Sixty years ago, James Coulas Sr. established what would become Weldbend as a surplus house in a tiny little space. An entrepreneur from an early age — he got his start selling produce from his wagon as a boy, and later operated a ballroom on Chicago’s South Side for two decades — Coulas built an extremely loyal workforce and customer base. Working side-by-side with his son, Jim Coulas Jr., he remained the CEO until his death at the age of 92 in 2007.
Since that time, Coulas Jr. has taken over the reins and continued to guide the growth of this highly respected manufacturer. Among his very trusted team at the company are six other members of the Coulas family, along with a number of employees who have been with the company four-plus decades. In fact, there is a good chance when you dial Weldbend’s main phone number, a member of the family will answer your call.
Over the years, Weldbend has built a reputation for providing high-quality products at the same price for each customer — no matter how large the distributor or the order. And the company is also well-known for its emphasis on marketing; in recent years that has included sponsoring the Industrial Piping Division Breakfast and keynote speaker at the ASA Convention. When the convention was held in Chicago two years ago, Weldbend brought in “Da Coach,” Mike Ditka, who drew a very large and enthusiastic crowd.
This year, they selected none other than KISS frontman — and marketing genius — Gene Simmons who drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Simmons spent time with the Coulas family the evening prior, and during his speech praised them for their warmth and the way they conduct their business. “I was profoundly touched by the Coulas family — they actually care about what they do. This is the kind of business America needs. … A brand has to stand for something. You’ve got to be consistent and stand behind your product. You’ve got to have integrity and pride. And at the center, you’ve got to have heart. I encourage you to treat everyone who is involved with you the way the Coulas family has treated me.”
Recently, publisher Tom Brown and I had the pleasure of touring Weldbend’s massive facility near Chicago with third-generation family members Jimmy and Kevin Coulas and Michael Hammer, followed by an interview with Jim Coulas Jr. Exceedingly humble, Coulas — who refers to Weldbend as “just a small family company” — talked about tradition and the hopes he has for the future. Following is our interview.
MJM: What have been some of the decisions made that led to the tremendous growth of Weldbend over the years?
Coulas: My father started in the surplus business with a guy who wanted to make some extra money. When I was born he wanted to build a business he could pass down. He always was a pusher and a motivated man.
When it was decided to split valves from the fittings and flanges business, he also wanted to get into forgings. So he started to buy equipment to manufacture the forgings for the fittings. There really is no one around to make the forging equipment we need, so we have our own in-house team design and build the equipment — and they are well-versed to handle any breakdowns that may occur so we don’t lose valuable production time.
MJM: Please share an overview of Weldbend today, along with some of the key members of your staff?
Coulas: We are situated on 36 acres of land in Argo, Ill. [southwest of Chicago], and have four buildings that house our corporate offices, manufacturing and warehousing. We manufacture carbon steel butt weld fittings and flanges from 1/2" through 60".
Weldbend currently employs approximately 200 people. The plant operates two 11-hour shifts and we work five to six days a week, depending on demand. Our employees don’t use time clocks. We operate on the honor system.
Mildred has been a trusted assistant for 50 years; Jeff, who works in our shipping department, has been with us 49 years; and another long-time employee, Jack, has been here 40 years. We consider Weldbend a family, all working toward one goal. And it goes beyond the business; our employees have been very loyal to our family, as well, through the years.
MJM: And talk about the importance that your family places on their continued ownership and hands-on involvement in leading the company?
Coulas: It’s wonderful to have so many members of our family involved. We all watch out for each other, and we all have different areas of expertise. We all know what the end result should be — make the best product, treat customers right and the business will come. In reality, we’re a small company no matter how you look at it.
MJM: Tell me more about your family members currently involved in the business and their roles?
Coulas: My son Jimmy handles sales and my son Kevin is on the manufacturing side. My sister Irma does pretty much everything, and her son Mike Hammer is involved with sales and advertising. My wife Colleen and my sister Cathy work with accounts payable and receivable.
Everybody is expected to work; no one gets a free ride. They’ve all got a great work ethic and learned the business from the ground up.
MJM: Did you always believe that this would be your career path?
Coulas: There was no other option.
MJM: What was it like growing up with your father in this business? And then working side by side with him for so many years?
Coulas: Since I’m about as old as the company, I grew up with it. I was in grammar school and remember doing small tasks here. When we used to send mailings, my father would have them printed and he’d bring them home, and the four of us kids would be in line at the table. One would stuff, one would label, one would seal, and one would stamp.
This is a family company so you grow up doing everything — literally even cleaning up the washrooms.
MJM: What were some of the most important lessons your father taught you?
