In the span of a decade, Tyler Pipe has reinvented itself.
The foundry, which manufactures cast iron ductile soil pipe and pipe fittings, has committed millions of dollars to updating its plant, invested heavily in safety and environmental controls and undergone a shift in the culture of its workforce.
It has been transformed from a company under heavy federal and state scrutiny to a leader in its field and a role model for other foundries.
Even longtime employees agree that the Tyler Pipe of today is a good place to work.
That wasn’t the case 10 years ago for the foundry and its parent company, McWane Inc., headquartered in Birmingham, Ala.
Back then, injury rates were high, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigators were regularly involved in new investigations.
McWane executives at several facilities were found guilty of criminal violations, and in 2005 Tyler Pipe entered a guilty plea to violating the Clean Air Act and was ordered to pay a $4.5 million fine and complete a five-year probationary period.
Job cuts hit Tyler Pipe as a deep recession struck, and competition from China and other companies cut into profits, causing the company workforce to drop from more than 2,000 to fewer than 500.
The outlook seemed dire from the outside looking in, but behind the fence at Tyler Pipe and at McWane headquarters, a plan was underway and a shift in motion at all of the facilities McWane had purchased during the past 100 years.
The plans would take time to implement, but today, Tyler Pipe and McWane stand as leaders in safety programs, and both have won numerous safety awards and have been labeled good stewards of the environment.
Representatives with both companies agreed to give the Tyler Morning Telegraph an inside look at the foundry, which generates more than $300 million in economic activity across Texas and supports 2,500 jobs, including the 338 employees at Tyler Pipe.
A NEW ERA
Part of the plan to reinvent the company and its image was to seek consultation from specialists and to hire those who would take a chance with the company, including those who once investigated Tyler Pipe.
One such person in Tyler was Scott Harris, the environmental manager at Tyler Pipe.
Harris was an investigator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality when it was known as the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
“We are not the same facility I used to inspect back in the day when I worked for TNRCC,” he said during a recent discussion about Tyler Pipe and McWane.
During the tour, Greg Simmons, Tyler Pipe assistant general manager, said the changes have been the result of a team effort on every front.
“We are a team, and we all go up and down together,” he said.
The company also spent $120 million in capital improvements in the last 15 years, including $40 million in environmental and pollution controls and $55 million invested in environmental, health and safety efforts, which have helped the foundry not only be compliant with all local, state and federal regulations but exceed all of those requirements.
“If we do something wrong, then we are going to fix it,” Simmons said.
But money spent on improvements and hiring specialists was only an ingredient needed to make the shift.
The company looked to its employees for a new partnership, and after numerous meetings between company administrators, local union leaders and “team members,” no longer called employees, a new plan was launched.
The plan was a contract between McWane, Tyler Pipe and foundry workers to be a team.
Simmons said the results have been positive, and across McWane, the 6,000 team members are happy, with morale soaring at Tyler Pipe.
Ross Caldwell, a supervisor in the foundry, said he has worked at Tyler Pipe for 28 years and is happy to go to work every day.
“It’s a good job to have, and it’s a good place to work,” he said as he took a few minutes away from his area during the foundry tour. “I am second generation, as my father worked here 40 years and retired. I am carrying on the legacy.”
During their troubles, there were a lot of negative things said about the company slogan, “The McWane Way,” but in a 2011 company article, McWane President G. Ruffner Page Jr. said, “The McWane Way is about continuously improving, looking for ways for all of us to do our jobs more effectively...”
Page said in a written statement to the newspaper that he was extremely happy with the company’s turnaround.
“I am extremely proud of what our team members have accomplished,” he wrote. “It took a lot of hard work to become the best in the industry, and we intend to continue to get even better. As I said in a recent letter to our team members: If we are true to our values we must remember that our work is never really finished. We must embrace the process of continuous improvement so that will we not only maintain our current level of excellence, but move on to new heights of future success.”
