Earlbeck Gases & Technologies: Showing Customers The Way

Technical expertise gives Earlbeck Gases & Technologies a competitive edge.

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President: Jim Earlbeck
Year Founded:
1919
Year Joined GAWDA:
1951
Headquarters:
Baltimore, Maryland
Branch Locations:
Beltsville, Maryland

Employees: 27
2008 Sales: $9.5 million
Web Site:
www.earlbeck.com

Since 1977, Jim Earlbeck, second-generation president of Earlbeck Gases & Technologies (Baltimore, MD), has been rebuilding, refining and redefining his company’s place in the gases and welding industry. A once successful distributorship that over time had lost its edge, Earl-beck stepped in and completely overhauled the operation, capitalizing on its existing strengths while expanding into new areas. Now in its 90th year in operation, the company is a thriving, multimillion-dollar enterprise with an eye toward the future.

A Look Back
Earlbeck Gases & Technologies dates back to 1919, when it was the T.A. Canty Company, a wholesale welding products distributorship. Among Canty’s employees was an ambitious young man named Al Earlbeck, who joined the business as a high school student and decided to make it his career. By 1949, Canty was ready to retire, and Al Earlbeck and another employee, Bill Landrum, negotiated a buyout. The company name was changed to Earlbeck & Landrum, a partnership that lasted for five years. In 1954, Earlbeck purchased Landrum’s shares and renamed the company Earlbeck Welding Supplies. It has been a family-owned business ever since.

For the next 20 years, Al Earlbeck grew the welding hardgoods company, fostering a philosophy of knowledge-based, solutions-oriented selling built on a foundation of loyal customer relationships. He shied away from the gases side of the industry because he was reluctant to take on the logistical challenges of moving cylinders. Entering the 1970s, Al Earl-beck began flirting with retirement, becoming less and less involved in day-to-day operations, and began taking steps to pass leadership on to the next generation.

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Earlbeck Gases & Technologies delivers service. “Our staff's knowledge of the industry is our company's strongest product line, and we ship that every day,” says President Jim Earlbeck.

In 1972, when Jim Earlbeck was in his second year of college studying engineering at the University of Maryland, his father asked him if he would put college on hold and come back and help run the company. The understanding was that Jim, Al and other family members would be working together. “Three years later, I’m looking over my shoulder and realizing I’m putting in 60 hours a week, and everyone else is off doing their own thing,” Jim Earlbeck recalls. So he packed his bags and returned to college, determined to finish his degree and find a job in the steel industry. Realizing that the business might not survive without Jim, Al Earlbeck struck a deal with his son to rejoin the company after earning his engineering degree. Jim Earlbeck accepted, and in 1977, at the age of 25, he came back to the company as vice president. Four years later, he was named president.

“I began making changes and, unfortunately, lost some key players as a result,” Jim Earlbeck says. “At that age, you think you know what you’re doing, but I really had no idea. It was very much on-the-job training for me.”

A Fresh Start
First on Jim Earlbeck’s agenda was to assess the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Among those strengths, and also his personal passion, was the engineering side of the business, such as welder certification, writing welding procedures and making sure those procedures followed established welding codes. Then there was the gas business. From the start, Earlbeck felt that supplying gases was crucial to being a well-rounded distributor. “It used to be that we’d go into a customer’s shop and sell a new MIG process, which would create the need for shielding gases,” Earlbeck says. “We didn’t distribute shielding gases, so we would give the customer the name of our friendliest competitor to supply the gas. We might then get a second MIG machine in there, maybe a third, but eventually we’d go back and there would be another brand of machine we didn’t sell. When we’d ask the customer what happened, the answer was typically, ‘Well, my gas supplier’s truck was coming anyway; I just had him throw a machine on the back.’ It was a trend we had to put an end to—and I am very grateful I had the foresight to do it.”

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Earlbeck Gases & Technologies, based in Baltimore, Maryland, has provided the best in products and services to its customers for 90 years.

Today, gases compose 30 percent of Earlbeck business, and the percentage continues to grow. Hardgoods remain the company’s largest source of sales—roughly 60 percent of the business—but Earlbeck sees increased business in gases as key to the company’s future success. “We have a strong sales force grounded in arcs and sparks, but gas sales require a different skill set,” he says. “Our strategic plan is to continue gaining sales by leveraging our technical expertise. As we look at other markets—non-traditional, non-arcs and sparks markets—we need to gather the technical expertise first, and take that to the marketplace to gather the sales.”

The business name was changed to Earlbeck Gases & Technologies in 2002 to reflect the company’s increasing emphasis on gas distribution and engineering expertise. Earlbeck is a two-branch operation: There is a 20,000 sq. ft. main facility in Baltimore, Maryland, and a 5,000 sq. ft. facility in Beltsville, Maryland, that primarily serves Washington, D.C., clientele.

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The Earlbeck management team (l-r): Jim Earlbeck, president; Debbie Chaney, director, customer service; Jerry Cramblett, director, engineering services; Trudy Hammett, vice president; Joe Vincent, sales manager

The majority of Earlbeck customers are small to mid-size parts fabricators and manufacturers. The manufacturers offer product lines ranging from heat exchangers, boiler components and commercial cooking equipment to mass spectrometers and high-end satellite hardware. Being so close to the nation’s capital, Earlbeck does a lot of business with the federal government as well as the government of the District of Columbia. “We pursue government business as much as possible,” he says. “I think government business is grossly misunderstood by most people. They see it as just a bid process. But the reality is that government workers are just like the rest of our customers. They’re looking for someone to help them do their jobs better and easier.”

