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Whenever I call the Weldbend headquarters, I’m always a little surprised — and delighted — when one of the Coulas family personally answers the phone. And, thanks to the wonders of caller ID technology, they warmly address me by name.
It’s just one of the little things that Weldbend does very well. Which, when paired with the high-quality carbon steel fittings and flanges they manufacture on Chicago’s South Side, solidifies Weldbend’s reputation and position in a very competitive PVF marketplace.
“Even with all the computerization, technology and fast-paced world we live in, we believe that people still want to do business in a personal way,” said CEO James Coulas Jr. “Customers like to know that when they call or send us an order, it’s going to a person, not just a machine. When people call here, there is a good chance a family member will answer the phone. We do not have voicemail or receptionists; whoever is on the order desk takes turns answering the phone. And I still like to reach out to customers personally. I think that matters to them.”
Their headquarters and manufacturing facility is an environment based on attention to details. Before we delve into their product and manufacturing advancements, let me give you a little peek inside the atmosphere at Weldbend’s corporate office.
They continue to occupy the same building that has been the company’s home for decades. In fact, Coulas now sits in the office that was his father’s until his death in 2007 — and much of it has been preserved just as it was. In his office, as well as throughout the headquarters, are photos going back nearly seven decades that illustrate the Coulas family’s devotion to Weldbend’s staff, customers and the company itself.
Visiting their office takes one back in time. While they employ the most advanced manufacturing technology available in their production facilities, Weldbend maintains a very gracious, warm and time-honored environment. Among the traditions that stand out are:
From those very special little touches, the company has built a culture that is committed to producing the highest-quality fittings and flanges available, with the utmost in a personal touch when it comes to serving customers.
Deeply ingrained philosophy
Over the years, Weldbend has built a reputation for selling its products at the same price to every customer— no matter how large the distributor or the order. They also do not participate in any of the industry buying groups. “We play no favorites,” Coulas is fond of saying. “We look at wholesalers as our salesforce, so we play straight with everyone. That was a policy started by my father, and it’s been key to our success.”
Weldbend’s operations are spread throughout four buildings with 315,000 square feet under roof on a sprawling 36-acre plot in Argo, Ill., that still gives them room to grow. The plant operates on two 11-hour shifts to produce carbon steel butt-weld fittings and flanges from 1/2 inch through 60 inches. Depending on demand, the plant can be scheduled for either a five- or six-day work week. Employees are trusted to work under the honor system; there are no time clocks in any of Weldbend’s facilities.
“It’s all part of the family philosophy,” said Coulas. “We’re a manufacturer that treats our employees the right way. We have about 200 employees, with a total of roughly 1,000 years of experience. All of their insurance is paid for, and we even provide them free legal service for anything besides divorce. There are numerous family connections among our employees — fathers and sons, siblings, cousins.”
Coulas grew up with the company, and emphasizes that it was a hands-on family operation from the very beginning, involving both his father and his mother. “Both of my parents worked very hard together,” he said. He recalled that as far back as grade school, he and his siblings were often assigned tasks, particularly company mailings. They’d take seats around the kitchen table to stuff, label, seal and stamp. “Everyone in the family was expected to work; there was no free ride,” he said. “It gave all of us, and now our children, a great work ethic and was the right way to learn the business from the ground up.”
His son Kevin Coulas added, “We all started in the paint room. None of us was ever just handed anything. A lot of the guys out there in the paint shop now are the ones who trained us on those machines. The fact that we sweated right alongside them helped us earn their respect.”
Each of the family members currently involved fell into their roles rather naturally. Jim Coulas Jr. worked side-by-side with his father throughout his entire career, and now as CEO is the critical link between balancing the traditions and lessons of the past with expanding and competing in an ever-changing world.
“I never wanted to do anything else,” Coulas said. “In my generation, there was really no option. You followed your father into his business. With this generation, they’ve had other options. My sons, daughter and nephew have all made a decision to be here. To have them, as well as my sisters and wife, all here at Weldbend is very gratifying. The boys are basically running the business now and I’m just overseeing to make sure things remain smooth. It gives me great satisfaction to see the next generation taking over.”
Coulas’ son Jimmy is very involved in sales, and son Kevin focuses more on manufacturing, while his nephew Mike Hammer — who Coulas often refers to as a son himself — has been instrumental in the company’s marketing and advertising efforts.
