Central Welding Supply

How a small company became a large company that acts like a small company.

In the early 1970s, Mickey Wilton was a Vietnam Vet returning home to his job at Adams Welding Supply, a family-owned business in Everett, Washington. It was a place where every customer felt cared for and employees were treated like family. Soon after Wilton’s return, the store was sold to a larger, Seattle-based company.

Difficulties with the new management and loss of the tight-knit family feel of the new company drove Wilton and another employee to strike out on their own. They modeled their new business on the philosophies and practices and mentoring they received from the original owner at Adams Welding Supply.

With an initial investment of $10,000, the men rented a small building located in Lynnwood, Washington. With most industrial suppliers based either in the industrial core of Seattle or the mill town of Everett, there were few services or suppliers in-between. But Wilton believed that the growing area between the Boeing manufacturing plant in Everett and the marine trade of Seattle had potential and could support their store.  Being centrally located between the cities of Seattle and Everett made choosing a name for their business easy. With little more than a sales counter, a small office, and a 10 ft. by 10 ft. cylinder exchange dock, Central Welding Supply opened its doors in 1975.

Central Welding Supply Founder Mickey Wilton (left) and son Dale Wilton have grown their company to 20 locations in the State of Washington.

Central Welding Supply Founder Mickey Wilton (left) and son Dale Wilton have grown their company to 20 locations in the State of Washington.

The goal of providing better customer service and a more convenient location proved a winning formula. Despite no direct manufacturer product lines and competitors eager to add them to the list of failed ventures, Central Welding Supply tallied first-month sales over $20,000. Soon the company needed more space and moved to a larger building; within five years, a second store was opened—across town from the old Adams Welding Supply in Everett! In 1983, the company made its first acquisition—Skagit Valley Welding Supply located in downtown Burlington, Washington.

The mid to late ’80s were spent growing and developing business between north Seattle and the Skagit Valley. Newly developed computer technology was used to better manage the three stores as one company. It was also during this time that major corporations were beginning to acquire and consolidate regional suppliers, including the area’s Welders Supply Company, Northwest Welding Supply, Industrial Welding Supply and others.

Central Welding Supply provides industrial, beverage, medical and specialty gases, including a wide variety of custom gas and liquid mixtures.

Central Welding Supply provides industrial, beverage, medical and specialty gases, including a wide variety of custom gas and liquid mixtures.

In 1990, Mickey Wilton became the sole owner of Central Welding Supply, choosing to buy out his partner’s shares rather than sell the entire company to a corporation that had been aggressively bidding to purchase the operation. His drive to continue to grow and cultivate a family atmosphere like the one he had experienced at Adams Welding Supply and his belief that a locally owned welding supply store would provide better service to local customers made keeping Central Welding Supply together an easy choice.

The Welder Repair Division has earned a reputation for locating difficult to find or obsolete parts.

The Welder Repair Division has earned a reputation for locating difficult to find or obsolete parts.

But that small, family-honed atmosphere did not mean the company had to stay small.

CWS made its second acquisition in 1994, beginning a 16-year period of remarkable growth. The years between 1994 and 2010 saw an average growth of 12 percent each year, with 17 more acquisitions of welding supply and gas stores as well as scratch starts. In February 2014, the company opened a new location in Kelso, and in March 2014, opened its 20th location in Vancouver, Washington. Central Welding Supply’s footprint now includes all of Western Washington, from the United States/Canadian border in the north to the Washington/Oregon border in the south, stretching for 300 miles along the I-5 corridor.

So how does a growing business maintain and continue to reflect the values of that small family-based business, the one that cared enough about its employees to send a bonus check to Mickey Wilton while he was serving thousands of miles away in Vietnam?

Family Values

Specialty truck delivering bulk

Dale Wilton joined his father’s business full-time after graduating in 1994 from the University of Washington. He had no intention of joining the company as, like most children of owners, he spent many hours, many days, many weekends doing odd jobs around the company. His plan was to study architecture. “I like building things,” he says. He was going to school full time and working 30-40 hours a week at the store, and when he realized he was always scheduling his classes so he could be working at the counter by noon every day, or writing all the store’s advertising, a guidance counselor pointed out the obvious to him. “It was pretty clear from my actions that I had some passion for the family business, otherwise I wouldn’t schedule my entire life around it,” he now says, laughing. So he earned a degree in English, and set out to build a company based on the foundation his father started—responsive customer service. Wilton was determined that no matter how large the company became, it would always rest on a simple, sure-footed tenet of service to its customers and employees.

Central Welding Supply locationsDale Wilton’s joining the company as its growth exploded was not a coincidence. Mickey Wilton attributes much of Central Welding Supply’s growth to his son’s vision. He’s quick to add that while they “hash over stuff all the time” Dale has the freedom to do what he thinks is best. Dale, on the other hand, attributes the company’s success to one thing…his father’s mission to serve their customers. Mickey Wilton sums it up: “We work for our customers, not stockholders. The customer is always right. That’s just the way it is.”

