Leadership Lessons From The Industry’s Front Line

“As the leader of the company, you need to make things happen.”
— Bryan Keen

It’s been more than twenty years since Tom Peters authored the best seller, In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies. During these past twenty years we have been deluged with books describing the leading management philosophy du jour. How many of us have not heard of at least one of the books written by a business guru who claimed to hold the keys to our collective successes?

Copies of The One Minute Manager, Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Who Moved My Cheese?, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and today’s bestseller Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t have literally flown off the shelves. Somehow most of us, after reading their words of wisdom, have not quite made it to the list of the Fortune 500 (or even the Inc. 500).

Welding & Gases Today talked with distributors and suppliers about their leadership strategies for 2005 and beyond. It’s no secret that the demands of today’s marketplace have changed during the past few years. Some say that the demands and needs of our customers are changing each week! We asked leaders of large and small companies about the skills they will rely on in order to grow their businesses in 2005. Each was forthcoming and volunteered thoughtful responses that will rival the philosophies detailed in today’s best sellers.

Our advice? One of the key benefits of GAWDA membership is an opportunity to network and share ideas with each other. Spend a few minutes this year discussing how others in our industry are ensuring future growth. Take advantage of the networking opportunities that are afforded to each GAWDA member.

Michael Beckley, chairman of Wesco Gases (Redwood City, CA), will be stepping down as his daughter, Susan Tipsword, takes the reins of his 45-year-old company. Beckley has spent a lot of time thinking about the leadership skills required to lead the company. The skill he looks for most? The ability to listen. “A Wesco leader has to listen to the concerns of employees and customers and help them solve their challenges.” He looks closely at individuals with a military background because of the strong leadership training provided by the armed services. Wesco employees also attend two-week leadership programs held at universities.

Gary Bertrand
Gary Bertrand

Things that we expected vendors to do for us in the past are now done in-house,” explains Gary Bertrand, president, Rockford Industrial Welding Supply (Rockford, IL), who is working hard to manage and motivate his company’s high-quality team of experienced individuals. Bertrand relies on leadership skills that help his team work better with today’s demanding, high-tech customers, such as finding and developing the best in-house and outsourced training programs and using incentive programs. Bertrand maintains a high profile throughout the company and believes in promoting from within. “Employees seem to be more motivated while building their careers within the company.”


Reinvention Strategy

“Customers are demanding more services to make their businesses more efficient while reducing their costs of doing business. We constantly reevaluate what those needs and demands are so we can meet them. We will continue to expand our micro-bulk division and are looking at specialty gas opportunities.”

John W. Bragg
John W. Bragg

With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs across the state of Maine, N.H. Bragg & Sons (Bangor, ME) is broadening its line of products and services, as well as expanding geographically. President John W. Bragg knows that customers are reducing their number of suppliers, and he is making sure employees reinvent themselves for these new markets. With the use of technology, he is helping them become more efficient. And he is holding them accountable for their responsibilities and actions. “Employees have to know that we can no longer do things the way they’ve always been done. Every employee is empowered to recognize opportunity, take advantage of it, and make decisions that respond to customer needs.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We’re offering more and broader services and products, and will expand into janitorial and safety supplies, and maybe even office and paper products in order to be of more value to the customer. We’re also expanding geographically, and will be doing vendor-managed inventory.”

Andy Castiglione
Andy Castiglione

Every distributor, before they even start their business, must truly believe that the customer is king and have the honest, strong desire to exceed the customer’s expectations.” This leadership advice from Andy Castiglione, chairman of the board at Westair Gases & Equipment (San Diego, CA), permeates the entire company, and he has made sure to surround himself with “excellent people who have the same attitude toward customer service as I have.”

At Westair’s nine stores, about 22 percent of cash sales are done over the counter, and that attitude is clearly expressed in inventory control. Via the use of a designated cycle counter, stock level is known at every minute of every day. “Customers will continue to buy and pay slightly more to a vendor that either has it in stock or gets back to them in a timely manner,” explains Castiglione, and employees adhere to his rule to get back to the customer within 45 minutes of a call reaching the order desk, whether the product is in stock or not.

