“Serial Entrepreneurship” is hallmark of Midwestern company with “Attitude.”
To understand the roots of serial entrepreneurship, turn the clock back to 1946. That was the year the entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated by welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases distributor Lampton Welding Supply Co., Inc., headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, began. Marcel Lampton, a former Airco fill plant clerk, worked as a salesman for Phillips and Easton, a supplier of welding and industrial supplies. The owners of Phillips and Easton decided to drop the welding supplies lines, products that Marcel Lampton liked to sell, so he decided to acquire The Lincoln Electric Company and Linde Gas lines, and start his own company.
Marcel Lampton was an entrepreneur at heart. Perhaps the clearest example of entrepreneurial spirit was when Lampton opened a second location in Salina, Kansas. He had been told by Linde Gas AP that they were planning to open a company-owned store just 90 miles from the Wichita location. Unwilling to leave his flanks unprotected, Lampton made the decision to open a branch within minutes. When questioned by his son Marvin about never having operated a branch before, the senior Lampton responded, “We’ll learn.”
Marcel Lampton studied business for one year while attending college and encouraged his son Marvin to make the most of an education. Marvin majored in business at the University of Kansas, then earned his MBA from Northwestern. He says, “My father took the company as far as he could and was happy with how it evolved. His greatest gift was that he could intuitively predict the direction our industry was headed, and he provided me with the guidance I needed in order to manage the company after he retired.” Marvin Lampton perceives his role as president of the company founded by his father as that of a caretaker. “I try to nurse the business, helping it to grow in order to pass it on to the next generation.”
The Second Generation
When asked when he first began working for his father’s company, Marvin Lampton responds, “Technically, March 2, 1967,” referring to the date of his discharge from the U.S. Army. He has tried to forget that his first stint—dusting welding equipment and painting cylinders—ended when he was fired. His father turned to him at a family dinner and said, “Son, you ought to find another job.” He laughs today and says he has no idea why he was fired, except that he really liked working at his father’s company. While attending college, he worked there during summer breaks.
Charles Lampton, age 45, works as the company’s Computer Systems Manager. While repairing regulators, the younger brother acquired a talent for taking things apart and putting them back together, discovering in the process what made them work. “About 15 years ago,” says Marvin Lampton, “the company started to rely more on computers, and we began developing an Internet presence. It was critical that we find someone to manage the computers at our headquarters and at the branches. Charles has been a lifesaver.”
Guy Marlin, vice president and chief operating officer, is not a family member, but he is a strong and vital part of the management team. A 32-year company veteran, Marlin is as similar in thinking to Lampton as one can be. Lampton explains, “Guy and I think alike. His ability to run the business enables me to do the things I have done. Without depending on him to run the day-to-day operations, we would not have been able to grow the way we have.”
Redefining the Company
Back in 1946, Lampton Welding Supply was established to sell welding products and supplies. In 1970, faced with poor sales, the elder Lampton decided to add industrial products to its product offering. As a newly promoted sales manager, Marvin Lampton looked forward to selling twice as many products.
Fast forward to 1982. Sales were at a par with the 1970 sales. And to further impact profits, the company was required to maintain a much higher inventory. Marvin Lampton was eager to drop the industrial line of products, explaining, “We thought the industrial line would enable us to sell twice as much product, but the salespeople were still selling only the products they were most comfortable with.”
By 1985, when the elder Lampton announced his decision to retire, Marvin was ready to dissolve the line of industrial products. He says, “The breadth of knowledge that a salesperson must have to sell welding and industrial products is broader than most people are capable of. Selling welding products is a full time job.”
Marvin Lampton knew that growth was achievable if he stuck to what he knew best. When his father asked, “How will you grow the company?” Marvin responded, “I’ll take the dollars that are invested in inventory and find other welding supply companies to purchase.”
Merger and Acquisition Specialist
Since 1986, Lampton has acquired majority or minority interests in 16 other companies (See Sidebar). Some of the purchases involved stores located in towns already hosting Lampton Welding Supply Co. locations. Those newly acquired stores were simply closed after transferring customer records.
