Jackson Welding Supply Company

Editor’s note: As of November 2011, Jackson Welding Supply officially changed its name to Jackson Welding and Gas Products.

Western New York distributor finds growth in niche markets.

Jackson Welding Supply Company opened its doors in 1947 as a distributor of welding equipment and compressed gases. Robert G. Jackson and his wife worked hard in those early years to build the company into a thriving business in Rochester, New York. Their son, Robert H. Jackson became president when his father died in 1974 and, together with his wife Carol, continued to build on the five-star legacy established by the founder: developing customer-focused solutions based on integrity and respect; discipline; continuous improvement for sustainability; employee safety and well-being; and a commitment to community and social responsibility. When Robert H. died in 2000, his son, Robert A. Jackson, took over the reins of the company.

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(l-r) Jim Schultz, Chief Operating Officer, Lisa Jackson, Chief Financial Officer, Robert Jackson, CEO/President, Carol Jackson, Chairman of the Board and Rich Furstoss, Vice President of Business Development

Today, Jackson Welding Supply Company distributes industrial, medical and specialty gases, as well as gas equipment and welding supplies. Its primary markets include biomedical technology, photonics, optics, food processing, metal fabrication, manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare and education.

Jack Butler, president of Butler Gas Products in McKees Rock, Pennsylvania, sat down with Robert A. Jackson to talk about their family businesses and the importance of not standing still.

Building on a Strong Foundation
Jack: Jackson Welding Supply Co. is a family business, now in its third generation. What are some of the things you learned from your grandparents?
Robert: Unfortunately, I never had the chance to work with my grandfather. After his death in 1974, my father worked alongside my grandmother to keep the company going. She died in 2007, and continues to be a strong part of my belief system. I’ve learned a lot from her.
Jack: I remember stories your dad used to tell about his mother, your grandmother. She was involved in almost every part of the business.
Robert: Yes, she kept her hand in everything. She wanted to feel the pulse of things and get to know as much as she could. She understood what made the business tick. A child of the depression, she was ultraconservative when it came to spending money. Luckily, that trait was passed down to me!
Jack: What did you learn from your dad?
Robert: He modeled that strong work ethic of his parents. He taught me that at the end of the day, I’m not entitled to anything. I have to work for what I want and it won’t be handed to me.
Jack: That sounds like a Bob Jackson tough love thing.
Robert: It’s exactly that. It was tough love and it was a hard pill to swallow growing up to say, “Wait a minute, I actually have to work!”
Jack: And like most of us who are sons and daughters of the owner, we worked on weekends, during the summers, and whenever a cylinder needed painting or a floor needed sweeping.
Robert: You’re right. I did a lot of that growing up. I started working full time for the company in 1997 when I was 25 years old.
Jack: Your father was one of the greatest mentors in our industry. He was one of my mentors. In fact, he did the presentation speech introducing me as the president of GAWDA in 1993. I bet there were 20 guys like me. Your father just took us under his wings and showed us the ropes.
Robert: I worked with him full time for three-and-a-half years, and while I knew him as a father, I really got to know him during those years as a professional. It would have been great to have had more time working alongside of him.
Jack: Bob was the youngest president of our association, at the time called NWSA, and he started the Young Executives group in the late 1980s. His style was entrepreneurial and straightforward. He promoted a lot of young guys like me to be committee chairs in our 30s, and he trusted us to do the job and improve our association. He worked very hard to promote the younger generation. He made it fun and exciting to be a volunteer for NWSA. A lot of young people thought of him as cool and dynamic, and he got us hooked on NWSA.
Robert: He served as president of NWSA in 1985-86. My grandfather also served as president in 1962-63. There is a lot of history of hard work and giving back to the industry.
Jack: You work with your mother, your wife and your sister. Does having all these wonderful family fe-
males around you impact your manage-
ment style?
Robert: The only one who reports directly to me, which is interesting within itself, is my wife Lisa, the company’s CFO. My mother is the main shareholder but has recently decided to step back from the management of the company. My sister, Kara Michalski, is responsible for receivables. Both my mother and sister report to my wife. So there is a little buffer, which makes my life much nicer.
Jack: Makes their life much nicer too! That could be a hard dynamic.
Robert: We’ve spent a lot of time learning how to work together. We now have regularly scheduled family meetings to go over any business issues and concerns.
Jack: As a third-generation president, what would you do differently when it comes to developing your successor? You were like me, kind of thrown into it, sink or swim, when our fathers passed away.
Robert: I think a stable environment is critical, especially during a transition. We are developing a strategic plan that, should anything happen to me, there is a path already charted to follow.

