Corp Brothers Inc.

GAWDA’s new First Vice President continues a long heritage of innovation and leadership.

There’s a pipeline 24 to 30 inches in diameter and 800 miles long, stretching from Nova Scotia to the little town of Dracut, Massachusetts. A good length of that pipeline, running from Maine to the Dracut terminus, owes its smooth, uninterrupted flow of natural gas to what started out in 1893 as a two-person bicycle tire factory. As the president of the company that descended from that early tire factory takes his place on GAWDA’s Executive Board, Avery “Whip” Seaman knows a thing or two about pipelines…and tires…and all things in between as they relate to his company, Corp Brothers, as well as the present and future direction of the welding and gases industry.

GAWDA’s new First Vice President continues a long heritage of innovation and leadership.

There’s a pipeline 24 to 30 inches in diameter and 800 miles long, stretching from Nova Scotia to the little town of Dracut, Massachusetts. A good length of that pipeline, running from Maine to the Dracut terminus, owes its smooth, uninterrupted flow of natural gas to what started out in 1893 as a two-person bicycle tire factory. As the president of the company that descended from that early tire factory takes his place on GAWDA’s Executive Board, Avery “Whip” Seaman knows a thing or two about pipelines…and tires…and all things in between as they relate to his company, Corp Brothers, as well as the present and future direction of the welding and gases industry.

13a_cblogoCorp Brothers Inc.

Year Founded: 1893

Headquarters: Providence, Rhode Island

President: Avery “Whip” Seaman Jr.

Branches: 2; New Bedford and Hyannis, Massachusetts

Employees: 33

Web Site:

A key issue facing the industry today is the concern of small companies over their future role in a market greatly impacted by the development of mammoth national distributors. The experience of Corp Brothers with that two-foot wide pipeline serves as a perfect example of Whip Seaman’s outlook for the industry. “I think there will always be room for the little guy if he can nurture and develop his or her core strengths and provide the level of customer service that people have come to expect,” Seaman says.

“One thing we at Corp Brothers have developed is a knack for handling some opportunities that are really partnership jobs on pipeline cleaning or purge testing.” Such partnering led to a contract with Duke Energy on the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline. With Corp Brothers supplying the nitrogen from Massachusetts to Maine and the vendor, Praxair, performing the cleaning, the result was a very satisfied Duke Energy…and an unexpected bonus for Corp Brothers, which is headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island.

“Duke Energy was using methanol as a drying agent to absorb some of the water after they hydrostatically tested the pipes, and since we did such a good job for them with the nitrogen, they asked us for methanol. We had a local supplier in Fall River, Massachusetts, and ended up selling Duke Energy tractor-trailer loads of methanol,” says Seaman.

“There continues to be a place for smaller distributors to do gas filling if they play to their strengths and provide the kind of customer service unique to smaller players.”

Changing with the Times
Whether it’s utilities or hospitals, research labs or cable manufacturers, the key for Corp Brothers has been its ability to adapt to changing times and changing markets, just as the original Corp Brothers of 1893 – Henry and Frederick – altered their turn of the century business several times to meet changing demands, shifting from bicycle tire maker to specialty bike maker, to machine shop (when bicycles went out of favor with the advent of the automobile), and finally to distributor of oxygen after joining with Praxair in 1924 and contracting with a local trucking company for deliveries. For a couple of brothers schooled in the bicycle tire business, partnering with Praxair turned out to be a rather shrewd maneuver. Today, 80 years later, Corp Brothers stands as Praxair’s longest running distributor.

The company soon added its own delivery service, and growth increased. By 1954, with the company under its third generation of Corp family guidance, branches were added in Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was in this year that Whip Seaman’s father, Avery Sr.—looking for a company to purchase after having worked successfully in the textile industry—closed a deal to buy Corp Brothers.


At its founding in 1893, Corp Brothers did bicycle repairs and nickel plating.

Today, as Whip Seaman takes his place on GAWDA’s Board, he talks a lot about member involvement and participation as keys to the success of GAWDA and its distributor members. Seaman’s obvious enthusiasm has its roots in his father’s experience; after all, Avery Sr. bought into a welding and gases industry of which he knew nothing, and one of his first actions as owner was to join the association, then known as the National Welding Supply Association. Membership served the elder Seaman well, for he built Corp Brothers so impressively in the ensuing years, he became known and respected for his vision and leadership. In 1969, Avery Seaman Sr. was named president of NWSA.

Avery Sr. continued Corp Brothers’ tradition of taking advantage of opportunities. After working for some time with Providence neighbor Linde Air Products to deliver Linde-filled oxygen tanks, Avery Sr. took over the filling plant when technological changes in the industry made the operation less attractive to Linde. Corp Brothers followed a similar course some years later to assume control of Liquid Carbonic’s dry ice drop station in Providence, allowing it to gain a virtual monopoly on the region’s dry ice business as well as provide a source for the company’s liquid CO2 business. Later, when Corp Brothers’ liquid CO2 business increased sufficiently, a 12-ton receiver was built.

