress and the FDA agree. You can read Walsh’s initial testimony here, or view the discussion in the video below.

From here, the next step for CGA is lobbying to have the Medical Gas Safety Act included with the Prescription Drug user Fee Act (PDUFA). At this point, there is a chance that FDA could attempt to block this effort, but there is hope. Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at FDA, also testified at the hearing. Dr. Woodcock said the FDA would be willing to work with CGA and industry manufacturers to come to a mutually beneficial solution. We’ll see what happens from here.

What do you think: Should the FDA adopt separate regulations for medical gases? How is your business affected by the current lack of specific medical gas regulations?

If you missed the Twitter chat yesterday, you can catch up by checking out hash tag #medicalgas.

View the Congressional hearing below or watch it on YouTube. It’s kind of a long one, but worth watching the discussions about medical gas.

Transportation Infrastructure Shows Promise

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Bridges and Transportation InfrastructureOn the official blog of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, there were multiple posts recently pointing to positive signs for gases and welding distributors. In a recent entry “The road to an America built to last,” LaHood writes:

If we want an economy that’s built to last, it must run on the wheels of a transportation system that’s built to last. We need to fix our roads and bridges; where it makes sense, we need to expand roads, rails, and runways…We have a lot of work to do, and—from engineers to heavy equipment operators to flagmen—we have Americans ready to do it.

The bottom line is that infrastructure—especially bridges—relies on gases and welding. The fact that this is a focus for DOT is a positive sign for gases and welding distributors.

High Speed RailIn another post entitled “High-speed rail is essential for economic growth and opportunity,” he says, “High-speed rail will transform American transportation for generations to come. And I’m excited to see this program take shape.” Distributors should be excited about high speed rail, too, because it means more work for their customers, particularly with the manufacture and repair of rail cars. LaHood explains that President Obama’s latest budget proposal includes a $47 billion investment in a high-speed passenger rail network over the next six years.

Are you seeing a rebound in these markets in your area? What markets do you expect to drive growth in 2012?

Another Word On Helium

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Last Friday, I posted a blog about the use of helium. It followed a series of posts regarding the rising costs of and access to the gas. I included a video taken at Alinea Restaurant in Chicago, where they are serving customers an edible balloon filled with helium. At the end of the video, the waiter serves the balloon and tells the diner that he can either pop the balloon with a needle or place his mouth on the balloon and inhale the helium. Inhaling helium is never a safe practice, as evidenced further by recent events in the news.

My inclusion of this video was meant as an ironic take on the rising cost of helium balloons; and unfortunately I fear this irony fell short. I should have clearly pointed out that the practices of this restaurant are entirely unsafe.

Even now, this video cannot be ignored. Over 200,000 people have seen the edible balloon video. It’s been featured on the websites of popular news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, TIME, Huffington Post and The Discovery Channel. GAWDA members who have seen this video know and understand that inhaling helium is dangerous and can be fatal.

If any of your customers are using helium in an unsafe manner, please let them know about the dangers of inhaling gases. GAWDA DOT, Security, EPA, & OSHA Consultant Mike Dodd released a notice about the dangers of inhaling helium yesterday, and is a great resource if you have any questions regarding safety matters related to helium or other products.

Finally, I want to thank the GAWDA member who brought to my attention the unsafe nature of this video. It reflects the true concern for safety that GAWDA and its members promote, and the awareness and vigilance we must all have.

More Gases In The Super Bowl

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Sutton-Garten Company makes a bulk CO2 delivery at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Fresh off the Super Bowl, I wanted to share an update about the gases that play a role in The Big Game. As it turns out, the CO2 for the 2012 host stadium is supplied by Sutton-Garten Company (Indianapolis, IN), a GAWDA distributor member. “We deliver bulk CO2 and beverage gases for the beer and beverage service at Lucas Oil Stadium and quite a few of the surrounding restaurants and bars,” says President Pat Garten.

(In case you missed my previous post, check out five more ways that gases and welding industry was intertwined with this year’s Super Bowl.)

Believe it or not, he says Homeland Security checked his company’s truck before they were allowed in the stadium to make deliveries. He adds that the Super Bowl village only allows deliveries very early in the morning…so it sounds like the Super Bowl has kept Sutton-Garten on its toes.

Sutton-Garten has a dedicated page on its website for the Lucas Oil Stadium carbon dioxide system. I love the quote from Lucas Oil Building Authority President David Frick regarding the CO2 room, who says, “It’s the most important room in the building.” The website explains that the carbon dioxide system operates on nine 600-lb. bulk cylinders, which are piped to concession stands throughout the stadium. Pressurizing the system required about 700 lbs of carbon dioxide alone. There are some more great photos from Sutton-Garten at the link above.

During last night’s Super Bowl, oxygen also made a cameo as cameras showed a close-up of Giants Linebacker Chase Blackburn breathing in what looked like medical oxygen after intercepting Patriots QB Tom Brady. See the shot in the short video below.

Black Friday’s Not Just For Big Box Stores

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Black Friday evokes images of swarming crowds, trampling each other for “doorbuster” deals, an experience typically reserved for the “big box” type stores moreso than, say, an independent gases and welding distributor. But there’s good news. Distributors that are more concerned about offering great service than slashing prices can take advantage of the Black Friday frenzy too.

