Turn­ing a Dream into a For­ev­er Com­pa­ny

Kirk Richard­son

6 Octo­ber 2018

Web­co Indus­tries Founder Bill Weber died on Sun­day, Sep­tem­ber 9. He was 92. On reg­u­lar occa­sion, Mr. Weber was still show­ing up to work at Webco’s Sand Springs, OK head­quar­ters through the sum­mer of 2018. He con­tin­ued to be active in the com­pa­ny that he built, shar­ing wis­dom with col­leagues in his office just weeks before his death. The fol­low­ing arti­cle inspired by an ear­li­er vis­it and sub­se­quent­ly Mr. Weber’s last media inter­view was writ­ten in August 2018.

Bill Weber sits behind a well-orga­nized desk, fold­ers and var­i­ous reports neat­ly arranged in front of him. He is in his com­fort zone, dressed in a warm maroon sweater in the office that has been his home-away-from-home for near­ly 50 years. His lit­tle white Westie/dog and best friend, Sab­ri­na, watch­es him as she is curled up on a guest chair. The founder and Chair­man of the Board of Web­co Indus­tries still come into work every day that he can, even though the 92-year-old busi­ness­man has been fight­ing can­cer for the past few years. Weber is not only an inspi­ra­tion to his employ­ees, but to those who know him here in Tul­sa, Okla­homa and count­less oth­ers in the indus­tries that his com­pa­ny serves around the world. That admi­ra­tion has been hard-earned, over many years. After serv­ing his coun­try in the Unit­ed States Air Force, the World War II vet­er­an start­ed his career with a Pitts­burgh-area gas util­i­ty com­pa­ny, then went to work for U.S. Steel in 1954. Weber spent the first nine months of that new career track immersed in the Nation­al Tube Division’s inten­sive train­ing pro­gram. From there he trans­ferred to U.S. Steel’s Auto­mo­tive Group in Detroit, Michi­gan, then on to a Prod­uct Sec­tion Group back in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, and ulti­mate­ly end­ed up in a Senior Sales posi­tion in Dal­las, Texas. “I was in each of those places about a few years,” he recalls.

Spend­ing much of his ear­ly career mov­ing from job-to-job, loca­tion-to-loca­tion, with a wife and now three daugh­ters in tow led Weber to con­sid­er set­tling down in one place for a while. That sparked an idea that made a pipe dream a real pos­si­bil­i­ty. “Myself and two oth­er peo­ple in oper­a­tions talked about start­ing a new busi­ness in Tul­sa, Okla­homa,” he remem­bers. “I said ‘You know, we can do this bet­ter.’ By now, Weber had the con­fi­dence, com­pe­tence, and con­tacts that he need­ed to com­pete in the met­al tub­ing busi­ness. He just need­ed to find the per­fect loca­tion to turn his bold plans into a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant; oh, and put togeth­er the financ­ing to buy equip­ment and build a plant.

I said ‘You know, we can do this bet­ter.’ ”

Back in the late 1960s when Weber first enter­tained the thought of start­ing his own com­pa­ny 250 miles due north of Dal­las in North­east Okla­homa, Tul­sa was nick­named The Oil Cap­i­tal of the World. That didn’t deter him. “First of all, there was a work­er base here,” explains Weber. “But they were all oil-field ori­ent­ed. If it didn’t flow oil, what do you want to do with it?” he shrugs his shoul­ders and smiles. For an indus­tri­ous mind like Weber’s, that just meant they would require some time for retrain­ing. In addi­tion to hav­ing a very capa­ble, hard­work­ing labor pool, the heat exchang­er indus­try was also cen­tered in Tul­sa. “The whole indus­try was focused in Tul­sa and in Hous­ton,” he con­tin­ues. “Tul­sa was the main builder of the equip­ment.” How­ev­er, most of the mill prod­ucts that were used to fab­ri­cate those heat exchang­ers, includ­ing moun­tains of car­bon steel tub­ing, had to be shipped in by truck or rail. Weber saw a big oppor­tu­ni­ty. “Over the road truck­ing and train trav­el was dan­ger­ous and expen­sive, and dam­ages could make it very cost­ly,” he points out. “If we could elim­i­nate that, we had cheap steel.”

