Fire Tested: Kennedy Wire Rope & Sling

By: Joe Nolan

Feature from the May/June 2014 Wire Rope Exchange

If you were one of the 700 guests attending the open house to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of Kennedy Wire Rope & Sling (KWRS) in Corpus Christi on May 15th, you probably caught onto the invitation tagline: “Sound the alarm!  We are getting fired up for food and fun!”  If not, you probably wouldn’t believe their true story of success, even if you heard it firsthand from one of the many long-term employees, such as General Manager, Chip Schwamb, who has been a part of the KWRS team for over 20 years. 

Kennedy Wire Rope & Sling was founded in May of 1979. The company launched with only eight employees, occupying a modest space on Lexington Boulevard in Corpus Christi, TX. Kennedy was small, but they weren’t starting from scratch. Their hard working team was experienced and anxious to be a part of the new company, and founders Jacqueline Kennedy, Garland Kennedy and Garland Kennedy Jr. had a vision for creating a diverse, service-first company that could grow to become an industry leader across the state of Texas.

In only two years KWRS had outgrown their original space, and the purchase of a 24,000 square-foot building on a five-acre stretch of Flato Road was a sign of things to come. Kennedy’s team exploded under increasing demands from a growing industry. The new location afforded more space, but it also allowed for important equipment upgrades that further increased the efficiency of their workforce. The company was able to take on large-scale jobs and offer in-house product testing, and the addition of a spooling truck meant that Kennedy could offer its customers on-site service.

“It helps to be part of one of the largest markets in the world,” says Kennedy, “but the reason for our growth has been service. When the customer is in a bind, we take care of them.”

In the late 1990’s Kennedy’s role in the expanding market had grown beyond their previous capacity, leading the company to a purchase of an additional five acres of property and the building of another 24,000 square-foot building. After literally doubling its size, Kennedy expanded its product testing while at the same time growing both its synthetic sling fabrication and its chain sling departments.

Near the end of 1998, Kennedy opened its first location outside of Corpus Christi. The San Antonio office allowed the company to better serve its customers in central Texas while also giving them an improved foothold for building their client base in the region.  In the process, it repositioned the company and expanded their market reach.

“In the mid-90’s the company expanded in Corpus Christi. Now we have five buildings out here – we just built it as we grew,” says Jonathan Cloutet, the financial manager at Kennedy Wire Rope & Sling. “In the mid 90’s, when KWRS decided to build a branch in San Antonio, really, the main drive was to serve the area better – the San Antonio office covers west Texas, north Texas and central Texas. This was about ten years before the big boom in Eagle Ford shale. But, once that hit, our San Antonio facility was sitting right in the perfect spot. In the mid 2000’s we went ahead and expanded the San Antonio branch.”

The San Antonio office has been so successful that after ten years of operation, the entire location had to be moved into a 25,000 square-foot space similar to the buildings at the headquarters in Corpus Christi. Just as in Kennedy’s previous expansions, the new space meant new opportunities for new products and services. Add to those the additional storage space afforded by the new building, and Kennedy’s central Texas clients had never been better served.

Kennedy’s first decades saw them adding locations, acquiring larger markets, expanding facilities and production. However, would Kennedy have the durability to keep going when the going got tough? The answer to that question came via a phone call.

“Back in 2012, on October 7, I got a call from Garland Jr. saying there was a fire at the office,” says Cloutet.  In an interview with local paper, Alice Echo News Journal, Cloutet explained the sentiments of the moment, “I’m praying that a tree’s on fire, or something that doesn’t matter is on fire, but it was the main office building.  That fire burned for days…The fire department put out most of the fire that day, and it was actually still smoldering for a good couple of weeks.”

The fire, which started upstairs because of a surge protector, destroyed the office building, and “there was not a way to save anything in the building,” Cloutet recalled. “The products were all destroyed…We lost millions of dollars worth of inventory and equipment.”

Despite the grim outlook of having to start over without a building, the Kennedy team focused on the day-to-day operations despite the distractions.  They were concerned about making sure they could continue to give their customers what they needed despite their own setbacks.

With unflagging resolve, some reorganizing and a bit of imagination, Kennedy was able to keep up with customer demands.  After the fire was completely out, Kennedy set up shop in three mobile trailers. The two-story office building packed into the units made for little space, but the team kept up with business.

“We had the entire office operation in there,” Cloutet said. “We had everyone crammed in like a bunch of sardines.” Each desk in the temporary office was right up against another. There were no bathrooms in the trailers and no room to stretch out. The conditions were not ideal, but Kennedy still managed to operate out of those mobile units for more than a year.

Kennedy has been back in its new home on Flato Road since mid-November, and Cloutet expects the company to keep forging ahead through whatever the future may bring.

“We definitely learned a lot about not only ourselves, but we also learned about what this company can handle when under pressure.  That was really a testament to our resilience to have our corporate headquarters burn to the ground and still be able to perform. After going through something like that, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t handle at this point.”

Despite the difficulties, the fire at their main facility failed to slow down Kennedy’s pattern of growth.  Through the first few months of 2014, Kennedy Wire Rope and Sling had expanded to 80,000 square feet of operating space while still maintaining the commitment to quality and customer satisfaction that marked the company’s successful start over three decades ago. Kennedy is steadfast and determined to continue being a leader in supplying wire rope, rigging hardware, slings, oilfield and lifting products for the foreseeable future, and their recent acquisition of Manchester Sling makes that a promise they’re likely to keep.

“This is one of the big things we’ve had in mind for the last couple of years, but there hasn’t been a good opportunity until Trey Meador over at Manchester Sling brought it up. He thought it’d make a great fit and he liked our business model and our personnel,” says Cloutet. “He was interested in selling a branch in Houston. Our Management team decided it was the next step for the company. We signed them on April 17 and it’s been a wild ride ever since. The Houston market is one everybody wants to get into.” 

The acquisition is a real game-changer for Kennedy. It puts them front and center in two new markets while also allowing the company to expand in a number of important directions. “There were markets we were not able to be part of because of time and distance,” says Garland Kennedy Jr. “We needed to be able to supply those markets same day, everyday and now we can.”

The respect and admiration that Cloutet expressed for Manchester was reciprocated by Trey Meador when he decided that Kennedy was the right company to buy him out. Meador spoke with Wire Rope Exchange via a phone call from his office at Premier Wire Rope in Houston – a company that he still owns.

“We’ve known Kennedy Wire Rope and the family and the upper management for several years,” says Meador. “When I was starting Premier Wire Rope they became a strong client. We’ve helped each other out and developed a good relationship. I simply threw out the opportunity to merge Manchester into Kennedy. It was a strategic move for both of us. There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions in the industry and it seemed like this would be the plan for us. I felt like I had some flexibility and it all comes down to the right buyer, the right person on the other end of the deal.”

Echoing the same sentiments, Garland Kennedy Jr. likens it to a family.  “It just made a perfect fit. It was like having relatives come and work for us,” he says.

Kennedy has met with its share of successes and setbacks.  Despite a fire that left their corporate warehouse in ashes, the company acted like it barely hit a speed bump, much less a roadblock – turning in a record year in sales.  Add their recent M&A with Manchester Sling, and Kennedy’s penchant for growth is proof that ‘success breeds success.’

 

See this story and others from our May/June 2014 Wire Rope Exchange by viewing our digital issue here.

 

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