We Are As Tough As It Gets

Brooklyn business beats back big challenges.

Growing up the youngest of four children gave Ashley Murray a unique vantage point from which to view the family business, Liberty Industrial Gases & Welding Supplies. Fearless, undaunted and self-confident, she, like her two older brothers, worked around the family business growing up, like so many children of gases and welding entrepreneurs. But this family business has a long history, dating back to 1875.

Founded by Murray’s maternal great, great grandfather in Trenton, New Jersey, Wilson & Stokes was a purveyor of coal, then industrial gases. By the time the third generation, Murray’s grandfather, took over, he knew his daughters would not be the ones to follow in his footsteps. But his son-in-law could. Tucker Murray was raised in a family-owned hardware supply business. He knew retail, had sales experience, and was a perfect fit to run the operations of Wilson & Stokes. When it came time for his father-in-law to retire, Tucker Murray wanted to buy his business…but it wasn’t for sale.

In 1986, Tucker Murray opened Liberty Industrial Gases & Welding Supply in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York.

Growing up, Ashley Murray always wanted to work in design and knew that the easiest entry point was fashion. After college, she worked as a stylist for Vera Wang in New York City. But like generations before her, she inherited the entrepreneurial gene and dreamed of owning her own company. She wisely recognized that she knew little about running a business, so she approached her father to join Liberty. And while she thought her future company would be in design, she knew she’d learn a lot from him about running a business. Father and daughter made a handshake agreement: He would not fire her for a year; she would not quit for a year. She was 23 years old.

Ashley Murray, President

That first-year handshake agreement turned into two years, then three, then more. “I got completely sucked in,” she says. “There was so much to learn and since the company was small, I wasn’t held back from doing anything, including deliveries. I could delve in and learn every job and every aspect of the business.” She refers to those years as her street-wise-MBA. She soon began running the day-to-day operations of the business, and became very invested in the growth of Liberty.

In 2007, Tucker died suddenly while on a skiing trip. He was 64 years old. Ashley, at the age of 27, was now responsible for the company, its employees and its growth. Over the next few years, Liberty’s growth came from increased efficiencies, new markets and additional employees. Today, a 50/50 product mix of industrial gases and hardgoods caters to a diverse customer base, including iron workers, construction, demolition, roofers, florists, restaurants, artists, hobbyists and more.

The Source

Tucker Murray used to walk around the store and say to his daughter, “You can’t sell from an empty barrel.” She describes him looking at every product, making sure items were filled to the end of the post. Liberty has a reputation as the go-to-source. Employees take a lot of pride in the 2,500 sq. ft. showroom and strive every day to live up to Liberty’s motto of being “The Source for all Welding Supply Needs.” Explains Murray, “Everyone wants everything…yesterday! Our inventory is large, and people know they can come here and it will be in stock.” A well-designed, sharp-looking showroom to rival other retail establishments is somewhat recent to the gases and welding industry. Tucker Murray’s hardware store background laid the foundation in the 1980s for what his store would look like; add in Ashley Murray’s design work, and the retail store stands out among a sea of industrial-looking showrooms. Displays are changed often, appealing to customer curiosity and interest.

Employees are taught to think outside of the box to help customers. The preferred hire has a “can-do” attitude and a willingness to see the larger scope of the company’s needs and services. “We don’t take well to the ‘it’s not my job’ mentality,” says Murray, noting a time when an employee put a tank in the car to deliver to a frantic customer after hours because they were out of propane and their forklift was stuck in the middle of the street (definitely not a good thing in New York City). Liberty will service a customer at all costs, even if it means getting product from a competitor. “We do all we can to keep our customer base happy,”
Murray says.

Superstorm Sandy

Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood is located on New York Bay, not far from where the East River, Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean converge. Years ago, it was one of the busiest shipping ports in the United States. Industrial commerce remains strong and an influx of new entrepreneurs, artists, breweries, restaurants and other businesses makes it a vibrant and growing part of the city.

This came to a halt in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, causing $62 billion in damage. The New York City and northern New Jersey areas were hit hard. Damage from 90 mph winds, torrential rain and surging water shut down roadways, knocked off power, even moved buildings. Much of Red Hook was under water.