Business Smarts

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Jack Butler, President Butler Gas Products Co.

Jack: What are some of the challenges your company has faced over the last three years?
Robert: Three years ago, rising steel prices were a huge challenge. The economy was hot, so we invested in a microbulk delivery truck and added specialty and testing equipment. We’ve been working very hard to add new markets, become more efficient and move forward with our internal processes by upgrading our computer system. We even enhanced our billing processes to help eliminate waste. What have been the challenges for Butler Gas Products?
Jack: Changing our business model from a welding supply business to a packaged gas company. We also changed our business culture to embrace continuous improvement so we could eliminate waste and non-value-added activities. Because of those two changes, the recent recession has been manageable.
Robert: Our focus on gas really saved us. We also added some pretty significant business outside of welding equipment, in the areas of medical and pharmaceutical, food processing and medical devices. We are focusing in on gaining expertise in everything from product knowledge to identifying additional opportunities within our customer base. Part of our sales training is teaching how to find those opportunities.

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Specialty Gas Packager Matt Tole monitors filling process.

Jack: Who does your training?
Robert: Mostly, it’s done by our suppliers and vendors. What kind of training do your employees participate in?
Jack: Butler Gas University is a quarterly business training program for all Butler associates. We participate in GAWDA’s SMCs, conventions and seminars, and we use our local Buying Information Group to teach and coach our associates.
Robert: I wanted to learn more about how to develop and promote the business, to give it some structure and legs, so three years ago, I became a member of a Vestige group, which is a CEO roundtable. I’ve learned a lot from this group, including ways to run the business better and develop my own professional growth. I occasionally get referrals for new hires.
Jack: Where else do you find people to hire?
Robert: Many are referred by our employees. We recently became more assertive and are proactively identifying and targeting individuals as future hires. To recruit truck drivers, there is a big sign outside the building that reads: “Accepting Applications.”

Commitment to Growth

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Industrial Gas Packager Paul Buckley inspects cylinders.

Jack: On the homepage of your website, there is a link to Facebook. How are you using Social Media?
Robert: I post on Facebook every couple of weeks. I write about company news, products and other topics. I also use LinkedIn to network with other business people and colleagues in the industry.
Jack: What’s the payback?
Robert: It keeps our company’s name out there. More and more people are using social media for information, including customers and potential customers.
Jack: I’ve been in your showroom a couple of times; it’s a first class operation. Who manages the showroom marketing?
Robert: Each store has a manager who is responsible for the showroom. And there is one person who oversees all locations.
Jack: Tell me about your locations.

Bob Bauman (right) and Paul Buckley prepare high-pressure argon tanks for filling.

Robert: We have four. Our headquarters is in Rochester, New York. The first branch location opened in 1982 in Batavia, New York. In 1998, we opened a store in Newark, New York, and in 2000, we opened in Avon, New York.
Jack: Do you have plans for more expansion?
Robert: We would like to grow the company both organically and geographically. We’re working on a three-year strategic plan that will guide our growth and keep us focused on opportunities that make sense.
Jack: Where is that?
Robert: One of our values is a commitment to continuous improvement. We’re never perfect, so if we’re 90 percent today, then we’re going to try to be 91 percent tomorrow. I won’t listen to “We’ve always done it this way.” If we can improve things, we will do it. We will enhance our ability to service the customer and reduce expenses, because if we don’t, we will not be in business. There is no standing in the pasture thinking that we’re going to be here tomorrow. We have to work at it continually and always get better at what we do. There is no standing still in this business.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association