Castiglione conducts a seminar for every one of the company’s 160 employees, who attend the session in small groups of 12-14 from different departments. “Cylinder maintenance staff sit next to accounting staff, truck drivers sit next to salespeople, and for eight hours, they go over how to exceed customers’ expectations. The manager for each department explains what the department does and says ‘Here’s what you can do to help us.’ This exchange of ideas has made a big difference.”


Reinvention Strategy

“There’s a niche for the independent distributor to start looking at gases in the bulk, microbulk situations. We’ve also seen the need in the laboratory and specialty gas areas. We just got into the medical business, and we’re going to add more branches.”

I don’t ask my employees to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” says Bill Clark, president of Indusco Corporation (Portsmouth, VA), who has worked jobs in the pump room, on delivery trucks and at the front desk. “I remind employees each day how important it is to service the customer and give them more than what they ask for.” Clark views leadership as taking risks and knowing when to move forward. “As a small company, we need to be at the forefront of opportunity so we can get there before everyone else, all the while gaining that first premium.” Seven years ago, Clark added a fill plant despite the experts who advised him Indusco wasn’t at a point where it needed a fill plant. “I said that we’re going to have to do it sooner or later, now’s the time.” The company has branched into other markets, mainly medical. Says Clark, “The next step is the small bulk market.”

Mark Davidson
Mark Davidson

Mark Davidson, president of Best Welders Supply (Tulsa, OK), saw the sand shifting and redirected his leadership focus. “The industry’s rolled up as far as consolidation,” he says, “and the type of leadership employees now require has to match up against that competition. Where these large companies have a number of individuals with specialized skills and abilities, our employees must have a broader set of skills.” He redirected the compensation plan for the outside sales force, tying it more closely to company objectives. “Our employees are beginning to understand that the picture is about financial performance and no longer about the gear and gadgets that we sell.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We can’t continue to compete in a price-oriented commodity market and cater to the buying needs of our low-priced consumers. We have to be able to negotiate a higher price, so we’re going to have to work harder on our negotiating skills and we’re going to charge more for the product.”

Brent Fernyhough
Brent Fernyhough

According to Brent Fernyhough, president of Byrne Specialty Gases (Seattle, WA), “Every aspect of our business has an area that needs attention, across our industry, and it’s everything from DOT compliance to health insurance and how to raise prices to cover the cost changes. It just takes eternal vigilance.” Fernyhough cites medical gases as an example. “Medical gases are some of the least expensive gases and yet they’re the most time consuming and have the highest liability. It’s important that we look at and understand where the costs are and try to manage them and handle them as best we can. There’s no single silver bullet.”

The company reimburses education and expects that each employee attend outside classes to learn how to do their job better, whether it’s customer service or driving school. Fernyhough looks to hire people who have a little bit of uneasiness in their belly. “We’re a small growing company; it’s a special place, and only certain types of people fit in here.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We’re looking at services, whether maintenance-type services or those where the price of gas is less important, where it’s not as easy to compare our offering versus the competitor’s.”

Guillermo Gallardo
Guillermo Gallardo

Mold the main guys so they can pass it on to the rest of the employees,” advises Complete Welding & Cutting Supplies (Pomona, CA) President Guillermo Gallardo, who is leading his 32 employees to be more knowledgeable of new welding processes in order to gain a competitive edge. “A leader has to be the inspiration and example to the team to keep the company in a growth mode, so I try to keep that example, to be here and work just as hard as they do.” Gallardo developed a no-charge customer training program, which is garnering significant profit for the company. “After the sessions, customers are more conscious of the topic, i.e., safety issues, and they usually order many of the products that we show.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We are working to have acetylene, along with a spec lab, and in five years expect the company to be in a position to go public.”

Scott Griskavich
Scott Griskavich

A wrong decision is usually better than no decision,” says Scott Griskavich, president, Badger Welding Supplies (Madison, WI), who insists on giving this kind of leeway to his employees. Griskavich’s leadership skills involve teaching employees how to make a decision on their own without having to get approval from a variety of supervisors.