Water came through the store, sweeping product off shelves and leaving an oil residue on the floor. A water line mark of 4.5 feet high in the warehouse can be seen across a hose and rob cabinet.

Murray admits now that the company was not as prepared as it could have been. Located directly across the street from the Gowanus Canal that flows to the bay, employees placed sandbags in front of the building, moved as much heavy equipment as would fit onto their five-foot-high loading dock, and parked the trucks inside the warehouse. Sandy hit at night, during high tide, bringing a 14-foot surge of water. The next morning, when the storm was over, Murray, who lives across the river in Manhattan, could not get to work. Bridges were closed, the tunnel was flooded, boats and docks were damaged. There was no way to get across the river. When she finally made it to Red Hook, she was shocked to see the aftermath of the receded surge of four and half feet of water, including all of the trucks and service vehicles, a forklift, and 80 percent of Liberty’s inventory (save for the equipment moved onto high shelves and that loading dock. A few inches higher and that too would have been under water.)

Three containers of damaged product and scrap were removed. Note the water line on the outside wall of the building.

A storeroom became Liberty’s temporary store for two months. With no electricity through the end of December, propane tanks with heaters were used.

Operations Manager Nicholas Gardener oversees the front sales counter at Liberty’s rebuilt retail store.

Wanting to preserve four generations of family history, Murray was determined to get things back on track. The only usable space was a tiny storage room facing the street, so operations were run from the sidewalk, using cellphones and generators. With help from vendors, suppliers and other distributors (one even loaned her a truck for six weeks), Liberty employees continued to procure supplies for customers, all while rebuilding their own location. Without power for eight weeks, the Red Hook community organized a volunteer network, the Red Hook Initiative, which became a service center hub to dispatch help. Volunteer workers came to help with the store demolition and cleanup.

“I learned that we as a company can get through anything,” says Murray. “It took a long time to get back on our feet. But we never closed.” Functioning for months out of a stockroom, the store and inventory were rebuilt. “I learned a lot about the strength of our employees and the value of our customer relationships. They supported us and continued to use our services knowing how much we were struggling. They knew we didn’t have inventory but would do everything we could to have what they needed within a day or two; and they were patient.”

Not every Red Hook business survived Sandy. Those that did are stronger. And paying it forward. The Red Hook Initiative, which provided so much needed help during the storm, has a program to provide local youth with their first job experience as grant-funded interns. Eight young men and women have worked at Liberty in ten-week mentoring programs to learn job skills that will help them seek full-time employment. One intern was recently hired at Liberty.

There is never an empty shelf in Liberty’s showroom. All is organized, well-lit and clearly marked.

Each September, customers receive a specially designed Liberty tee-shirt, which has some context to that year. They’ve become sought-after collector’s items and not unusual to be seen worn by customers at job sites. Above is the 2013 Superstorm Sandy shirt.

In the three years since Hurricane Sandy, Murray has completely erased the almost $600,000 debt caused by the destruction, and learned a few things about emergency plans. Because roads are opened before bridges, plans are in place for nearby employees to get to the site. Procedures to move inventory and vehicles to a pre-determined location outside the neighborhood are part of the plan. Communication and keeping everyone in the loop are detailed. Every employee knows their role in case of disaster. For Murray, it comes down to preparedness and having an emergency action plan in place. She says she will not be caught off guard again. “These ‘100-year-natural disasters’ are becoming more of the norm. Whether it be drought, fires or flooding, you can’t turn a blind eye that they won’t happen to you just because they never have.”

If It Doesn’t Kill You…

“We are always looking for ways to be better, to be more efficient, to do things differently,” says Murray, and like all smart business owners, looks to other successful companies both within and outside of the gases and welding industry for ideas. Having looked disaster in the eye twice and not only survived, but thrived—first the untimely death of the owner, second a superstorm that wiped out most of the company—Liberty Industrial Gases and Welding Supply is a confident place these days. This designer turned entrepreneur has no doubt that the events of the last few years have strengthened the foundation begun four generations ago. After the storm, a sign was hung that continues to motivate Liberty employees and inspire customers. It reads: “We are as strong as it gets.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association