 

Weber and four part­ners found the afford­able land that they need­ed on the west­ern out­skirts of down­town Tul­sa in Sand Springs. His part­ners con­tributed $10,000 each, and they start­ed the busi­ness with $40,000. “That’s all the mon­ey we had,” he notes. That is until the part­ners secured a cred­it line, which helped the com­pa­ny sur­vive in the ear­ly days. “I nev­er real­ized in the past how impor­tant it was that you have a rep­u­ta­tion,” he says. “Your rep­u­ta­tion will car­ry you over where peo­ple shouldn’t give you a chance prob­a­bly, but they do. What you have to do is say what you’re going to do, and then do it. Do that once or twice, and the doubts dis­si­pate.” Do it many times, and you begin to build a busi­ness respect­ed around the coun­try. Despite build­ing a busi­ness from noth­ing and with­stand­ing com­pe­ti­tion from day one, Weber is a mod­est man and much more com­fort­able down­play­ing his own role in the ear­ly days. “The only thing I can fig­ure out is that we are lucky as hell,” he laughs. “We made moves just ahead of the wolves. The wolves would come after us, and we would jump ahead.” Although some good for­tune was cer­tain­ly in play, he and his col­leagues were also strate­gic thinkers.

We branched out,” he says. “We expand­ed our prod­uct range. We looked for oppor­tu­ni­ties where the whole rest of the coun­try – except the North­east – was depen­dent on pro­duc­tion from the North­east. We knocked weeks off the deliv­ery of steel. We uncom­pli­cat­ed the deliv­ery. We could take an inquiry, pro­duce the prod­uct, ship the prod­uct, and invoice the prod­uct before they could even answer the inquiry.” Notice the “we” over “me” theme? The team approach paid off as Web­co con­tin­ued to grow and pros­per through its first and sec­ond decades in the met­als busi­ness. “The trou­ble with most com­pa­nies is you take a look at their orga­ni­za­tion chart, and what you have is top lev­el down ― it’s a pyra­mid. Things fil­ter down, and if they get blocked some­where along the way, so be it.’ I said, ‘In my opin­ion, it’s total­ly wrong. Infor­ma­tion has to flow from the bot­tom up. Because you should be mea­sured on how effec­tive you make the peo­ple work­ing for you, not the oth­er way around.’ So, that’s where our invert­ed pyra­mid came from” Weber felt the odds of suc­cess were bet­ter if peo­ple were empow­ered to make the deci­sions, even if some of them turned out to be wrong. Ulti­mate­ly, this strat­e­gy mor­phed into the foun­da­tion of what are now Webco’s 16 Prin­ci­ples, a set of guid­ing val­ues that has proven instru­men­tal in the company’s growth to more than 1400 employ­ees work­ing in 12 facil­i­ties in five states. The cor­ner­stone that holds all of this togeth­er and keeps the com­pa­ny on course is trust, accord­ing to Weber. “I have a phi­los­o­phy that I can do amaz­ing things if I trust you,” he shares. “If I don’t trust you, I’m cut in half, at best. Now, I have to wor­ry about what your thoughts are and stop you from going off the rails. That’s a lost effort. If you know what your job is or what you’re expect­ed to do, I should get the hell out of your way and let you do it! If you don’t know how to do it, I should put you in a posi­tion where you’ll be trained or edu­cat­ed or what­ev­er it is, and then get the hell out of your road. If you have a job, we try to give you the respon­si­bil­i­ty to man­age that job. You can man­age this, and if you can’t, no one can. But if you have small seg­ments of respon­si­bil­i­ty, and you put them into action, that’s a matrix, and that works.” Weber and his lead­er­ship team have used the 16 Prin­ci­ples as a foun­da­tion for the company’s cul­ture, which not only moti­vates employ­ees to trust one anoth­er but often earns their loy­al­ty and welds them to the com­pa­ny long-term. He backs that up by point­ing out there are a