A product that Earlbeck has been particularly successful in selling to government customers is cutting tables. “I think if you talked with most distributors, they’d say they aren’t particularly enchanted with cutting tables,” Earlbeck says. “This is a large piece of equipment with a high dollar value and long sales cycle, and after you’ve sold one, the customer won’t buy another one from you for 10 years at best. It’s an unusual sale, and we love selling them. And we have guys on staff who can install them, fix them, do the programming, the whole bit. So our customers know that we are there to support the product every step of the way.”

Earlbeck also deals with larger corporations, but says that these businesses can sometimes be difficult to deal with because their purchasing departments focus more on the price of a product than on how efficiently the company uses it. “From my standpoint, they just don’t get the big picture,” he says.

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Earlbeck Gases & Technologies earns 10 percent of its revenues in part from certifications, which welders receive through testing at the company's built-in welding training center.

Testing and Training
The remaining ten percent of Earlbeck’s business is made up of the burgeoning areas of welder training, welder testing/certification, engineering consultation and equipment repair. Welder training provides a two-pronged benefit for Earlbeck—as a standalone profit center and as part of its marketing strategy. Put simply, the Earlbeck welder training program takes someone who doesn’t know how to weld and teaches them the craft, or takes someone who already knows how to weld and elevates their skill set. “Dollar-wise, it’s a small part of our overall business, but it’s still a good, profitable area,” Earlbeck says. “Plus, we use it for mining purposes to find new customers. For example, we had a new customer in here that came to us because they needed an accredited test facility and found us on the Internet. They appreciated the way we helped them, and they went back to their purchasing department and said: ‘We’ve got to drop our current supplier. We need to hang with these guys. They’re a good group.’ So, we picked up a new customer.

“Other times it’s just a matter of new people coming in for testing or training,” Earlbeck says. “We pass the new person’s information to sales, and sales will make contact with him and follow him back to the company. We truly believe that if you do a good job training a guy, that creates a positive first impression with that company.”

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Learn more about Earlbeck Gases & Technologies by viewing the MultiMedia Member Profile, available here.

This spring, Earlbeck Gases & Technologies became an American Welding Society (AWS) accredited test facility (ATF)—one of only 80 in the nation. An AWS-ATF administers practical exams based on the code a welder is expected to conform to for a particular project. Earlbeck Gases & Technologies has the authority as an AWS-ATF to then add that welder’s certification to a national registry so the industry won’t have to retest the welder for the same code on another project. From a modest, two-booth test site, Earlbeck has grown the program to include a 4,500 sq. ft. dedicated test facility with 12 test booths at its Baltimore facility and an additional 8 booths in a mobile test facility contained in a 40-foot trailer. To date, the company has tested more than 18,000 welders and averages about 900 tests a year.

In addition to welder testing and training, Earlbeck services include engineering consultation and failure analysis. When welds break, customers bring Earlbeck the pieces, and in-house experts determine what went wrong. Consultation further extends into quality control services. “We do business with companies like Harley Davidson,” Earlbeck explains. “Before a new bike goes into production, it hits our facility. We cut it up, examine it and deliver a laboratory test report to the Harley Davidson engineers on the quality of the welds. They use this information to make enhancements to weld quality, then put the bike into production.”

Earlbeck also maintains a thriving repair center. “We are a bit old school in the fact that we make sure we can repair anything that we sell,” Jim Earlbeck says. “By offering this service, we increase the time spent with the customer and avoid inviting in our competitors. All of this, in turn, yields more sales.” The company operates the repair center as a profit center, at a time when many distributors have abandoned this activity because it became a cost center for them. “One of the reasons is that salespeople try not to charge for a service tech’s time in order to enhance their value with that customer,” says Earlbeck. “Our accountants have determined that it is pretty hard to make a profit if you are giving everything away. So we try to avoid that practice whenever possible.”

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Earlbeck's newly redesigned showroom provides an upscale feel that differentiates the business from its many competitors.

Customer Care
Key to Earlbeck Gases & Technologies’ vigorous success—sales in 2008 topped $9.5 million—is in no small part due to the skilled team Jim Earlbeck has built over the years: The company has two degreed welding engineers on staff, four AWS-certified welding inspectors, four certified welding educators, one certified associate welding inspector, and all Earlbeck customer service reps, counter salespeople and drivers attend in-house welding classes. “What I used to look for when hiring was technical expertise,” Earlbeck explains. “Eventually, I realized that you can train technical expertise, but you can’t train attitude. We look for that attitude, for people who want to learn, who want to take care of the customer.”

The focus on customer care is reflected in the company’s mission, based on Al Earlbeck’s creed: “I believe that a distributor should know more about his products than his customers do, and has a responsibility to recommend what is honestly best for his customers to use.”

“We strongly believe that here,” Jim Earlbeck says. “At the end of the day, we want our customers to say with confidence: ‘We believe you actually know what you’re selling and that you will recommend what is best for us to use. We will not tell you what we want to buy. We will tell you what we need to have done, and trust you to show us the best way to do it.’”

Clearly, this is precisely what any smart Earlbeck Gases & Technologies customer would say. And they would be 100 percent on the money.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association