Reinvention Strategy

“Reinventing is a daily process. We do it by responding to customers’ needs. Sometimes we create the need. A good example is integrated valves and regulators for medical oxygen. Four or five years ago, this was a very scary possibility for distributors of medical gases. Today, it’s almost standard procedure, and it’s expected that you would have something like this. Ten years ago, it didn’t exist.”

Morgan Golden
Morgan Golden

Even in our small town in Arkansas, with its population of 37,000, we’re feeling the effects of globalization as manufacturing heads overseas. We therefore have had to reinvent ourselves to continue to be profitable,” says AWI Supply (Hot Springs, AR) President Morgan Golden. Golden has developed a company culture where change is the norm and things are not accepted at face value. “I ask employees to take proactive steps and bring solutions. This is more ‘culture’ than technique.” Golden is working on how to pass leadership to those beyond the executive level, those at the branch level, and is trying to get them to think as “mini-business owners.” He says, “They have to understand the larger picture beyond selling cylinder gas; they’ve got to think beyond the day-to-day transactions and see the company holistically so they can help me steer the company.” Golden allows employees to make the hard decisions, then evaluates to make sure they did it right. “If not, we discuss how they can do it better the next time.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We’re in a mature industry and in a fairly small market area, so for us to have increased growth, we have to diversify. Most of our good ideas come from our customers. We just opened a rental yard in one of our branches. It takes a lot of capital to do that, but the market was underserved.”

John Hanlon
John Hanlon

My most important job as leader is to mentor our people to help them grow in their existing positions and in future positions so that when I’m gone, the leadership and the direction of this company will continue unabated.” John Hanlon, president, SJ Smith Co. (Davenport, IA), explains how he goes about it: “I listen to what people want to do and I help them learn not only from successes, but from failures, so that they understand the process of business, the process of management, the process of leading others. A leader must leave his or her ego checked at the door. It’s not about any individual; it’s about doing the right thing for the company and for the customer.” SJ Smith employees attend the School of Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M University, as well as Dale Carnegie courses.


Reinvention Strategy

“We are constantly automating, taking costs out, looking at new markets, new ways of doing business and new methods to reach the customer.”

Brian Hartje
Brian Hartje

Brian Hartje, president, Bemidji Welders Supply (Bemidji, MN), strives to make his 23 employees feel a part of the team. “Everybody works hard to do a good job for the customer, because what happens with our company is the future of our employees, too.” To achieve this, Hartje insists that all employees really participate in meetings—with input. “This is how we can strive forward.”


Reinvention Strategy

“Big customers are tough, and we’re going back to the basics of servicing the small customer, taking care of him and letting him know his money is worth something.”

Larry Jones
Larry Jones

A leader must project integrity to the entire company,” says Larry Jones, president of Jones Welding & Industrial Supply (Albany, GA). “Customers must have confidence that what we tell them is correct and that we will treat them fairly.” Jones believes in mentoring and allowing employees to develop to their fullest potential, including giving them room to make mistakes. He believes that leadership is not a solitary road and attributes much of his success to his wife Sheila, the company’s vice president. “Every leader has someone they look up to. Her intuition and ability to see things has had a big influence on me.”


Reinvention Strategy

“In a rural market, we have to look for lines that will allow us to take advantage of our strengths. A few years ago we took on steel, and now plates, channel irons, etc., comprise 15 percent of our sales. We now bring to market welding and steel, eliminating one of the customer’s vendors.”

Bryan Keen
Bryan Keen

As the leader of the company, you need to make things happen,” says Bryan Keen, president of Keen Compressed Gas Co. (Wilmington, DE), whose father gave him this advice when he became president: “If it is to be, it is up to me!” He makes sure he is visible and active in the daily activities of his employees and customers. “People like to see company management taking an interest in their lives, their jobs, what’s going on in the field and what’s happening in the stores.” Keen adds communication as another important aspect of leadership. “Explanations as to what we are doing and why we are doing it allow for more buy-in and build a better team.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We no longer look for the home run with large corporations and instead focus on the small to mid-sized local companies with which we can establish a relationship. We are also investing in a microbulk truck and the associated tanks and equipment. Medical gas accounts and some ventures into new territories are also receiving significant time and capital investment.”

