Craig Welding Supply Company

All Member Profile photos courtesy of Matthew Craig

No frills, no tricks, just business done the right way

While the company officially opened its doors in the 1930s, the seeds for Craig Welding Supply Company (CWSC) were planted a decade earlier in the citrus groves of California’s Central Valley and Inland Empire. The valley, situated from Northern Los Angeles to just south of San Francisco, and the Inland Empire, stretching from Southern LA to San Diego, was 100 percent farmland at the time. Grove after grove of orange, avocado, lemon and lime trees dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. It was on the winding roads between the groves where former farmer Robert Craig began distributing his first products.

In California, citrus growing season comes during the winter. Normally, Southern California weather is warm enough to prevent frost, but not always. In the 1920s, farmers had a basic but effective way to keep their crops warm. On cold nights they would light smudge pots and burn tires, wood and other trash to create a thick layer of smoke. When the smoke hit the cold air above the valley it would create an inversion layer, raising the air temperature by a few degrees and keeping frost from creeping in. Unfortunately, this method was not without its drawbacks. Eventually all of the soot that was in the air had to come down, leaving the fruit covered in residue. As one might expect, there wasn’t much of a market for black oranges.

Craig Welding Supply Truck

In business for over 80 years, Craig Welding Supply Company focuses on first-class customer service.

That’s where Robert Craig came in. He recognized the problem and started offering a solution. He loaded up his Ford Model T pickup truck with a powdered cleaning solution from Oakhite and began selling the product to local farmers. It was a big hit, scrubbing off the soot without damaging the fruit. As he began to build relationships with his customer base, they started to ask for more products. “They would say, ‘I need this or that,’” says CWSC President Steven Craig, Robert’s grandson. “And next time he came through, he would bring it.” Being that Robert’s customers were farmers, many of them used welding equipment, and it wasn’t long before they started asking him for machines and related equipment. From his years in agriculture, Robert was familiar with the equipment and decided to seize the opportunity. In the late 1920s, the company began distributing welding equipment.

Setting Up Shop
Robert Craig was seeing great success with his transition to selling welding supplies and it inspired him to make a move. A few years after he started a business out of the back of his truck, Robert decided that it was time to park the Model T and open up a storefront. He rented an old Airco building in Vernon, California, and opened up in 1930. It was also around this time that Craig Welding Supply Company became the organization’s official moniker. Once he got settled in the new shop, Robert turned his focus to expanding what the company could do. He formed a relationship with Airco and began distributing compressed gases. A natural handyman, Robert also repaired welding equipment. The company would change its location twice over the next 15 years before settling into its current facility in the mid-1940s.

Not long after the new shop opened its doors, the second generation of Craigs entered the business. Having just finished serving with the Army Air Corps during World War II, Robert Craig Jr. joined the company full-time. Over the next 50 years, Robert Jr. was a fixture at the company, building customer relationships that spanned decades. When Robert Jr. finally called it a career in the late 1990s, he handed the company over to his sons, Steven and David, who currently serve as the company’s president and vice president respectively.

Craig Welding Supply Company

Craig Welding Supply Company is located in Vernon, California, an industrial city located south of Los Angeles.

Eighty years of consistency at the top of the ladder have helped the family operation remain in business while many other companies fell by the wayside. “When I first got into this business, all of our competitors were independents,” says Steven Craig. “And we were all friends. There wasn’t a local warehouse, so we would horse trade equipment with one another and it was never a problem. Now most of our friendly competitors have sold out or moved on. Things have changed.”

The Reason Behind the Reputation
So why was CWSC able to make it through while so many of the locals either shut their doors or got gobbled up by the majors? Well, it certainly isn’t from a lack of competition. CWSC is located in the Incorporated City of Vernon, just minutes south of Los Angeles. Fifty thousand people work in the city, but no one lives there. It’s all industry. Craig estimates that almost 20 competitors are located within a 10-mile radius of headquarters. So what is the key to sticking out? Perhaps the best way to begin is by saying what the key isn’t. It’s not a slick web marketing campaign, it’s not offering the lowest possible price, it’s not using smoke, and it doesn’t involve mirrors. “We try not to complicate things,” says Craig.

One of the reasons that CWSC has separated itself is its short chain of command. “Lots of bigger companies have a different committee for everything,” Craig explains. “Here, we have one committee: my brother David and me.” Many of the company’s most important decisions have been made around the sales counter or at the lunch table. This gives the company incredible flexibility when it comes to purchasing decisions and other critical issues. It’s not just the company’s internal processes that benefit from CWSC’s short chain of command. Customers benefit too. “I think customers like doing business with the owners,” says Craig. “They know who we are and they know that if they ever have an issue, they can bring it directly to us.”

