James C. Dawes Company

‘We’re here. We’re local. We’re ready.’

James C. Dawes Company makes the most of the shale boom.

James C. Dawes founded his company in 1941during the height of World War II. His son, James W. Dawes, was serving in the Army Air Forces as a flight engineer on a B-36 bomber. At war’s end, James W. began working for his dad’s company, until he was recalled in 1951 for the Korean conflict. In 1953, James W. returned stateside, bringing his engineering, management and organizational skills to the family business.

When it was time for James W. to take over the reins of the business, it was a thriving small company in Martins Ferry, Ohio, serving the region’s steel and coal industries. His wife June Anne joined him and worked as the company’s bookkeeper.

Brian Dawes

Watching the shale infrastructure being built from the ground up, Brian Dawes, president of James C. Dawes Company, is making sure he has the required skills and products on hand.

Like so many children growing up in a family business, Brian Dawes and his two older brothers worked around the shop. One went on to become a full-time welder in the steel industry; the other a welding engineer who built nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy and is now in charge of the welding program at B&W. While attending college, Brian worked part-time at the company.

After earning a degree in business management, Dawes attended the welding school at Hobart Brothers, learning all he could about welding techniques, procedures, troubleshooting and repair. After a year and a half, he returned to Martins Ferry. Six months later, his father passed away.

Brian Dawes likens those days to a ship with a hole in its hull. “We took turns keeping our finger in the hole until we could turn the situation around.” Some employees left because they were not confident that Brian and his mother could keep the company running. At the time, annual gross sales were in the range of 300-400 thousand dollars. “It was one of those do-or-die situations,” he says. “We were like a bird falling out of the nest. You either fly or hit the ground.”

Luckily, James Dawes made sure his son was trained in all facets of the company. “Dad always said I needed to know how to do everything so I would fully understand different situations and no one would take advantage of my inexperience.” Plus, Dawes was young and had a lot of energy.

James Dawes’ industry friends, many of whom were the original members of the National Welding Supply Association (now GAWDA), stepped in to help their friend’s son. “I went to the NWSA meetings and Distributor Groups and sat with them. If I had a problem, I picked up the phone and talked to them.” These men took him under their wing and became his mentors.

Today the company is thriving and growing despite—some may say because of—the shutdown of steel mills and declining coal markets, thanks in no small part to Brian Dawes’ energy and vision, and eleven very focused employees. In 2013, annual sales exceeded $2 million. This in a market where two of the three independent gases and welding supply distributors have all but disappeared. The loss of these two long-time competitors has changed the face of the industry in the region…and James C. Dawes Company.

Locally Owned. Family Owned

When the economy tanked in 2008, several area businesses shut down, merged or were acquired by national corporations. James C. Dawes Company sales slowed down, not only because of the economy, but because end-users wanted a cheaper alternative. It wasn’t long after, though, that Dawes saw an uptick as former customers, lured away by lower prices, realized that the cost of a product is measured in more than dollars and cents. “The welding supply industry has always been service-based,” Dawes says. “When people come in, they usually have something broken. This is just one of the areas where the company excels.

James C. Dawes Company is now the only locally owned, independent distributor in the Ohio Valley. And they are famous for saying it…to prospective and current customers. Every piece of advertising, every brochure, flyer and piece of stationery contains the words: Locally Owned, Family Owned for over 70 years.

This processing facility for the Mark West Company, which sits on 80 acres of land, is one of several being built to handle the gases coming out of the Marcellus shale.

The Wild “West”

Brian Dawes saw the writing on the wall as the coal industry slowed down and the steel factories shut down. “I knew we had to get our eggs out of one basket.” The company began to sell medical gases, which make up about 20% of total sales. Propane for industrial commercial use was added. Then, a few years ago, Dawes was at a Chamber of Commerce meeting where he heard talk about oil and gas companies trying to buy property leases in town. In Pennsylvania, 30 miles away, there was a lot of activity. Dawes learned about a gases supply store going up right outside of Pittsburgh to do nothing but service the gas and oil industry.

Dawes says it was hard to believe that the supplier would build a store for just one type of customer, so he and his salesman went to visit the store, looked at the inventory, and talked to the locals. As they drove around the area, they saw working drill rigs. Dawes started to spend a lot of time learning about the Marcellus shale and researching the infrastructure that had to be built as well as the companies building it. Then the shale boom moved westward. Soon trucks with license plates from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana were driving around town. Property leases were being signed. Billions of dollars were projected to be spent on infrastructure and equipment. Dawes explains, “They come in with nothing but a suitcase and buy everything brand new. As the shale market takes root in the region, multi-billion-dollar processing plants are being built, translating into my language—a lot of welding supplies.”

Three different products come out of the shale: 1) dry gas, which goes directly into a pipe; 2) oil, which some describe as good as or better than the oil in Saudi Arabia; and 3) wet gas, which is sent to a processing plant, chilled and then compressed. Dawes sells refrigerant-grade propane used to separate the wet gas into natural gas, methane, propane, butane and ethane.

A compressor will separate wet gas into natural gas, methane, propane, butane and ethane.

Service and More

Service is prime for a small business. For vendors to the shale industry, it is the key to success. Fifty-plus-page service documents are submitted; agreements are signed; vendor employees must attend training programs. That’s just the start. Being a vendor to the shale industry is not a simple thing. Dawes has Master Service Agreements established, and he and his employees attend training programs in order to provide service at plants, drill sites and wells. Safety and hazardous training is ongoing. The more involved Dawes gets in the actual plants, the more training required.

In addition to ongoing training for Dawes’ employees, some other expectations had to be met. Service techs and salespeople had to learn a different style of welding. Explains Dawes, “We’re used to welding in the 6 o’clock position moving to the 12 o’clock position. These guys start at 12 and weld down to 6.” Nothing dramatic, but different.

Dawes points out that the gas and oil industry is more worried about getting the product than the cost of that product. “They want us to deliver 24/7. That’s the deal. Because they work those hours, we do too.”

Looking Forward

In addition to the gases and the welding equipment being sold, Dawes has diversified product offerings even more, and now sells pipeline markers and fire-retardant safety equipment. Inventory is up by 40 percent. An additional 5,000 square feet of warehouse space will be ready by spring. Additional delivery trucks are being purchased, and a new branch store is being considered. Dawes knows that once the infrastructure is complete, the heavy welding will be finished. With his service agreements in place, he is ready for that transition.

As the company approaches its 75th anniversary, the team at James C. Dawes Company is ready to handle any challenge that comes its way. In fact, Dawes calls it a stroke of luck that his competitors were acquired. With a strong new market in place, he has no doubt his team can handle anything. “It’s wild. It’s fun. It’s new and exciting!”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association