Market Growth

Central Welding Supply has multiple divisions that have enabled the company to reach into new markets with new products, including beverage gases and medical gases. Welders-Direct is the internet sales division devoted to providing welding equipment to home-hobbyists and small businesses throughout the United States. Doing ecommerce since 1999, Dale Wilton points to a level of expectation in the Seattle area that businesses be internet-savvy and progressive. “That culture is built into the area, and it’d be hard not to have a good web presence.” Annual ecommerce sales amount to almost $2 million dollars; only 40 percent of those sales are direct online orders; the rest come over the phone to a dedicated three-person internet sales team after a customer views the website. “Online sales are not a huge profit center,” says Wilton, “but they are part of a bigger picture. It gets us connections throughout the country and has helped with institutional and government sales. Plus, I think ecommerce keeps us sharp as we have to have the latest and greatest on the site.”

Xpress Cyrogenics is the bulk and specialty gas division of Central Welding Supply.

Xpress Cyrogenics is the bulk and specialty gas division of Central Welding Supply.

In 2003, the company launched Xpress Cryogenics to serve cryogenic bulk and specialty gas customers. In 2002, the percentage of gas to hardgoods sales was 80/20. Today that ratio is 45 gas/55 hardgoods, a growth rate that outpaces all other categories. The name change was a conscious decision. Wilton explains, “Going to laboratories and clean environments with the words ‘welding supply’ in our name, a name that connotes an old-school, dirty industry to some segments, was a handicap.” Xpress Cryogenics markets to non-heavy industrial customers, analytical labs, food production and others, and the name and logo make it easier to get in the front door.

Unique in the region for doing small installations, an in-house design team and two field technicians are available to do customized piping and installs of microbulk and bulk tanks. Wilton acknowledges that consolidation in the region, not only by the majors but by Central Welding Supply, has had an impact on customers. “Sometimes the majors have difficulty serving smaller customers. What is needed is a really responsive, locally owned group that can take care of regional needs.”  While CWS does serve some of the biggest gas users in the region, the company’s goal is to be the number one resource for the underserved population.

Field technicians install a bulk gas system.

Field technicians install a bulk gas system.

This focus on serving its customers, regardless of their size, is carried throughout Central Welding Supply, whether it is a delivery of a single CO2 tank to a teriyaki shop in downtown Seattle or medical gases to a veterinary clinic. “Larger hospitals are usually part of a national chain and, in some cases, are better served by corporate suppliers. Small users do not buy in volume and do not go out to bid each year. They want product, usually same or next day. Taken individually, it may look a little rough spending time and money serving a few cylinders. But added up, it is a lot of business with a high markup.”

Dale Wilton knows there is a lot of room for what Central Welding Supply does, what he refers to as the middle ground. “We’re large enough to offer equipment, repairs, gases and other products. Plus, we are a responsive supplier. Our managers are able to make decisions on a moment’s notice. We can move quickly and are nimble. This is the best of both worlds, and there is room for us because customers just want to be taken care of in a reasonable way. That’s what we do.”

Central Welding Supply supports community activities like school programs and sporting events like oval track and hydroplane racing, which draw a lot of attention from fabricators and local industry.

Central Welding Supply supports community activities like school programs and sporting events like oval track and hydroplane racing, which draw a lot of attention from fabricators and local industry.

Recognizing the growth of competition, including the rise of Amazon as a seller of welding products, Wilton says, “How do you compete with Amazon? You don’t. You sell things that you know you can provide value on. So we find areas in our marketplace where there truly is a need and provide value and don’t worry about competing. Then there are no limits.”

Central Welding Supply has grown to 20 retail locations, multiple divisions, more than 200 dedicated employees, and over $65 million in annual revenue. Mickey Wilton, now semi-retired, reflects on the past and says, “We didn’t push for growth. We just grabbed the opportunities as they came along.” Dale Wilton knows there are more opportunities to come, as long as Central Welding Supply stays true to its original objective: Provide the region’s most responsive customer service along with convenient locations and the best products, while holding onto the core values and traditions of a family-owned, family-run local business.

At Central Welding Supply, the largest independent distributor in the Pacific Northwest, they think big – very big – and act small. It’s a winning combination for this 39-year-old company that recognizes no limits.

A 17,000 sq. ft. warehouse contains more than $1 million worth of hardgoods equipment and supplies. Its centralized location enables next day or sooner delivery.

A 17,000 sq. ft. warehouse contains more than $1 million worth of hardgoods equipment and supplies. Its centralized location enables next day or sooner delivery.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association