An example of Lampton’s single-minded focus was his first acquisition, a fill plant purchased in 1986. Airco, now known as BOC Gases, sold its plant to Wichita Welding in the 1970s. Jay Frick continued to operate it as Wichita Welding’s fill plant, as well as one of Wichita Welding’s stores. When Wichita Welding decided to shut down the store, Frick approached Lampton and offered to sell him 50 percent of the plant if Lampton would use it as a fill plant. “The price was a bargain,” says Lampton. Together, the two men formed Compressed Gases, Inc. in 1986, at that location. Lampton smiles, “Ironically, Airco, the original owner of that fill plant, was the company that had employed my father as a fill clerk in 1935.”
Lampton prefers to work against strong competitors. “The best competitors are healthy competitors; the worst are those going broke.” Lampton often is called in to help distributors having a problem. “My goal is to turn the company around. I’ll help to educate them, help them learn how to make money, how to lose money, and how to know the difference.”
“It’s important that the distributor realizes that I’m not trying to take advantage of a smaller company. While my company has become bigger than some, we are not nearly the size of some of the giants that surround us.”
Part of his criteria for a potential acquisition is what Lampton refers to as “synergy.” He says, “To gain some advantage, there has to be some synergy between our companies.” The most likely markets for Lampton to target next are Kansas City, Denver or Dallas. “Acquisitions must be located in territories adjacent to current locations.”
When it comes to facilities and branch locations, Lampton Welding Supply Co. is following the spoke-in-the-wheel philosophy. Says Lampton: “We have an acetylene plant in Wichita. Trucks deliver acetylene, nitrous oxide as well as a few other gases that are only pumped in Wichita to the other 10 stores. Each major filling store has spokes extending to other branches. As an example, our Oklahoma City store supplies Enid and Perry.”
Employees with Attitude
Every Lampton Welding Supply Co. employee is committed to the philosophy of putting customers first. To determine if the employee is capable of putting customers first, managers begin assessing their people skills early in the interview process. Lampton looks for employees who care about others, who have a “can-do attitude.” Two signs hang on the front of Lampton’s desk. One has the words “Attitude Is Everything” and the other says “Just Do It.” Vice President Guy Marlin says that his boss is notorious for saying those six words. Says Marlin, “His response to an employee is ‘Stop talking about it, and just do it!’”
Many Lampton Welding Supply Co. employees are refugees from other, larger companies. Lampton says, “They decide they want to work for a smaller, family-owned business, where things can get done faster and they are not one of many. They know that the company will still be family-owned five years from now.”
The acquisitions over the years have increased the number of employees and their responsibilities, and Lampton relies on them to help keep the company healthy. He reflects on how his father, who passed away in 1996, would have marveled at the fact that Lampton now runs eleven stores. “I don’t think he could perceive that you can really control eleven stores…and maybe you can’t. The key is to have a handful of very good people, and then it’s not so difficult to perceive that you really can, if you have those good people in place.”
The future is in solid hands. The third generation is on board and learning the skills required for the future. Marvin’s son Doug, 32, works as bulk and specialty gases manager. A second son, Brad, 30, is a field engineer. Lampton keeps the advice he gives to his sons simple. “First, always keep the customer first; second, be a little frugal and run lean.”
In 1985, when Marvin Lampton took over the company, sales totaled $3 million. His personal goal has been to double the company’s sales every five years. While that has not always occurred, Lampton still maintains positive, strong numbers.
“I have been very lucky,” says Lampton. “It’s important for me to be in a position in which I can provide the next generation with opportunities for growth.” Spoken like a true serial entrepreneur.
And about that firing? Lampton laughs about it now. “I protested when my father fired me. ‘But I like working at the store,’ I told him.” Today, many years later, Marvin Lampton more than “likes working at the store.” His store is a $15 million business located throughout three states and growing. As he prepares the next generation to carry the torch, he looks to provide opportunities and counsel in the welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases industry to his two sons, just as his father did before him.