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“I want to thank the jury for recognizing Ulma’s unfair and deceptive practices that have gone on for years,” said James Coulas Jr., president of Weldbend. “American companies like Weldbend and Boltex can compete with anyone in the world on a fair and level playing field.”
Upon reading this, I immediately and distinctly remembered the words of John Pope — my boss, mentor and the iconic owner of F.W. Webb Co. This was approximately 50 years ago when we decided to enter the industrial pipe, valves and fittings market.
Webb at that time was already a 100-year-old company. John told me that he wanted to build the most knowledgeable and professional inside and outside PVF sales team, but he cautioned me with the words that I never forgot: “Please remember that Webb’s reputation is more important than any order we will ever get!”
I applaud the recent court victory by Weldbend and Boltex. Integrity was validated. The entire PVF industry owes them a debt of gratitude.
Thinking back to a time and era about a half a century ago, distributors and brand-name manufacturers diligently partnered to ensure the safe application of products to process. Customers requested product by brand because it mattered and the trusted brand ensured commitment.
We all in this industry share the same responsibility to protect our customers and our own reputations by guiding the customer to make the right choices as they apply our products to their process. Trusted relationships throughout the supply chain ensure integrity.
I spent a long career visiting industrial and institutional customers: pulp and paper mills, nuclear- and fossil-fueled power plants, wastewater treatment facilities, food and beverage, semiconductor, chemical, pharmaceutical, ship and submarine builders, aircraft engine, steam and gas turbine manufacturers and large college/university and hospital complexes. They all used PVF and they were all different.
I discovered that the communication between plant engineers, facility maintenance and purchasing was often fragmented. Recently, this has been exacerbated by the introduction of third-party sourcing and outsourced stockroom management. Request for quotes are vague, generalized and usually ended with two words: “or equal.” Whatever that means!
When we asked questions such as to the pressure, temperature, media or application, we were met by frustrated silence or “I’m just going out for three quotes.” Generic imported PVF has further confused customers.
One such time responding to a request for quote, I asked if I could stop by and discuss the specific application. It was a pulp mill. The buyer was in a cubicle on a mezzanine. He saw me but I could sense he was annoyed. He told me all he wanted was a price. I assured him that he would get one once I knew exactly what the situation required.
I reminded him that before I could gain entry to the mill, I had to sign in with security, required to watch a safety video for 20 minutes, showing all the different ways you could get injured walking by the machinery. I had to sign a waiver stating that I understood the risk. I had to wear a hard hat, eye and hearing protection. A marquee outside the plant announced that, so far that year, only four employees had been injured, no fatalities and the plant was very proud of its safety record.
On the way to the buyer, I noticed a 2-inch chlorine pipeline under the mezzanine with lots of safety warnings and alarm lights — and a siren in case it leaked. I pointed out to him that if it leaked, neither of us could run fast enough. The valve he wanted a price on was for this application. I told him that the question he should be asking is whether the valve I provide will close when it should. After thinking about it, he said he wanted the best valve for this critical application. And then he thanked me.
Standards matter. Processes are contained in pipe and fittings and valves that are designed to do a job, but it’s up to us to help customers understand that or equal is not a standard.
We have all lost orders we should have gotten. I remember one such instance. It was a valve for a 12-inch main, high-pressure superheated steam line. A competitor found a same-brand valve at a source in Texas. Turns out it was an alleged new surplus valve. A week after installation, the packing blew out and the mill was shutdown.
Panic ensued and the buyer asked if we would help solve the problem. I contacted the top brand valve manufacturer and it dispatched an engineer; together, we did the forensics and a complete DNA on the valve. We sent our valve repair team, installed the new packing and had the valve back in service.
It didn’t matter to the valve manufacturer or us that it was improperly sourced. The manufacturer’s name was on the valve; it and our reputations were what mattered. The right thing was done and the buyer learned that all things are not equal.
The vital partnership between manufacturers and their select distributors matter now more than ever. Most of our customers are ISO-9000 and care about legitimate supply chains. They care about things such as LEED certification, sustainability, fugitive emissions, safety, etc. There isn’t a better time to educate our mutual customers why we are worth what we charge to protect then and guide them on the value proposition we provide.
Another group that needs our help are the mechanical and process contractors who are bidding and installing the PVF we supply. Training for the future generation is critical to ensuring knowledgeable and properly installed safe piping systems. Standards and brands matter. I strive to be better, not equal.
Another word that has trickled into our industry is commodity. Personally, I resent the word because it trivializes the idea of standards and implies that all PVF is the same.
I live in Lawrence, Mass. This city made headlines recently when the local gas utility over-pressurized the natural gas lines, resulting in explosions, fires, death and injury, and catastrophic infrastructure damage. It has taken two years to replace all the buried gas lines, regulators, appliances and heating systems in three communities. The utility has paid millions of dollars in damages and is soon to be acquired by Eversource.
All of a sudden, there is a heightened awareness, and pipe-valves-fittings, standards and sourcing protocol matters again.
Another nagging question is this: When and if product that was alleged to meet standards but, in fact, doesn’t, and it has left your warehouse and is installed somewhere or in a customer’s stockroom, how do you get them back? What’s the audit trail? Customer purchase orders and RFQs often use general descriptions such as 150 lb. 6-inch cast-steel gate valve. Often suppliers do the same.
How can you specifically identify a fitting or valve where the brand wasn’t even documented? How do you find it on a recall? How do you or the manufacturer or installing contractor or end user find an unnamed, unbranded ambiguous product when it needs to be found expeditiously? Do you have an ISO-9002 standard or procedure just in case? What is the audit trail?
I’m confident that many do, but we all should for the obvious reason that we owe it to our customer and to our industry.
Again, I want to thank Weldbend and Boltex for making us reassess our general assumptions. The PVF community is populated by some great companies and people. Our customers need us to help them make good and safe choices. Standards and brands matter.
We can all sleep better knowing that our products encase and protect some very challenging processes. To paraphrase my former boss, our reputations are more important than any order we will ever get!
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