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When you meet Joe Pro, president of Penn Machine Works, he usually has a big smile on his face, a firm handshake, and you feel as if you met an old friend. Many would say it’s from his upbringing in Delaware County, Pa. (located on the outskirts of Philadelphia), where he was raised in a middle-class, blue-collar family with extended family close by. In small-town America, where family, community, a hard work ethic, and helping others were instilled, Pro understood that this foundation would help him make his mark.
Pro’s career spans more than 39 years in the PVF industry, and mostly all with Pennsylvania (Penn) Machine Works. Today, the PVF company (acquired by Wynnchurch Capital Co. in 2020), manufactures forged pressure fittings, specializing in the marine, nuclear power, petrochemical, shipbuilding, cryogenic, steel-making industries, and many other critical industrial applications.
With more than 90 grades of steel and locations in Aston, Pa. (its headquarters), a forging facility in Swedesboro, N.J., and a larges sales and machining center in Houston, the more than 300 team members work together toward customer success. The company also exports its products to more than 20 countries globally.
Pro continues to exude hard work and dedication to team members during his long PVF career. He excelled at customer service and tireless examples of mentorship, leadership and giving back to the industry he loves. The Wholesaler Magazine honors Joe Pro as its 2023 PVF Hall of Fame inductee.
“Growing up, my family was blue collar start to finish,” Pro says. “My father learned a trade in vocational school and had a great career for more than 40 years painting cars.” Pro’s mother was a stay-at-home mom with 4 children, and when they hit school age, she would start her career with a major insurance company.
The neighborhood consisted of extended family and communities that would be family as well. “I watched this group of people in my family get up every day and go to work, many at physically demanding jobs,” he recalls. “They took incredible pride in what they did. Where we lived was covered in manufacturing plants, shipyards and refineries.”
Pro learned a valuable lesson at the age of 9 that would stick with him today: “In the fifth grade, I was asked to emcee a school music showcase. I was in a suit, standing in front of students’ families. I had focused so much on my emcee role that I had not attended the practices for the kazoo we played. It was a harsh lesson in juggling responsibilities.”
He would learn from the experience and face challenges head-on while ensuring the foundation remained strong. Attending Philadelphia’s Temple University, he would become the first grandchild in his family to graduate from a four-year college.
It was the early 1980s, the United States was in a recession, and jobs were scarce. One day, while visiting his girlfriend Deb at her job, her boss asked about his job search. Pro had completed an interview with a PVF company — and with a gentleman that the boss golfed with. One phone call later, Pro had the job.
He worked for the PVF company as a cost accountant for two years; when the company announced it was relocating to another state and not sure if he would make the transfer, he hit the want ads. It was 1984, and he would soon find employment as an accountant three miles from his home at family-owned and -operated Penn Machine Works, then owned by the Lafferty family.
Pro spent nine years as its controller, and the company was growing through sales and acquisitions. He wanted to do something different, yet stay within the company. He was given the opportunity to run Penn Machine’s forging plant in New Jersey, and he was up for the challenge and more character-building.
Respect is a Two-Way Street
Pro admits it may have been an “odd transition” for a white-shirt-and-tie man to run a forging facility. “It was a tough group,” he explains, and he proved his chops, even when he was wrong. Pro found he was incorrect on a directive made regarding production on a shop machine and soon found himself grinding burrs (which he said wouldn’t form) on more than 2,000 pieces of product.
“Several harsh lessons were learned that day,” he says. “I learned to lean more on the experience our people have and listen a little more when you don’t know what you are talking about.” Soon the Shop Foreman Bruce Dow and Plant Manager Bill Yarger — “two tough guys who knew their craft,” — took him under their wings, taught him everything about forging, and built his knowledge base to put him in a position to succeed.
“For nine years, I ran the sales, production planning, shipping and inventory control — building my knowledge base,” Pro explains. “There isn’t an issue from the shop floor I don’t understand.” This connectability earned Pro the respect and trust of his team, which, in turn, allowed them to excel at their crafts, feeling connected and supported.
Pro is quick to praise and support individuals along the way. And it all comes down to company culture — such as the background of Pro’s — it’s about family and taking care of others.
During this time, Pro began attending Wilmington University and obtained his MBA. Working closely with Ron Lafferty Sr., Penn Machine’s CEO, Pro was included in company board meetings.