“Bigger companies often have a different committee for everything. Here, we have one committee: my brother David and me.”

No Substitute for Experience
Another area where CWSC separates itself is service. Sure, every independent distributor claims to have outstanding service, but thanks to its employees, CWSC is uniquely positioned to follow through on the boast. Its nine-person staff features the Craig brothers, two route drivers, a cylinder filler/dock worker, two administrative and two outside salespeople. The newest hire among the nine is an outside sales rep who has logged a mere 12 years of service with the company. It’s this kind of consistency that has helped the company maintain some of its customers for more than a half-century. “We still have customers that we’ve serviced since the 1940s,” says Craig. “I hang on to all of our old resale cards and in the back of the file there are some old yellowed ones with one-cent stamps still attached. That says a lot about what we do here.”

Graig Welding Supply Nitrogen

Gases constitute 60 percent of the company

When it comes to outside sales, Craig has a simple philosophy, “I want my salespeople to make sales calls,” he says, “not just stop in for a visit.” Too many salespeople, according to Craig, just stick their head in the door and say “I was in the neighborhood.” “When that happens to me, it’s like, why did you even bother? When we make sales calls, we try to have something specific in our hands to discuss with the customer.” It all goes back to the service mantra. Of the 20 competitors that surround CWSC, there are shops with lower prices, but none can compete with the small independent shop when it comes to customer satisfaction. Whether it’s offering the right solution, filling the order correctly the first time or having the right product in stock when it’s needed, Craig knows that the company absolutely has to be the best. “If a customer leaves us, it’s almost always strictly a price decision,” he says. “And if that’s the case, we’re willing to let them go. And amazingly, a large percentage of them end up coming back. In this business, you get what you pay for, and they find that out the hard way.”

Exceeding customer expectations every single time isn’t easy, and without quality dealer-vendor relationships, it’s nearly impossible. Fortunately, CWSC has a strong stable of suppliers that it has represented for a very long time. The company’s relationship with welding equipment manufacturer Smith Equipment is a fantastic example. Elmer Smith, the manufacturer’s founder, and Robert Sr. were friends back when both were getting started in the industry. They would often repair or build equipment together. Eventually Smith started his manufacturing company and Robert Sr. started CWSC, and the two companies have maintained a relationship ever since. CWSC also has a 70-plus-year relationship with Linde (formerly Airco), to go along with equally strong relationships with Lincoln Electric, Thermal Dynamics and ORS-Nasco. CWSC even took a crack at manufacturing its own product in the 1950s. “Robert Sr. invented the hand-held welding hose ferrule crimping tool,” says Steven Craig. “For years, my brother and I would pack old welding helmet boxes with completed crimping tools for shipment to wholesalers and Western Enterprises.” The product is still available for purchase from Western under part number C-1, a tribute to CWSC.

“I want my salespeople
to make sales calls, not just stop in for a visit.” Too many salespeople just stick their head in the door and say “I was in the neighborhood.” When that happens to me, it’s like, why did you even bother?”

About 60 percent of CWSC’s sales come from the gases side of the business, with hardgoods accounting for the other 40. The food industry is a major player in Vernon, and is CWSC’s largest market. Whether it is prepackaged foods, frozen foods, meat or dairy, they all depend on the company’s products. Those factories in Vernon that aren’t involved with the food industry are typically dedicated to general manufacturing. These companies aren’t necessarily buying new equipment, but they are very interested in maintaining what they have. That means lots of maintenance on machinery, which requires welding equipment. These companies make up the bulk of
CWSC’s non-food-related business.

Steven (left) and David Craig

Third-generation owners Steven (left) and David Craig make sure that customer service and getting the goods to the customer on time are their number one priority.

Simple Philosophy
When asked about the incredible longevity that his company has been able to achieve, Craig downplays the accomplishment. “Sure, we’ve been around a long time, but to us it’s not a big deal,” he says. “My brother, my father and I always got along, we make a decent living, and we’ve just kept at it.” It’s not a surprising sentiment for anyone who has taken the time to talk to Craig. He keeps an even keel and a modest attitude about the company and about himself. It’s an attitude that is reflected in the way CWSC does business. When the company hit its 80th anniversary in 2010, there was no big celebration. They just went to work and continued doing what they’ve always done.

It’s not by accident that CWSC still stands while so many others around it have fallen. The company’s remarkable consistency and understated confidence have sustained it through many years. While nobody can truly predict the future, what lies ahead for CWSC seems easy to predict. As it navigates through its eighth decade in business, the company will continue to separate itself with first-class service and an unwavering commitment to doing business the right way.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association