Spotting Opportunities
Through the years, Corp Brothers added a bulk nitrogen system and then argon capacity. Today, branches are located in New Bedford and Hyannis, Massachusetts. Whip Seaman has seen a lot of evolution in the industry from the time he began painting cylinders part time for Corp Brothers as a teenager in the mid 1960s. After learning all aspects of the business through a variety of jobs, including serving on the counter, delivering orders and helping start a plant, and then working at an outside boat manufacturing business for five years so that he might return to Corp Brothers “bringing something to the table,” Seaman was prepared to carry on the company tradition of adapting to and taking advantage of changing market conditions when he became president in 1986.

While Seaman is very capable of selling his company’s products and services, he excels at “spotting opportunities” and then steering his salespeople into position for success. And for all the challenges facing the industry today—small companies versus large, a growing insurance crisis, and looming new regulations from the FDA over the handling of medical gases—there are plenty of opportunities.


Whip Seaman was named First Vice President at GAWDA's Annual Convention in Vancouver.

New Markets, New Challenges
Corp Brothers’ involvement in medical gases is a perfect example of the company’s forward thinking and penetration of new markets. “We market to the medical business,” Seaman says. “We serviced a couple of hospitals, and with the FDA challenge that lies before our industry, it was really fish or cut bait. Medical gases are now a good, niche market for us, and we try to anticipate any rule changes that the FDA will come up with and respond appropriately.”

For example, the FDA is in the process of issuing new rules requiring segregated filling facilities, which will allow true “cradle-to-grave” traceability of oxygen and other gases. Corp Brothers is prepared for these new conditions. “We built segregation into our new plant,” Seaman explains. The new plant is part of Corp Brother’s relocation of its headquarters, completed in January 2003, to a 25,000 square foot facility in an industrial park situated right at an interstate exit in Providence. “Everything has been certified with the new plant and we can provide documentation that would pass any FDA inspection.” Just as Seaman has positioned his own company to adapt to new FDA regulations, so too is he working with GAWDA on its program to prepare the industry as a whole for the new rules and regulations. This will allow GAWDA distributors to “hit the ground running” as the new regulations take effect.

Customer Service Tailor-Made
In a changing industry landscape, the ability to exploit new markets and obtain new customers is one thing…but delivering on products and services and keeping those customers is quite another; and here again, Corp Brothers has put innovation and diligent customer service to work to build a broad-based, thriving business. Just ask the Navy.


Corp Brothers headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island

Over the last six years, this branch of the Armed Forces has decided to move in the direction of electronic ordering and billing for all of its supply needs, whether that be gases and welding supplies, food or office supplies. One of the first such distributors contracting with the Navy was a giant national office supply company. This company’s Internet presence had been designed by MIT at a cost of approximately $13 million. Unfortunately, problems arose trying to adapt the distributor’s generic software system for ordering and billing to the Navy’s specific requirements. Just as the Navy was souring on the prospects for online ordering, however, Corp Brothers came riding into the Navy’s sightline, on a custom-built software platform for two.

The year was 1998. “We had just put up an information site online,” Seaman explains, and with a soft chuckle, continues, “It was programmed by my 14-year-old nephew.” A far cry from $13 million, “our whole setup cost 22 grand,” recalls Seaman, “We worked hand-in-hand with the Navy to develop an online ordering site, which was pretty exciting.” The initial work was done with the Navy’s central administration, and now that the system is in place, the actual day-to-day ordering and billing is done through each separate department within the Navy’s large system.

Taking new technology and driving it back into the business is a mantra for Corp Brothers.

This whole exercise illustrates perfectly Seaman’s conviction of there being “room for the little guy” in the industry. “We were able to put together exactly what the Navy wanted, because we didn’t have any other customer using the online system. It gave us a great building block to go to the marketplace with.” Indeed, Corp Brothers used the software capabilities it developed with the Navy to procure contracts with both biotech and university research customers, both of which are similar in structure to the Navy’s diverse and large group of purchasers. Corp Brothers now has many customers that are “multi-use” in nature; that is, consisting of a large company or organization, with many department heads, lab directors or others who act as individual purchasing agents in the Corp Brothers’ system. Today the company counts among its customers Brown University and the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Seaman emphasizes how the smaller company can not only survive, but thrive if it learns to tap the advantages of being small. “As each customer comes on, we’ve got a new building block we can put on the shelf for a future customer. They know we’ll design a system to meet their goals and expectations.” Indeed, many of Corp Brothers’ customers are quite happy—in a challenging economic environment, the company posted 4.5 percent growth in 2002, and projects a similar figure for 2003.