num­ber of long-term Web­co employ­ees. This is remark­able in a coun­try where some stud­ies report grow­ing num­bers of employ­ees who are dis­en­gaged at work. “There is no one here that is treat­ed as a piece of fur­ni­ture,” empha­sizes Weber. “They’ve all got an impor­tant part to play.” But he’s also a real­ist and knows that not every­one will be the per­fect fit at this fast-paced, ever-evolv­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness. “If we have peo­ple who do not care, we try not to keep them,” he notes. “If you don’t care about being here, it’s okay. We under­stand that. There are oth­er places you can work, but not here. If you want to be a part of some­thing spe­cial, that’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry.” That doesn’t mean that Weber demands per­fec­tion from his employ­ees, but he has always believed that every­one needs to be forth­right and own up to prob­lems. “I can han­dle mis­takes,” he explains. “What I can’t han­dle is not know­ing. Let me give you an exam­ple of that. We were a young com­pa­ny in the heat exchang­er busi­ness only. That was the only mar­ket we had. We made long tubes for feed water heaters. Now, these tubes are any­where from 60 feet to 100 and some feet in length. We had an order of about 100,000 feet total. We had no automa­tion in those days. It was all by hand. You put the end of a tape mea­sur­er here, and you draw out 100 feet, and you cut.” But one employ­ee was slight­ly off the mark, miss­ing by a foot, and cut­ting the tubes in 99-foot lengths. “That cost us hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars,” he sighs. After the mis­take, all the fledg­ing oper­a­tion had left was a very expen­sive pile of scrap. “The guy thought I was going to fire him,” remem­bers Weber. “I called him into the office, and we sat down and talked about it. I said ‘I’m not going to fire you, I can’t afford to. You’ve got a 100-foot ver­sus 99-foot les­son. I don’t think you’ll do that again. Make sure you hold that damn tape mea­sure on the end that you’re sure some­body is mea­sur­ing 100 feet from. My point being is that peo­ple make mis­takes. If you think that you’re going to get away with no mis­takes being made, you’re crazy as hell. Good peo­ple make mis­takes. And if they’re the right peo­ple, they’ve been giv­en the con­fi­dence of man­age­ment to sup­port them. They’ll be the best that you have because they’ve already seen what can hap­pen and what would hap­pen if they do.” There are more suc­cess sto­ries than fail­ures here at Web­co. They num­ber more than the company’s icon­ic founder can recount. So he starts to rec­og­nize a long list of employ­ees and their con­tri­bu­tions to Web­co, only to real­ize that is futile as well. There are just too many names and extra­or­di­nary achieve­ments than he has time and ener­gy to cov­er today. Instead, he focus­es on the rel­a­tive­ly recent addi­tion of the Jef­frey Watt Williams Cen­ter for Man­u­fac­tur­ing Excel­lence, a facil­i­ty that opened at the Star Cen­ter Tube Com­plex. Weber men­tions that a com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices facil­i­ty had been housed on the land that the Star Cen­ter Com­plex was built. It had been shut­tered and was with­er­ing away for more than a decade. Web­co bought the large piece of prop­er­ty and began turn­ing it into a man­u­fac­tur­ing facil­i­ty that would pro­vide jobs in the com­mu­ni­ty and solu­tions to the company’s cus­tomers. “We spent over $60 mil­lion bring­ing this dream to fruition,” he reports. He is proud of the accom­plish­ment, and of course, gives full cred­it to the team of employ­ees who pulled it all togeth­er, includ­ing the late Jef­frey Williams. It’s rare enough to find some­one on this plan­et with almost ten decades’ expe­ri­ence, let alone a guy who is still at work impart­ing this kind of wis­dom to any­one