“There was a board meeting, and the board was arguing over hiring three individuals for three different departments,” Pro recalls. “I listened for a while and said, ‘There will be a battle here for the same limited resources, and nothing will get done. There should be one person, and that answer is me.’” He was then promoted to the role of operations director.
From there, Pro would go on to guide the company through good times and challenging times. So trusted by the Lafferty family, in 2006, Ron Lafferty Sr. asked him to become president. “It was overwhelming at the time,” Pro says. “It didn’t take me long to answer his question. You only dream about it; I always believed I’d have the authority here. However, I never dreamed I would have the title.”
Ron Lafferty Sr. said to Pro that night: “Your job is not to simply mind the ship. I need you to steer and develop a plan for growing the company.” Pro became the company’s first nonfamily member to serve as president.
Steering the Ship
In mid-2000, Pro guided a leaner company, having downsized due to the world economic turmoil. “The Lafferty family was amazing; they didn’t take any distributions out of the company, and everything we made went back into the company,” he says. “The family was incredibly dedicated to the process. We had a lot of opportunities, and we kept investing in new equipment.” With Pro’s background in finance and his love of organization, he created simple, understandable metrics and usable financial reports for the family.
Doing so allowed Pro to guide and develop his strategic plan, which has simple and lofty goals such as becoming ISO 9000-certified and achieving OSHA SHARP certification. The plan also included automation. “VP of Operations Brian Fabian helped move us from manual machining centers to the most state-of-the-art equipment available,” Pro states. He understood that automation was vital to compete on the world stage and included both in manufacturing and computer software. “We had to be able to maintain our position as quickest to answer an RFQ and deliver on time,” he says.
The company achieved the ISO certification and OSHA SHARP certification; and the company excels with its knowledgeable staff. Team members — seeped in the company culture of getting the job done and filled with product knowledge — were doing it right. Pro explains that when the company has an external quality audit, the auditors find the company has engaged team members. “They know what they (the procedures) are, and what they do, and how they impact it, and why it’s important to the customer,” Pro says. It’s pride in company and service.
For Pro, steering the Penn Machine Works ship is all about customer service.
“We felt we were never going to be the biggest commodity pipe fitting and branch connection manufacturer,” he explains. “However, with more than 90 grades of steel that we produce, the inventories we keep on hand and manage, and the several hundred orders we take a day that ship same day or next day — are we a massive manufacturer?!” Add to that, the company receives more than 1,100 RFQs a day.
However, it all goes back to leadership and understanding that communication with its customers has changed, as well as the speed of doing business. It’s not unusual to see team members communicating with customers through social media.
“I was told early on that the most successful person in the room was the one who hired smarter, more talented people around them and let them do their jobs,” Pro recalls. “None of my successes are possible without the magnificent people I work with at Penn Machine. My coworkers pull extra duty for me to travel and grow our business. I have spent my entire career with the most unselfish group of people ever. This is a debt of gratitude I cannot begin to repay.”
He adds: “I’ve lived through aging parents; there’s not much from a family standpoint I haven’t been through, and the ability to empathize with what employees are going through. We understand that while parents work, kids get sick. We try to be as family-oriented and accommodating as we can. And I believe it’s gone a long way in building our workforce’s loyalty and longevity here.”
In the early 2000s, Pro made regular trips to the company’s Houston location and was introduced by its general manager, John Hunter, to the PVF Roundtable. Hunter was a board member of the organization, which is a volunteer-run networking and fundraising group with a focus on raising funds for educational and training institutes that encourage the growth of the PVF field.
Pro scheduled his trips to Houston around the times of the PVF Roundtable meetings, becoming more actively involved in the “new group,” which had about 50 members attending meetings and events. And it was slowly growing momentum. When Hunter retired from the PVF Roundtable, Pro wanted to get more involved. He discovered that board seats do not follow the company; they follow the individual. So Pro worked with founder Danny Westbrook to have the bylaws rewritten to have an election and nomination — and two years later, Pro was voted onto the board.
The organization accomplishes great things — raising money for its scholarship fund and providing important networking opportunities. To know Joe Pro is to know he is a man of organization and structure; he thrives on development and implementation, as he provides a roadmap for where one is headed.
