Built to Last on the Bayou: Houston’s Kulkoni, Inc. Celebrates 60 Years.

BY: Mike Chalmers

In the early 1960s, the owners of Kulkoni Germany provided a group of around 20 men who’d earned their trust with $25,000 cash (German marks at the time) to establish businesses around the world. The message was simple: “Go out and make money—establish a business and be profitable.”

Trading houses were established in places like South and Central America, Africa, and Asia—and one of the men who’d been sent to the United States settled in Houston, Texas. At that point, the U.S. East Coast was already saturated with import companies, and the West Coast was too expensive to ship to. Less crowded and less expensive, Houston also boasted direct shipping access from Europe. And thus, Kulkoni, Inc. (Kulkoni) was soon established in The Bayou City.

Early on, the young business began importing and selling nursery supplies, clay pots, peat moss, and the like, and it wouldn’t be long before additional products were added to the inventory, including ceramic tile, German-made hand tools, and chains and fittings. In fact, global chain powerhouse THIELE had been making quality chains and fittings since 1935 by then, and Kulkoni ended up landing an exclusive distributorship for their products that lasted well into the late 1980s.

KulkoniThat relationship got Kulkoni into the then-still flourishing hardware wholesale market in the U.S., and the company began to import and sell European tools, chains, and related hardware into that respective market. It was a short step into wire rope and small cord from there, and now, decades beyond those early years, Kulkoni is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2023 as one of the lifting, rigging, and load securement industry’s leading suppliers of high-quality import and domestic lifting and rigging products—serving customers across construction, oil & gas, transportation, maritime, entertainment, and logging.

The Right Track

Exclusively a wholesale company, serving a distributor base throughout North and Central America, with some exposure to South America, many of Kulkoni’s long-term customers go back multiple decades—some more than 50 years. Company leadership attributes such longevity to a sales strategy that is, first and foremost, relationship-based.

“While consolidation within our industry has been challenging over the years,” acknowledged CEO Benjamin Cole, “our longstanding relationships with our customer base have enabled us to keep our combined eyes and ears open in order to stay current. And over the decades, we’ve encouraged input from our friends and customers to keep us both on the right track.”

Cole emphasized that Kulkoni is very much in the problem-solving business. “We look at it like, tell me what you need, and what issue or problem I can solve for you. It’s how we try to operate. And we don’t sell it if you don’t sell it for us—which has proven to be a successful approach.”

As a result, Kulkoni maintains a sales model based on selective distribution—only adding to its distribution network when and where opportunities are optimal for a given region.

“Anything we can do to help,” added Michael Rothermund, VP of Sales. “If you buy or stock any of our product, there is nothing we cannot talk about to help support our customers. We try to build relationships that make dealing with us easy and worry-free.”

It’s an approach that Rothermund indicated was part of the company’s DNA from the start. “Kulkoni’s founders believed that the best way to succeed was to provide customers with the quality products they needed, when they needed them, and with the best possible service,” he said. “This commitment to quality and customer service helped Kulkoni build a loyal customer base that is still in evidence today. We have customers from coast to coast that essentially use our ‘stock’ as their inventory.”

In Stock

As for their product line, Kulkoni moves its stock through its loyal distributor base as well as via four different digital catalogs: the Kulkoni General Catalogue, American Wire Rope (Bridon), CM Rigging Attachments, and Upson Walton Swage Sockets & Sleeves.

“We stock a wide variety of rigging products, and we take pride in making sure that all items listed in our online catalogs are in stock,” explained Don McCollum, President. “We don’t just publish a catalog to cover ‘everything rigging.’ If there is a new product that’s gaining popularity in the industry, we’ll do our best to establish a reliable supply for a quality item to add to our stock.”

Over time, McCollum pointed out, they’ve developed a deep understanding of which products are best suited for different applications. “For example, we maintain a large inventory of Korean turnbuckles, and we have one of the most extensive inventories of import turnbuckles (ranging from 1/4” through 2 3/4”) in the industry. We have established trademarks for Yellow pins on our shackles and Yellow U-bolts on our dropforged clips for the U.S. market.  “We’ve consistently purchased these products from the same manufacturer for over twenty years.”

At the end of the day, said Rothermund, the objective is to provide high-quality products every time out, and never take shortcuts to reduce costs. “We believe that compromises quality, and we won’t do it. Instead, we try to shine through premium service, and still ship ninety-eight percent of all orders received the same day. Additionally, our location in Houston allows us two-day service to L.A., Chicago, Detroit, Norfolk, Charleston, and Miami. Unless our customers tell us otherwise, we will ship their orders today.”

