Hypertherm’s Dick Couch On Growth And Change

Convention Speaker

Richard W. Couch, Jr.
Richard W. Couch, Jr.

While a student at Dartmouth College, Dick Couch was fascinated with cutting metal. He even worked on a high temperature plasma device being developed for NASA. After earning a degree in engineering, he worked for a small consulting firm where he became involved in a project to develop a plasma device for a client trying to put surface coatings on paper-making equipment. Wanting to know more about plasma cutting applications, he and his former Dartmouth professor, Robert Dean, visited companies to study their cutting processes to figure out a way to make them better. (One of those companies was Air Products; another was Airco.) Several offered to support their research, but the two men decided to use their own capital and opened Hypertherm in 1968 with the sole intent to improve cutting processes.

At GAWDA’s Annual Convention in Colorado Springs on Monday, September 10, Dick Couch, will talk about his management philosophy at Hypertherm, which was honored by Fortune magazine as a “Great Place to Work.” The company has been named the “Best Company to Work for in New Hampshire.” Dick Couch is now the majority owner of Hypertherm and serves as its chief executive officer and chairman of the board. He spoke with Welding & Gases Today to give a preview of his presentation.

WGT: You opened your company in 1968 in a two-car garage in Hanover, New Hampshire. What were those early days like?
Dick Couch:
I was fascinated with plasma cutting and knew the process, which already had been around for 14 years, could be improved. In 1968, Bob Dean and I discovered that by radially injecting water into a plasma cutting nozzle, we could create a narrower arc, capable of cutting metal with a speed and accuracy never before seen. We also were able to eliminate two issues that had plagued the industry from the start—the accumulation of dross and a phenomenon called double-arcing. And instead of relying on several different types of gas for cutting, we used only one: nitrogen. This would make it more economical and easier for the user.

Those years had to be an exciting time for you, and you still sound passionate as you talk about the industry now. Where did that passion come from?
It is very exciting for an engineer to be able to develop solutions. I’ve always been a technology-oriented guy, and the technology involved in plasma and laser cutting, in computer controls, continues to evolve. Part of the fun of working in this industry is the challenge of keeping up with evolving technology.

How many patents do you hold?
The company has approximately 100, and more than 50 of those are mine. Early on, we determined that patents were very important to the company, to protect our intellectual property, so we worked hard to get them.

Hypertherm consistently ranks on the lists of the Best Places to Work. How did you get to this achievement?
We have over 1,250 employees worldwide, 900 in New Hampshire. Once Hypertherm got beyond the “survival” stage, we wanted to build a company that had certain values, and we worked hard at building those values into the company. We wanted to know how we measured up against other companies, so we applied to several competitions, first in New Hampshire, then nationally. Our objective was to see how we would do and what areas needed improvement. Then we set about improving those areas.

You work in several industries. What’s your favorite?
I have two: shipbuilding and earthmoving. I love visiting shipyards, doesn’t matter what size. And from the time I was an infant, I played with tractors and bulldozers, and I continue to be fascinated with earthmoving equipment. My wife and I visited an earthmoving company in China this past winter, and as we walked through the plant, a machine 20 feet tall with tires 15 feet in diameter came by, driven by one small guy way up at the top. I saw it and thought: That has to be fun! Parts of those machines are made of plate steel and are cut with plasma cutting equipment. That steel is then fabricated through welding processes into earthmoving equipment, as well as huge ships and small ships. There is a lot to like.

From your perspective as a manufacturer, what would you say is the biggest challenge facing our industry right now?
I would not call it a challenge as much as a change that has been taking place over the last 20 years. Distributor ownership is moving to a small group of large companies. At the same time, though, I’m noticing that there are new distributorships starting up. It will be an interesting trend to watch, particularly in a market where the large distributors are focused. Is there still room in that marketplace for a small, entrepreneurial startup?

Has this M&A activity impacted you as a vendor?
It feels different dealing with four or five major companies as opposed to 150 small local companies. Personally it’s different too. Friends have moved on, and relationships have become more corporate, rather than personal. Hypertherm, interestingly, was not in the distribution business in our early years. We did not enter the distribution channel directly with the Hypertherm name until about 1985 when we developed our manual, handheld operating line of plasma cutting equipment and needed a distribution channel to sell it.

Your wife has worked with you at Hypertherm since 1987. What’s that like?
It’s great, but it also has challenges, like many family business owners in the gases and welding industry can relate to. Sometimes we force ourselves to stop talking about work. Prior to working at Hypertherm, Barbara was a school psychologist. She’s brought the humanity to the business; I’m a more technical, show-me-the-data type, and she’s more intuitive. She’s been at Hypertherm for the past 25 years, and if she wasn’t, the company would be a shadow of itself.

What’s on the horizon at Hypertherm?
We see a lot of space to grow in cutting equipment. Hypertherm’s business is 95 percent plasma and 5 percent laser. I’d like to continue to invest and grow the laser cutting part of the business. We’re expanding our line of products and doing numerical control equipment and software for computer aided manufacturing. We’ll also be doing more with water jet cutting, as well as oxyfuel equipment.

Are you still having fun?
Absolutely! No one would have predicted that 44 years later we are still making things better, continuing to develop the technology. It’s surprising how much you can improve something.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association