Reinvention and transformation sustain 90 years of success.
On December 28, 2000, Bryan Keen became president of Keen Compressed Gas—exactly 35 years to the day after his father, Merrill Keen, took on the presidency in 1965.
“The date wasn’t planned at all,” says Bryan Keen. “It was a funny coincidence.”
What’s not coincidental is Keen Compressed Gas’s success. The company, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, has survived, and thrived, since its establishment in 1919. By continually reinventing itself, Keen Compressed Gas has endured three generations of leadership, four economic recessions, one world war and the dawn of the information age, all without sacrificing the philosophy at Keen’s core. “People,” says Bryan Keen. “Since 1919, we’ve put people first.”
An Automotive Beginning
When Stanley Keen went into business in 1919, his specialty was automotive equipment. Keen Auto Parts, headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, sold car parts and equipment, including the small acetylene cylinders then commonly used in car headlights. When Stanley, Bryan’s grandfather, began to carry more and more products relating to the welding and gases industry, the company’s focus began to shift. In 1928, Stanley opened Keen Auto Parts’ tank department, where customers could purchase acetylene and oxygen cylinders. In the early ’40s, the company’s propane business grew. Soon, supplies for welding and cutting made up more business for Keen than auto parts, and by 1946, the transformation was complete. With Stanley Keen at the helm, Keen Auto Parts was now officially Keen Compressed Gas.
Despite being an astute businessman, Stanley Keen wasn’t interested in expanding. “He was content with his company’s small size,” says Bryan Keen of his grandfather. “He didn’t want to take on any debt, and he was satisfied with the ‘mom-and-pop’ business he’d built.”
Opportunities for Growth
It was Bryan’s father, Merrill Keen, who initiated a growth spurt that would take place over the next three decades. After taking on the presidency in 1965, Merrill ushered in a new era for his family company. Expansion was top priority, and Merrill wasted no time implementing his aggressive approach. In 1969, Merrill acquired Anchor Welding, a welding company also headquartered in Wilmington, virtually tripling Keen’s size overnight, and in 1974, the company opened its first branch location in Dover, Delaware.
“My dad was very growth-oriented. He was always looking for the right opportunity to expand,” says Bryan. And in the early ’70s, Merrill saw opportunity in technology. Before most in the business world had even heard of personal computers, Merrill was at work computerizing Keen’s month-end processes, turning manual, time-consuming tasks into quick, automated procedures, single-handedly leading Keen into the computer generation.
Merrill Keen’s ambition did not stop there. In the 1980s, Keen opened five additional stores, expanding the company’s customer base throughout Delaware and into Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But by the mid-1990s, Merrill Keen was slowly stepping away from the business he’d grown steadily since becoming president.
Passing the Test
Merrill’s children, Jon, Kim and Bryan, had always been involved in the company. Throughout high school and college, Jon and Bryan spent summers painting cylinders and stocking inventory, while sister Kim did administrative work in the office. So as the current president began to take some time off, the Keen children were each assigned different responsibilities to help pick up the slack. “That process went on for years,” says Bryan. “We were each given different jobs in different departments, and Dad was watching to see how we performed.” During that time, Merrill was also quietly deciding who would soon fill his shoes as company president. While Bryan, the youngest, had always been interested in the family business, it wasn’t until some rough times hit the company in the late ’90s that Merrill Keen saw his son’s knack for business management.
One of Keen’s largest customers had pulled out, and the economy was grinding toward an impending recession. “Those two things hit us all at once,” recalls Bryan. “We had to make some big changes in how we operated.” During that difficult time, Bryan took charge. He helped his father make some tough decisions, reallocating key people to better suit demand. “I proved to my dad that I could handle the business, and that I wasn’t intimidated by a challenge.” Bryan had passed the test, and Merrill’s mind was made up.
People Come First
Without question, the company Bryan Keen runs today looks very different from the one his grandfather founded 90 years ago. The small auto parts shop in Wilmington is now a multi-million dollar welding supply and gas distributor with 104 employees in 14 locations spread throughout four states. Today, Merrill Keen is company CEO, daughter Kim serves as office manager, and son Jon is customer service manager. Yet despite the obvious changes, Keen Compressed Gas still reflects the “people first” philosophy on which it was founded. Keen personnel, says Bryan, “are treated fairly. They get good benefits, a positive working environment and a chance to express their opinion, because that’s what they deserve. We just expect an honest day’s work in return.”