wise enough to lis­ten, while 99.9% of his remain­ing peers are deserved­ly tak­ing it easy and qui­et­ly rid­ing out their twi­light years. “I keep work­ing only because I love it,” he near­ly whis­pers, hav­ing told enough sto­ries this after­noon that his voice is wear­ing thin. “I always thought ‘Hey, I could do this,’ and I didn’t real­ize how hard it would be when I start­ed. But I want­ed to do it a dif­fer­ent way.” They say that noth­ing good ever comes easy, so it’s hard to imag­ine all that it took for Web­co to become tru­ly “great.” Weber nev­er imag­ined that his idea to “do this bet­ter” would turn into such a suc­cess­ful enter­prise with such a pos­i­tive effect on so many lives. True to form, he refus­es to take cred­it. “Prob­a­bly the great­est strength I had was the sup­port of my fam­i­ly,” his eyes tear up. “They trust­ed me. There’s that word again – trust.” These days Bill still comes into work when he can, but he has entrust­ed the busi­ness that he launched to his mid­dle daugh­ter Dana Weber. Webco’s sec­ond CEO and Pres­i­dent keeps an office just across the Exec­u­tive Assistant’s work­space from her father. When both are at head­quar­ters, they talk busi­ness, but the man­tle has clear­ly been passed. “She is bril­liant!” he beams. “Now she runs the com­pa­ny, and I’m an employ­ee,” Weber adds that while Dana is in charge of the busi­ness, she plays oth­er roles in Okla­homa, includ­ing serv­ing on the Fed­er­al Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Okla­homa City Branch Board of Direc­tor. As Web­co reach­es its gold­en anniver­sary, Weber says that there will be time to cel­e­brate, but with an eye on the hori­zon. He believes that there is no rea­son that the com­pa­ny he found­ed 50 years ago can’t con­tin­ue to pros­per and grow even stronger on the way to its 75th and 100th anniver­saries. “You’ve got to keep on, keepin’ on!” urges the 92-year-old. “It’s amaz­ing what peo­ple are capa­ble of when they are com­mit­ted. For instance, we have peo­ple com­ing out of Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty and oth­er state uni­ver­si­ties, and they’re a won­der­ful resource for tal­ent. We don’t know what we don’t know.” They are bring­ing in fresh per­spec­tives and new ideas while learn­ing on the job. “My own opin­ion is that if you know how to do it bet­ter, you do it bet­ter,” he con­tin­ues. “Bet­ter means that you can improve the per­for­mance of a prod­uct you’re sell­ing. If you can improve the per­for­mance of a prod­uct you’re sell­ing, and you don’t do it, you’re crazy as hell. Always be at the head of the class. I think that will keep you in the lead or near the lead. Oh, and by the way, you’ve got to be will­ing to put your mon­ey where your mouth is. You’ve got to be able to take risks. “We look back, and we’ve amazed our­selves at what we’ve accom­plished. It wasn’t one per­son, it wasn’t one orga­ni­za­tion, it wasn’t one thing. It was a col­lect­ed mul­ti­tude of deci­sions that were made – some have good results, some not so good. But, we’re here.” Now what was once a small start-up that sur­vived on its resource­ful­ness and a lit­tle luck has become North America’s lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­er of weld­ed tub­ing with a mis­sion to become a “for­ev­er com­pa­ny”. Fifty years lat­er, that end­less­ly retreat­ing goal line is only on the hori­zon because an indus­tri­ous man and his team of ded­i­cat­ed employ­ees made a tube and a pipe dream come true. As the vis­it­ing jour­nal­ist leaves the warm office, pet­ting Sab­ri­na along the way, he thanks Weber for teach­ing him a few things: old dogs can learn new tricks. “If I taught you any­thing, you’re in trou­ble,” he chuck­les, then vol­un­teers one last pearl, “Remem­ber, wher­ev­er you are, the best is always ahead of you.”

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