Vern Lewis
Vern Lewis

President Vern Lewis built Vern Lewis Welding Supply (Phoenix, AZ) by being hands-on and training employees to do whatever it takes to satisfy customers. “To succeed in this business is to find out what the customer wants and give it to them.” Lewis makes sure that all employees learn how to ask questions and work closely with customers, how to pick up important information, and most importantly, how to forward it on.


Reinvention Strategy

“We’re now competing with majors who are trying to build business on price. The only thing we have to offer that they don’t is service, and we are improving the methods that have always worked for us, concentrating on giving the best service and reminding the purchaser that that’s what we have to offer.”

David Melo
David Melo

For Melo’s Gas & Gear (Bakersfield, CA), “the biggest challenge for 2005 is to keep customers from finding some other channel of distribution to buy our products.” David Melo, president, points to the big box stores and the Internet as potential rivals and is using all his leadership skills to keep them from getting his customers. “The personal relationship with customers is going to be stronger so they don’t look anywhere else or become open to anything else.” The value-added service Melo is most proud of his “fair and consistent pricing all the time, not just when the customer demands it.” He says, “If my customers believe I have integrity, my employees believe I have integrity, and my vendors believe I have integrity, then my job as leader is a lot easier.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We always look at acquisitions, and we’re expanding our product offering into industrial tooling supplies.”

Gary Minnis
Gary Minnis

We’re making an effort not to be everything to everybody,” says Gary Minnis, president of Wine Country Gases (Santa Rosa, CA). To that end, Minnis is consolidating as much purchasing as possible into fewer vendors. He explains, “We’re providing greater revenue to each of our vendors, and as a result we’re expecting improved performance and some improvement of pricing.” Minnis hopes this tactic will be reflected in better profit for both his companies and his vendors.


Reinvention Strategy

“We’re making an effort not to be everything to everybody and are looking to represent fewer vendors that do a better job, reflected in improved profits for us and them. We’re also adding more marketing activities.”

Jim Moore
Jim Moore

Jim Moore, president, Fire King of Seattle (Seattle, WA), is taking the role of leadership seriously, and is focusing on one-on-one interactions with both customers and staff. “I want to show employees that even a small customer is needed for the bottom line, because it often happens that smaller customers get pushed to the wayside to make room for the larger customers. It takes just a few smaller customers lumped together and you’ve got yourself a larger customer..” While it takes more time out of his day, Moore makes on-site visits with his sales staff customer sites, and spends that time training employees as well as letting customers know there is a personal commitment from the company.


Reinvention Strategy

“We’re in the testing phase of some new products that we will bring as a value-add to our customers.”

Steve Mulder
Steve Mulder

Steve Mulder, president, Natwel Supply Corp. (San Antonio, TX), describes himself as very detail-oriented and committed to making things more efficient. In fact, after taking over the business from his father, Mulder upgraded many of the company’s processes, including the way inventory was done, how acetylene was shipped and received, and the way cylinders were tracked. “Everything runs smoother, and while the company has doubled in size in the last five years, we still have the same number of employees.” Mulder points to this streamlining and move toward efficiencies as a critical leadership task.


Reinvention Strategy

“Fuel costs are so high that we’re creating more efficient routing. We’re also working on same-day service, and sending in-house employees to customer sites to walk them through a customer challenge.”

Tom Reynolds
Tom Reynolds

Tom Reynolds, president of Reynolds Welding Supply Company (Mankato, MN), describes his most important leadership skill as people management. “I provide the tools and assistance they need to do their jobs, including sending them to the training programs that will be of help.” Reynolds also looks to a good incentive plan as an important motivator.


Reinvention Strategy

“The only way fast growth will come about these days is through acquisitions. We made one in the last two years.”

Michael Ross
Michael Ross

A good leader surrounds himself or herself with great people,” says Michael Ross, president, ABCO Welding & Industrial Supply (Waterford, CT), who leans heavily on direct reports to give him the analysis that says a decision is a good decision. He adds, “Quite frankly, while I may have already made the decision, I want them to own the decision and then own the solution, own the execution, and then own the results.” Ross teaches employees how to build relationships at the high level, rather than dealing with “someone in purchasing.” He explains, “It really all comes down to the relationship. Once we put a solution in and they have respect and trust for ABCO, everything else falls into place. It’s really not an issue of price, and our product is then not reduced to a commodity.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We’ve added technical people who do efficiency studies for our customers.”