I came across a great article on inc.com called “Your Last-Minute Black Friday Plan,” in which author Geoffrey James explains precisely how to deliver doorbuster style service on Black Friday. Distributors don’t expect—and may not even want—throngs of customers bursting through their doors at 4 a.m. this Friday. Instead, James says to host an invitation-only event, rife with top-notch service and amenities (free coffee, anyone?). Give customers the VIP treatment, and don’t focus on making a sale—instead, socialize and get to know your customers better.

The best part of James’ Black Friday plan is that it can be done in two days. So gather up your customer email list and let the preparations begin! If there’s one thing I know about GAWDA members, it’s that they pride themselves in their service. An invitation-only Black Friday event is the perfect way to showcase that service and see a little boost in sales while you’re at it.

What’s your experience running special events or promotions on Black Friday? Got an idea that works? Share it by leaving a comment.

Tracking Employees With RFID? How It Translates To Cylinders

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Many GAWDA members are using bar code or RFID technology to track their cylinders. Tracking cylinders is great way to keep tabs on what’s coming in and out of the plant, but what if it could do even more?

In a recent study of RFID capabilities, tracking technology manufacturer Queralt used RFID to monitor employee movement throughout the plant, measuring productivity, times employees arrived and left, and how much time was spent on lunch. Readers at various locations detected when workers were nearby, allowing for the company to track the employees’ actual movements.

I’m not suggesting that you start monitoring your plant employees; rather, I think this suggests a possibility of advanced cylinder tracking. Maybe the flow of the plant is such that cylinders have to be moved excessively, and it is resulting in wasted time and labor. Advanced RFID tracking could provide an actual measure of unnecessary handling to determine the value of reorganizing the flow of the plant.

Or maybe RFID readers could register cylinders as a delivery truck is pulling up to the dock with empties, before the driver even gets out of the cab and opens the gate. This could save the time it takes to scan a bar code or RFID tag manually. Once registered by the RFID reader, the system could call on the data associated with each unique cylinder ID and alert plant workers as to any need for requalification, etc.

These are only a few of the possibilities. It seems to fit into the ideas of continuous improvement as well, something that a lot of distributors embrace. What else can you envision being done with cylinder tracking? It may seem like science fiction, but look at where we are today.

My Tour Of An Automated Fill Plant

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011
The final, automated fill plant

The final, automated fill plant

Last week, I made my return to Haun Welding Supply. Back in October 2010, I wrote about my first tour of the Syracuse distributor. At that time, Haun WS had just laid the groundwork for a fully automated fill plant. Josh Haun, credit manager at Haun, was kind enough to invite me back to see the new plant in action. Syracuse Branch Manager Al Dohrn walked us through and kindly answered the hundreds of questions we threw his way.

There are obvious benefits to automation, such as increased efficiency and reducing human error. However, there are some other benefits I picked up on during my short time at Haun. The first thing I immediately noticed was that the new, automated system was a quieter environment than the last time I was there. It was explained to me that the layout, the ability to bring pallets right up to the fill island and the movable manifolds meant less moving of cylinders and thus less commotion.

The fill plant in construction. A raised concrete fill island is the same height as the cylinder pallets for easy transport.

The fill plant in construction. A raised concrete fill island is the same height as the cylinder pallets for easy transport.

Also reducing the noise level was the fact that Haun recently implemented a second shift. As far as noise, this just meant that the activity was more spread out, and there were fewer people in the plant at once. The idea behind the second shift was to improve work flow and effectively reduce the number of cylinders needed. For example, if a batch of cylinders goes out on a truck to a branch on a Monday morning, that truck will not come back with empties until the evening. On a single shift, those cylinders could not get filled until the next day, and go back out to a store on Wednesday. By adding a second shift, those cylinders can be taken care of during the evening and be back on a truck Tuesday morning. These guys are smart.

In all, I could see that everything was done with purpose. Nothing was updated on a whim, or for the sheer sake of having shiny, new tools. Every piece of equipment, every design element, every adjustment was made knowing that it would help Haun operate more efficiently. Here’s to the success of their new plant!

Josh Haun (left) and me at the fill plant

Josh Haun (left) and me at the fill plant

Opening The Door For Honest Feedback

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

As Colleen Mahoney wrote on the Young Professionals blog yesterday, LinkedIn can be a powerful tool. The Noble Gas Solutions marketing communications manager says she has used it to find contacts at cold calls and to build the distributor’s network. I couldn’t agree more with Colleen’s assessment.

In fact, for our latest Welding & Gases Today cover story, we used LinkedIn to reach out to welding and gases end-users. Traditionally, social media has been used to keep in touch with people you know. But here’s a little secret: social media is the perfect way to get introduced to people you want to know. In this case, we used LinkedIn to gain introductions to welding engineers, purchasing managers and other end-users. And wouldn’t you know—it opened doors and ultimately helped us get some great comments about what end-users really look for in a distributor.

Their comments were honest and to the point—no holds barred. “I don’t want an automated relationship,” says one end-user. When you give your customers a chance to provide honest feedback, the results can be powerful. To read all of their comments and find out what your customers want, you can check out the article online, aptly titled, “What Your Customers Really Want.”

How do you use social media platforms like LinkedIn to help your business? Have you ever used it to help make a sale?