Coulas’ sister Irma Hammer, who used to be a teacher, joined the company in 1987. She performs a variety of office management tasks. She especially enjoys her work on the legendary customer rewards program. “It’s a little like being Santa Claus every day,” she said with a laugh. “I really love the interaction with our customers. And being able to reward their loyalty is such a treat.” For 40 years, Weldbend customers have been able to accrue reward points in the amount of their purchases. The points don’t expire, and can be used in exchange for gifts that would meet virtually anyone’s wish list.
Coulas’ sister Cathy has worked from a home office much of her adult life, and for many years worked alongside their mother on the company financials.
His wife Colleen was a Spanish teacher and then stayed home to raise their children while Coulas spent a great deal of time on the road building the business. She joined Weldbend in 2005, and now handles accounts payable. Colleen initially partnered with Weldbend’s legendary 52-year veteran employee Millie, who passed away just a few years ago. Millie, who had started her employment at the Coulas family home office, managed accounts payable for many years. But she didn’t like using a computer and insisted on writing every check by hand. She and Colleen developed a perfect system of working together to schedule and implement bill payment. Colleen says it is very rewarding to work among so many members of their family. “We all have very different personalities, but we work together very well and all have a deep respect for each other,” she said.
Jim and Colleen’s daughter Kristin splits her work time between home and the office. A former teacher and paralegal, she stayed home for several years after the birth of her first child, and then came onboard at Weldbend in 2012. She works in the sales department and was instrumental in compiling all the customer data for the company’s new computerized packing slip system. Like her brothers, she too helped out doing odd jobs, as well as helping Millie with payables, during high school and on college breaks. “It was just always a part of our lives,” she said. “From my earliest memories, we would come by the office to visit our dad and grandfather. My grandparents really instilled the family connection within the company, and even our friends who needed part-time jobs while in school would come here to help out.”
The next generation
As Coulas described, his sons and nephew have really stepped up to the plate and are taking on management roles at Weldbend. They each have fallen into a natural role that fits their interests and personalities. Following is a closer look at their responsibilities with the company.
Kevin Coulas — Weldbend uses some of the most technologically advanced manufacturing equipment in the world; yet despite the significant investment that has been made to automate lines, they have been committed to retaining and retraining employees for other tasks as they’ve continued to grow the business and product offerings.
“One of the things we are very proud of is the new internal lab, run completely independently by a third party, that is now operating within our plant,” said Kevin. “We want to ensure that the results are unbiased so our customers have complete confidence in the materials we are using and data we are claiming. This will be a major time-saver when it comes to testing. We had been sending all of our materials out for independent testing, which added time and cost to the process. It was very important that we maintain that separation between us and the lab for private results. We chose to partner with a lab we had done business with for at least 40 years. They were very involved in specifying the equipment, are writing all the testing manuals, and will handle the accreditation.”
The two-floor lab is being set up in one of Weldbend’s plants. Its top-of-the-line equipment feeds results directly into Weldbend’s material traceability program, so no data has to be re-entered. That removes the possibility of any data entry errors or chance of impropriety.
With a degree in business management, Kevin has really embraced the manufacturing side of the company, although he says the lab was a new challenge. “Being a family owned and operated company, you have to wear many hats,” he said. “My Dad told me he wanted me to be the point person for the lab, which was a little out of my comfort zone initially. But I really dug in and learned it so that I could understand the bigger picture and make the best decisions as they would affect the whole company.”
Weldbend is also in the midst of installing a new piece of equipment that will perform machining up through 60-inch wall thickness. Any time new equipment is added, it involves a great deal of preparation and planning; and often other parts of the facility have to be redesigned to accommodate the changes. Weldbend maintains a CAD drawing of their floor plan, which they use during the concept stage to gauge the most effective redesign.
“Our goal is to make our employees’ jobs easier,” Kevin added. “My main focus is on production, improving processes, and adding the right equipment. I also am trying to be proactive in dealing with customers before a product even leaves the docks on shipping, tracking and any potential situations.”
Like his father and grandfather before him, Kevin is an accomplished pilot and often flies the company jet out of Midway Airport to pick up customers for plant visits — they host as many as three sets of customers a week. Typically, he arrives in a customer’s city very early in the morning so customers are in the air by 7 or 8 a.m., and usually returns them home that evening. It gives Kevin a good opportunity to build relationships with them during those trips. “It’s a great feeling to see that we exceed their expectations when they arrive; they are typically very surprised at the cleanliness of our plants as well as the massive inventory we have on hand.”