H. Stanley Stoney
H. Stanley Stoney

To become more efficient is the name of the game,” says H. Stanley Stoney, president of North East Welding Supply Corp. (Auburn, MA), who constantly looks for methods of improving efficiency to become more productive. Stoney’s leadership style focuses on planning and organizing. “It drifts down and reaps rewards in terms of net operating profit..”


Reinvention Strategy

“We stick to the basics. We block and we tackle. We try to give the customers what they want, when they want, and bill them correctly.”

As we provide the value-added services necessary to meet our customers’ needs, we’ll make sure that all our people recognize that we’re not a me-too organization,” says F. Russell Strate Jr., president of Strate Welding Supply Co. (Buffalo, NY). “We bring a total package to the table and it is a team effort.” As leader, Strate helps employees recognize that each job is interrelated. “It’s a daily conversation that they are part of the whole.”

John Whiting
John Whiting

John Whiting, president and CEO of ETOX (Tyler, TX), points to a 25 percent profit increase during the recent economic slump, despite flat sales. “Everybody from the accounting clerk in the main office to the truck driver knows that not only do we need to control costs daily, but we have to collect the customer’s money.” Whiting’s leadership comes with a bevy of creative ideas to differentiate ETOX from its competitors. “Every year, we introduce what I call a new tool for our toolbox.” A few years ago, that new tool was a motor sports program for stock car fans. Discounts were given for gases and welding equipment to owners of stock cars who raced locally. Says Whiting, “We discovered that most of the owners and drivers had their own fabrication shops, and we ended up getting that business, too.” Last year, ETOX had a program for area farmers and ranchers. This year, the new tool in the toolbox was a student discount program. ETOX set up a booth at a teacher’s convention (over 2,400 in attendance) and gave away freebies to students who will likely remember ETOX when it comes time to buy their own welding equipment. Whiting considers doing “different things his competitors aren’t doing as good leadership.”


Reinvention Strategy

“Every year, we promote something new to our customers, something no one else has. This year, we’re building brand loyalty by supporting 365 stock car vehicles, all of which have our decals on them.”

Dale Wilton
Dale Wilton

Dale Wilton, vice president, focuses a lot of energy empowering Central Welding Supply’s (Lynwood, WA) 75 employees to learn how to make decisions that can increase service, deal with a problem, make a resolution and offer a solution. “Allowing employees to make decisions makes them better business people, regardless of their position, and this helps us to make inroads in market share.” Acknowledging the competition’s large corporate structure, Wilton says, “We can move a little bit faster and a little more efficiently when people know how to make good decisions for the company, moment to moment.”


Reinvention Strategy

“We are not set up as a company to just offer lowest price, so we’re trying to move away from the high volume, low margin hardgoods we’ve been selling. We are refocusing on more profitable areas: specialty gas and bulk, as well as cylinder rental.”

Charlie Wright
Charlie Wright

As a leader, my most important responsibility is making sure I have effective people in place with the right tools,” says Charlie Wright, CEO/owner, Wright Brothers (Cincinnati, OH). Wright uses outside training resources, such as the Sandler system for sales training, the IWDC for operational training, and a local marketing firm for gases and welding marketing training. The results of these programs are evaluated by measuring expense management and bringing in profitable new businesses.


Reinvention Strategy

“Our goal is to define what’s of value to our customers and figure out how to do it. As a result, we are now doing microbulk.”
 
Great Read: “Imagine that you, as a mid-level manager in your company, have been assigned to a six-person team asked to complete a top-priority project on a very short deadline. As it turns out, some of the people have never worked together before, members of the team change every hour or so, leadership constantly shifts between three different individuals, and any mistake by even one person could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences for the project’s outcome.” You think your life is exciting! Read “Teamwork in a Shock Trauma Unit: New Lessons in Leadership” at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/1048.cfm.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association