Coulas: Be honest and truthful. Don’t let anyone push you around. Treat customers as you would want to be treated. He focused on the old standard rules about work ethics and being hands-on that were the basis for all successful businesses.
MJM: Does your management style or philosophy differ from his at all?
Coulas: I’ve made no changes to the company. We continue to innovate the way we always have.
MJM: You are very loyal to the wholesale channel; describe your efforts to continue to strengthen those bonds with our readers throughout North America?
Coulas: We look at wholesalers as our salesforce. If we go around them or do something to one and not the other it soon becomes evident that you’re playing favorites. And we play no favorites — much to the chagrin of some. We play straight with everyone. My father started that and we continue it. It’s been a key to our success.
It’s also a challenge because competitors can underbid us. But I hope that customers realize the quality involved here. By cutting your price, all you’re doing is taking away potential profits to use in rebuilding your business. So many companies are gone now because they wanted to do “special pricing” and they couldn’t make it financially. We offer a fair price, good service and quality product. We have to ensure a profit so that we can continue to expand the business.
MJM: You have been in the forefront with the IPD in recent years, sponsoring the Breakfast at the ASA Convention. What was behind your decision to do that, and talk about the feedback you’ve gotten?
Coulas: We decided to do it as a way of thanking our customers — many of whom are in the IPD — for the support they have given us. I also think it’s important that manufacturers support an industry umbrella organization like ASA to further promote our industry.
MJM: Last year you brought in Mike Ditka — a perfect choice for the convention in Chicago — and this year you featured Gene Simmons. What was it about them and their messages that you felt was a strong tie-in to Weldbend and your customers?
Coulas: Over the years, I’ve been involved with many different organizations and attended countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Maybe it’s just me, but many put you to sleep. We’re all there to learn new products and innovations in our industry. But it doesn’t mean you also can’t have fun. I think having some entertainment at 6:45 in the morning is an interesting way to start the day.
Gene Simmons, in particular, really personalized his presentation to talk about the strength of our family and customer service, after having spent some time together the day prior to his speech. We didn’t give him any bullet points. That was all on his own.
MJM: I know that safety is a paramount concern with you, both within your manufacturing operation, and when your products are installed in the field.
Coulas: We provide a safety handbook to all of our employees. Everyone is required to sign for it after they finish reading it. We have three scheduled safety meetings for our employees every year. Our injury rate is almost down to zero. That goes along with the cleanliness of the building.
When it comes to our product, we almost always check material coming in to make sure chemical and physical properties are correct. We provide a yearly training program for our employees — especially those in high inspection areas. I think we are one of the few that discloses the source of the raw materials used without having to be asked. We have nothing to hide.
MJM: Would you discuss the reinvestment that you have made within the company and why this is so critical to your success?
Coulas: We’ve spent a great amount of money on automating certain lines to cut down on the labor for the products. But it’s important to note that when we cut down on the labor, we don’t get rid of our employees. Rather we try to start new product lines that we can utilize them in.
MJM: You are well-known for your Made in America stance. Why is that so important to you?
Coulas: Although not all of our starting material is of USA origin, a great percentage of it is. We have invested millions of dollars in the past 20 years to increase the proportion of our products that are made here in America.
MJM: Why have you always been such a strong believer in marketing?
Coulas: No one is going to promote your company except yourself. You should never miss an opportunity for informing your customers. We want to let people know that there are still American companies out there making American products for American consumption.
MJM: What have been some of the key changes that you’ve noticed, particularly when it comes to dealing with customers, over your years in the business?
Coulas: No matter what has changed, with ownership or mechanisms or computerization, we still want to have a feeling that when you call or send an order in, you know it’s going to a person and not just a machine. We still want people to know that when they call here there is a good chance that a family member will answer the phone. We have no voicemail or receptionists. The first person you reach is the order desk.
We receive orders via fax, e-mail, EDI and POs.You don’t get as much of a personal touch as you used to, but I still call customers just to see how they’re doing and ask about their family. It’s important to me.
MJM: Can you share with us any information going forward on your strategic long-range planning?
Coulas: “here are some different product lines that we are currently contemplating, and some will be implemented in 2012 as new equipment arrives.” It’s important to keep our manufacturing as efficient and innovative as possible.
MJM: What do you believe sets Weldbend apart from its competitors?
Coulas: We are a true family owned company that cares about our customers. We are doing our part by carrying a large inventory so our customers don’t have to wait.
MJM: What has been your greatest satisfaction from your service with the company?
Coulas: To have my sons here, and to have my wife and sisters here, is very comforting. It’s just a great family atmosphere. We are all dedicated to this business and our customers. This business was started by my mother and father, and it is a wonderful thing to be surrounded by your family and work together to grow this company. n
For additional information, visit www.weldbend.com.