There are currently seven people in the Weldbend sales department, which is managed by Jimmy Coulas. “We personally handle every phone call, every order, every quote that comes in,” he described. “We are set up on a queue system so e-mails are distributed in order down the line to ensure that everyone has roughly the same workload. The queue is also great because if someone is out sick or on vacation, it pulls anything directed to them and re-directs it to another member of the team. This means that all emails will be acknowledged and answered. We have stringent benchmarks set on that — every e-mail is to be acknowledged within 90 minutes of receipt. Customers really appreciate that.”
Weldbend has also begun sending out surveys with every order, asking customers if they were satisfied and if not, why not. “We’ve gotten a 99% customer satisfaction rating through these surveys — we’re very proud of that as the national average hovers around 93%. For that 1% that doesn’t respond favorably, one of our family members will personally reach out to that customer with a phone call to show them we care, want to make things right, and appreciate their loyalty.
“Everything that we do is to ensure that our distributors have the best product and service possible. We want the whole experience, from start to finish, to be seamless so it keeps them coming back.”
Changing technologies have brought about a shift in the way Weldbend handles customer orders. “We went from virtually nothing to a very user- and customer-friendly system,” Jimmy noted. “It involves just the click of a few buttons. One of the nice features is that emails can’t be deleted because they are in a thread, which alleviates any concern of a customer order accidentally being deleted from the system.
“We no longer take orders by phone; everything is digitized. Even our fax machine — for the small number of customers who still prefer to fax in orders — converts the orders to emails. It has also helped us in retaining our ISO accreditation, as our operational plan, processes and quality control for audits are so well documented. We have been ISO certified for about 20 years, and are audited twice a year. ISO certification has gotten stricter, and these processes we’ve put into place help us ensure we are meeting our requirements of sticking with our documented processes.”
Well-known for their trademark ads and easily recognizable “Weldbend green” color, company leadership are firm believers in sharing their message of quality manufacturing and personal service with customers. They also emphasize their commitment to “Made in America” production, and continue to significantly invest to ensure that the vast majority of their raw materials are of U.S. origin. These and other marketing efforts are managed by Mike Hammer. “We continue to believe that many of our customers want to buy American-made products from American-owned companies,” he said. “So that, and tradition, are what we tend to focus on.”
Mike is personally involved with industry trade magazines, brochures, mailings, literature, website updates and smart phone apps. He’s also been involved with streamlining the order entry process and looking into new ways to improve customer service.
“Both our people and our customers had been used to a different kind of communication for many years,” Mike said. “So it was important that everyone was on board and very satisfied as we made these changes to a more electronic communication environment. I think one of the biggest areas of concern for everyone was the confirmation process. Customers wanted to know we had their orders, and our sales staff wanted to make sure they weren’t missing any. The confirmations generated by the system have given everyone involved a pleasant relief.”
To even further safeguard communications, Weldbend has redundant incoming phone and Internet connections. The first-line connections are fiberoptic. If they were to be cut or damaged, the system would revert back to the wired connection into both the plant and the office. There is also a backup generator for the office to handle any power outages.
Coulas is very proud of the growth and maturity that the three young men are showing, and shared a little insight into the pressure involved.
“When you own the company, you have a tremendous responsibility, not just to your own family but to all of the families you employ, your customers, all of their families, and so on,” he said. “It’s hard to find a balance between those responsibilities and your family. That is just one of the reasons I’m so grateful that they’ve all chosen to join me here, because it gives us much more time together.
“Growing up, they saw how much work took me away, so it’s given them a solid perspective on the sacrifices that are involved. But it’s in our blood. My father literally worked until the end of his life at age 92, and I can’t imagine retiring either. At one point, my father said to me, ‘I don’t need this anymore. I’ve got enough money to live. This is all for the future of our family and our employees.’ Now that sentiment has come full circle to me. I’ve got enough to live on, but I want to continue in order to help secure an even better future for the next generation.”
His son, Jimmy, concluded our interview with a very candid and sincere statement: “Statistically, the third generation in any company screws the whole thing up. Our job is to be the anomaly.”