Many of those orders include wire rope, which Kulkoni started importing in the 1970s when they got an order for some Korean material from Elm Supply in New Orleans (which later became Bridon Elm, and then Certex).

“That got us started selling wire rope products,” confirmed Rothermund. “We now sell to a wide range of industries, including oil & gas, petrochemical, transportation, entertainment, agriculture, light and heavy industry, construction, load securing, surface mining, steel mills, car manufacturing, logging, mooring, and lifting. That said, if a customer demands a product that is so cheap that it would compromise our quality standards, we’d rather lose the business than sell an inferior product. There is already too much of that in the market.”

He added, “Our imported fittings are made to the highest standards, meeting or exceeding industry requirements. And we take a lot of pride in ensuring that our products are correctly marked with the country of origin and any required manufacturer’s marks, in accordance with ASME B30.”

Core Values

Rothermund mentioned Houston’s prime location for Kulkoni as an industry hub today, but he remembers times when Houston was the hottest spot in the country to do business. “In the late nineties and early two-thousands, when the Gulf of Mexico was booming, Houston was a hotbed of rigging activity,” he said. “There were more rigging houses in Houston than in any other city in the country, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Today, there are still around twenty to thirty rigging houses in Houston, and they are all doing well—but in addition, there are close to fifty rigging houses in the small stretch of land between Houston and New Orleans. And most of them are located within five to ten miles of interstate ten. This is an incredible density of rigging houses, and a testament to the importance of Houston as a center for the oil and gas industry.”

As Kulkoni’s homebase seemingly exploded with opportunity around them over the decades, it only reaffirmed with leadership the importance of the company’s core values as a guiding light.

“Quality has always been paramount, and it’s where we start,” McCollum asserted. “Price is secondary—if it’s not up to spec, we won’t sell it. Our products meet or exceed all federal and industry standards for lifting, rigging, and load-fastening products.”

Additionally, he noted, product shipments from Kulkoni’s suppliers are subject to frequent testing, which include, but are not limited to: dimension, proof test, break test, hardness test, and chemical analysis as required.

“We also own most of the forging dies and casting molds for our private label lifting products,” he maintained. “And we include product identification on our parts when possible. If our name goes on any product, customers can rest assured it’s a quality item.”

Kulkoni customers and end-users likely know the trademarks well at this point—the aforementioned yellow shackle pins and U-bolts on the forged clips, as well as the Blue & Yellow colored strands on import wire rope and the Red & Yellow strand colors within the domestic brand of American Wire Rope products.

“Sure, we want to be seen, but we also want our customers and their end-users to know they are receiving the same material this time that they received last time,” added Rothermund. “Trademarks help us to stay consistent and portray that to our customer base as well as the market in general.”

Rich History

Equally as important as quality, explained Rothermund and Cole, are both service and inventory. “We want to be able to get material to our customers as quickly as possible, and in the best shape possible,” established Rothermund. “Our customers look at our warehouse as an extension of their facilities, and we like that.”

Cole agreed, “You can’t sell it if you don’t have it. And we may not have it all, but we have a lot. Our customers don’t expect us to say, sorry, we’re out. And that was a big challenge during COVID—supply chains were going crazy on everyone, but we made a decision early on to keep buying and just live with the higher cost. When container rates went from two thousand dollars to twenty thousand dollars per box, I can’t say we always felt good about placing another order, but that is, ultimately, what kept us busy during the pandemic.”

As always, the relationships Kulkoni has established along the way were also a key part of conquering that last few years, and plenty of those relationships have been either garnered or sustained through membership in organizations like AWRF (Associated Wire Rope Fabricators), WSTDA (Web Sling & Tie Down Association), as well as the Association of Energy Service Companies (AESC).

Cole explained that Kulkoni has a rich history, in particular, with AWRF. “We’ve been a longstanding member, and are proud to have been one of the first importers to be admitted to the association,” he said. “Jürgen Prohaska, our former VP of sales, served as AWRF president from 1992 to 1993, and his successor, Michael [Rothermund], served as president in 2009. We stay in touch with the AWRF and other industry associations to ensure that we’re aware of, and prepared for, any changes in relevant industry standards.”

History being what it is, said Cole, 60 years in business means that, as much as both the industry and marketplace changes, one thing remains the same. “Our commitment to quality and service is our number-one priority.”

As for recognizing the milestone, he’s also committed to a special point in the not-too-distant future. “We haven’t done much in building up for this anniversary in the last few years due to the pandemic, but I’m hopeful we can have a nice company dinner towards the end of the year.”

This article appeared in the July/August 2023 Issue of Wire Rope Exchange.

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