In 2015, Pro was elected president of the PVF Roundtable. As the group grew in numbers — both in members and monies it was raising — it required more structure to take it to the next level. “My style is structure, so the first thing I did was rewrite the bylaws,” he recalls. “Then we created a structure of committees. One of the things I was uncomfortable with (in any organization) is the top few people do all the work — and we are not going to grow in that manner.”
Pro created committees (marketing, scholarship, banquet, golf, audit and financial and, soon after, Trout Blast fishing) and developed bylaws that required all board members to participate at a high level. He noted that while board members were actively involved within the group, they were doing so at their or their company’s expense — as PVF RT volunteers are not compensated for their work.
In doing so, each committee was now responsible for updates at each board meeting on their progress, and what resources they needed. At the same time, with Pro’s background in finance, he brought that skillset to the organization to provide financial statements on a monthly basis — which had not been done before.
Structuring the committees provided a clear roadmap to potential members of what the PVF Roundtable was looking to accomplish, with full transparency, and raising incredible funds for the PVF industry.
“Joe’s dedication to the PVF Roundtable and PVF industry exceeds all our expectations,” notes Sara Alford, PVF RT’s current president as well as president of Newmans Valve. “When I became a board member, Joe was president and a forward thinker on adding value to our membership and increasing our scholarship donation amounts. Joe has a way with words that make each person feel good about the efforts the board, the Young Professionals, and other members put in.
“Through his leadership, I wanted to help lead such a charge. When his term was up as president, and I stepped into that role, I knew I had large shoes to fill. With Joe being inducted into the PVF Hall of Fame, I feel confident speaking on behalf of the board that we are proud to have had Joe as a leader, board member and friend.
Pro is not one to sit idle, and he would also bring his strengths and guidance to American Supply Association’s Industrial Piping Division (IPD). As a longtime member of the organization, he would spend more than 9 years on its IPD Executive Council, volunteering and guiding the group to keep strength and health in the channel.
Guiding the Next Generation
During his time as PVF Roundtable president, Pro was approached by several younger-generation members, who wanted to participate in the group’s events. They noted that the more senior team members were maximizing their membership and companies were not inclined to pay additional funds for the younger set to also join in the events.
Pro got together with two board members and pitched to the full board the idea of a PVF Young Professionals group, with mentorship from the board of directors. “We gave them seed money, structure and mentorship – and now they have a robust group getting huge attendance at their meetings,” Pro says. It’s all about keeping health within the channel.
“It gave us great credibility, and we felt that we could begin our pursuit of raising money at a greater level for scholarship funding,” he explains. “And to do that, you’ve got to be very transparent with the membership base. We made sure that everyone knew we are a volunteer organization; there are no paychecks; there wasn’t even reimbursement for expenses. Each one of our companies covers our costs.” They were all in it for the growth of the industry they loved.
Pro would lead the PVF Roundtable as its president for five years. Within that timeframe, the group successfully raised and donated more than $1 million in scholarships to trade schools and colleges — with the stipulation that the funds were directly applied to the students to offset their expenses. To date, the group has raised and donated more than $2 million. “I feel we are in one of the most generous industries I have ever seen,” he says.
Life tends to come full circle. “To know me is to know that the most important people in my life start with my family,” Pro says. He smiles as he talks about his wife, Debbie (it was her boss that made the phone call to land Pro his first job in PVF), and their two children — son Josh and daughter Danielle, and numerous grandchildren. Pro always made sure to live by one golden rule: “When it came to raising our kids — they knew many rules. One was tiebreakers when we had multiple events on the same day: church first, school second, and sports and parties third.”
With a love of photography and traveling, and as an avid bowler with two 300 perfect game rings, the most joy for him can be found in enjoying his family and grandchildren.
“If there has been one constant message to anyone who will listen — enjoy the journey,” Pro says. “This trip through life goes so quickly. Enjoy your work, your coworkers, your friends and your families. There are many days where it seems impossible, but step back and realize how fortunate we are to be in an industry where on your worst day, you remember how good we have it.”
Thank you, Joe Pro, for your leadership, volunteerism, drive and determination to make an impact inside and outside the industry channel. The Wholesaler Magazine is honored to induct you into our PVF Hall of Fame.
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