Upgrade to Success
Taking new technology and “driving it back into the business” is a mantra for Corp Brothers. Using a combination of its innovative ordering and billing system, and advancements in the technology of gas storage and distribution, the company has set a high standard for efficiency, something Seaman discovered to no small surprise during the company’s relocation.


Corp Brothers' fleet of ten delivery trucks services locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“I was flipping through some of my dad’s papers when we moved,” he explains, “and found a list of all the hospitals serviced by the company in 1954. The price for delivering oxygen in cylinders to Rhode Island Hospital, which was the biggest hospital customer at that time, was about $2.24 per hundred.” Despite exponentially rising costs for equipment, insurance and other aspects of running a business, Corp Brothers has managed to hold this cost steady for 50 years.

The reasons for cost stability are several, starting, of course, with the computer. “It used to take four people two days to get the month-end mailing out, and now it takes one person two hours,” Seaman explains. Industry technological advances, including liquid cylinders and bulk capacity, as well as Corp Brothers’ ability to do its own pumping, have kept costs in line. Seaman is a firm believer in using technology to increase efficiencies, and he wants GAWDA members to realize the opportunities.

Outside Opportunities, Inside Teamwork
“The business game is a 360-degree circle,” Seaman says, slipping into the role of analyst, “and you have to play all the compass points, because if you concentrate on one, you get into trouble.” While innovative business expansion and tapping of new markets are focal to Corp Brothers’ success, just as important are the company’s internal environment and staff enthusiasm. The key to Corp Brothers’ approximate average of twelve years of service per employee has been two-fold. “Our success story seems to be through advertising for an entry-level position and then promoting from within,” explains Seaman. “There’s a lot to learn in the business, and you learn every single day. Most of our salespeople started inside on the counter and learned the business, learned the customers, and were then promoted to outside sales.”

“There’s a lot to learn from each other in our industry.”

Running hand-in-hand with this homegrown approach to workforce is an earnest dedication to involving employees in the process of the business. “We ask for suggestions and then use them to improve things, and we make it easy for employees to take any problem to the top.” In 2001, the company also had a management consultant evaluate the positioning of personnel, and out of this came a series of tests used by Corp Brothers to screen prospective employees.

Giving Back to GAWDA
Whip Seaman’s infectious enthusiasm for the future of GAWDA, and the success of its members, comes as no surprise. After all, he has had the double benefit of learning from a successful father and previous GAWDA president, and deriving tremendous benefits from his own membership in GAWDA.

Seaman recalls attending a Zone Meeting with his father to hear Gordon Graham from the University of Wisconsin speak about inventory management. “We were pretty impressed by him.” Seaman’s father and the company’s purchasing agent then took a two-week course from Graham, and Corp Brothers spent a year implementing this new inventory management program. “And it worked,” Seaman explains. “We liked it so much that we were able to pass it on to other purchasing agents.” They also shared their successful experience with other GAWDA members via the association’s Operation Interchange program, in which individual members were given the opportunity to speak about their personal experiences with business success.

Seaman’s approach to his role with GAWDA is simple. “If you’ve got an idea and it’s worth sharing to help others run their businesses better, that’s what you’ve got to do.” His philosophy is that the association is a place where members can intermingle and share ideas, where paths to success and new ways of operating can be disseminated effectively.

“There’s a lot to learn from each other in our industry,” Seaman explains. “The programs benefit the members, and in this eat-or-be-eaten world, with downsizing in the industry, we have to find creative ways to get the smaller distributors to join and participate in GAWDA.” Seaman points out that GAWDA is becoming creative in this regard, as evidenced by the “piggybacking” of GAWDA’s upcoming Spring Management Conference with the American Welding Society show in Chicago. By overlapping the meetings and allowing members to attend two meetings with only one set of expenses, GAWDA hopes to increase attendance. GAWDA plans similar future ventures based on the success of this initial trial.

This is a dynamic time for GAWDA and the industry. A rapidly expanding gas market, particularly in the areas of medicine and biotechnology, presents a wealth of new opportunities for distributors. By playing to their strengths, smaller companies can find themselves very much in the thick of things. For inspiration, these companies, and all GAWDA members, need only look to First Vice President Whip Seaman, who has experienced and triumphed over nearly all the key issues affecting the industry today, including niche finding in emerging markets, exploiting the advantages of the small company, anticipating new FDA regulations, and generating employee involvement, enthusiasm and loyalty.

Of course, not every business owner can be fortunate enough to have a 14-year-old nephew worth $13 million in cost-saving software. But these same owners, as members of GAWDA, can share the comfort of looking to its newest officer who, in no uncertain terms, has an uncanny knack for seeing just what’s coming down the pipeline, be it two feet in diameter and originating in Nova Scotia…or throughout the welding and gases industry and starting from just about anywhere at any time.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association