Further proof of Keen’s commitment to people is the company’s extensive training program. Will Keen, vice president of sales and marketing and also Bryan’s cousin, believes that employee training is the key to success. Arranging microbulk sales training, specialty gas training, vendor training and attendance at GAWDA seminars and the University of Industrial Distribution, Will Keen puts training first. “My cousin Will has always believed that if we’re not trained to recognize problems, then we’re not able to recognize solutions. He insists that whenever we take on a new line, that vendor has to come in and train our people,” says Bryan. “That product knowledge and education is what separates us from the guy with the lowest price.”
|“If we’re not trained to recognize problems, then we’re not able to recognize solutions.”|
An Invaluable Service
According to Bryan Keen, his company’s product offerings can be summed up in one word: diversity. With a product mix of 50 percent hard goods—mostly welding supplies, welding machines and safety equipment—and 50 percent gas, including microbulk capabilities, Keen takes pride in the fact that no one product line accounts for more than 10 percent of total sales. “That diversity, to some degree, has helped us in this recession,” says Bryan.
Keen’s customers are just as diverse as the company’s products. From hospitals, laboratories, chemical plants, steel mills, fabrication shops, universities, restaurants and bars to even the occasional balloon shop, “We do it all!” says Bryan. But whoever the customer, Keen’s goal is always the same: “We try to provide a service that is invaluable to the daily operation of our customers’ business. It’s our goal to make their lives easier by doing our job right the first time.” Considering Keen’s loyal customer base, it’s safe to assume the company has achieved its goal. Many of Keen’s customers have been around for the better part of the company’s existence; some have even turned down national purchasing deals in favor of Keen’s personalized service. “It’s harder nowadays for the independent distributor, with customers consolidating and utilizing national purchasing agreements, but it’s nice to know that there’s still some loyalty out there.”
For customers, Keen’s dedication and attention to detail mean superb service—even in a time crunch. “When you place an order today, you get it tomorrow,” declares Bryan Keen, “And if you need it today, we have added capabilities over the years to make that possible, too.” According to Bryan, it all goes back to the company’s philosophy: “Customers’ needs come first, and next-day delivery gives them one less thing to worry about.”
With nine years as president under his belt, and a 90-year track record to back him up, Bryan Keen is no novice when it comes to recognizing industry trends. “There will definitely be opportunities for growth on the gas side of our business,” he says. “We’ll see some new applications with laboratories, research centers and universities on the cryogenic end of our company.” To capitalize on his predictions, Bryan has instituted a reallocation of sales personnel, what he calls a “specialized sales program.” Existing sales personnel will be assigned specialized roles to address specific industries, such as universities, medical or cryogenics. According to Bryan, these focused positions will better suit individual employees’ strengths, as well as hone in on the most promising accounts. “We’ve got some energetic people, and we’re eager to move forward.”
Keen is also eager to move forward on the sales front. Another noted trend in the industry is the customer’s changing attitude toward marketing. “We used to do open houses here in Wilmington with six or seven of our key vendors. Hundreds of people would show up and check out the products,” Bryan explains. “Today, customers just don’t have the time or money to come see us, so we have to bring the marketing to them.” In addition to making more sales calls, Keen is also capitalizing on the trend with an enhanced Web site. E-mail marketing campaigns and a more user-friendly online store are on the to-do list for 2009, and Keen expects big results. “The online store will never replace the shop the local guy can walk into and pick up his supplies, but it’s part of our company, and it should represent the same philosophies we represent in person.”
As 2009 marks Keen’s 90th anniversary, there’s no doubt that the company’s celebration has been hard-earned. Keen’s anniversary is the richly deserved result of hard work, uncompromising principles and a customer-centric approach that has carried Keen through the trials and tribulations of nearly a century in business. But as the company celebrates past success, Bryan Keen, the Keen family and the staff of Keen Compressed Gas will also celebrate what will surely be a very bright future. Here’s to another 90 years.