Walking inside the foundry on U.S. Highway 69 south of Interstate 20, one can feel the heat and hear how noisy the place is, but as company officials and workers alike said, “It is a foundry. It’s hard work, but safe.”
There is molten metal being poured. Scrap metal is melted and used to manufacture the cast iron pipe and fittings.
Everywhere one looks, there is something going on, but Simmons said it is done in the safest manner possible, and any injured worker receives immediate medical attention, with two EMTs on staff and a trained and certified rope rescue team if the need arises.
Ted Sweetman, Tyler Pipe’s safety manager, said the company has taken a tough stance on safety.
“Safety is the heart of everything we do here at Tyler Pipe,” he said.
Barbara Wisniewski, McWane vice president of the company’s Safety and Health division, said that in the past six years, McWane, which encompasses 26 manufacturing facilities worldwide, including Tyler Pipe, has been below the national average on injury rates.
She shared information showing Tyler Pipe has reduced its number of “total recordable incidence rate” from 25.87 in 2000 to 5.39 today. The rate is based on how many recorded injuries per 100 workers annually.
Since 2002, the rate has fallen 79 percent within the company, and McWane as a whole is below the industry average.
Ms. Wisniewski said employees are required to sign an assurance letter stating they will inform supervisors of any problems, and it starts with hourly team members and runs up the chain of command to the president, Ruffner Page.
“We require 100 percent compliance all of the time. Every single day we believe we can get one step better,” she said. ”The McWane Way is to do it safely or not at all. We’re not perfect, but we believe we have made continuous strides.”
Pat Tyson, an Atlanta-based OSHA attorney with Constangi, Brooks and Smith, said he was contacted by McWane after a media blitz on the safety and environmental issues in the early 2000s.
Tyson, a former OSHA director, said the change in the company is “night and day.”
“They went from a company with significant problems, and now they are considered a company with a great safety and health program. They wanted to do the right thing and turn their company around, and this was on the ownership level. I am proud to be associated with McWane, and I cannot say that about all of my clients,” he said.
Simmons said Tyler Pipe’s “baghouse,” which takes out dirty air and cleans it before returning it to the foundry, is a new EPA standard.
“We are proud that we have developed safety and environmental systems that are now the standard in our industry,” he said.
McWane has won numerous awards in both safety and environmental areas, including Green Business of the Year in Alabama. The company has also won awards for ergonomics, for designs to make the jobs easier for the workers.
The company as a whole still faces uncertain economic times as does all manufacturing in the United States.
Simmons said the economic future for Tyler Pipe looks good and McWane officials say they are also confident about the company’s future.
“We are investing in the company to be here in Tyler for years to come,” he said.
Simmons said last year the Tyler location did $120 million in sales.
Simmons said Tyler Pipe, which was founded in the 1930s as Tyler Iron and Foundry Company and headed by M.J. Harvey, is in negotiations with another company for 55 tons of Tyler Pipe fittings and pipe, which would boost production.
Numbers released by McWane Senior Vice President and General Counsel James Proctor II show a steady increase of production at Tyler Pipe, from 44,421 tons of pipe and fittings in 2009 to 63,718 tons in 2012.
The company as a whole has seen its ups and downs, and some believe it was because McWane grew too quickly as it went on a buying spree in the 1990s tripling its size with new acquisitions including Tyler Pipe in 1995.
“Doubling and redoubling the size of our business back in the 1990s obviously put strains on our management and compliance infrastructure,” Page said. “One of the things we had to correct and that we now routinely do is integrate our new businesses into our culture as we grow, and that is one of the focuses of our ongoing … strategic review.”
Team members said they are happy about the changes and Tyler Pipe is a different place to work.
“This is a good company, and I am not saying that because you are here,” 54-year team member James Madison said during the tour. ‘I’m saying it because it is true.”
When asked if Tyler Pipe planned to remain in Tyler, Simmons didn’t hesitate with his answer. “We’re going to be here until the world ends or we are kicked out. We are here to stay and are a part of this community.”