Mutually Agreeable. A Tale of Two Companies.
By: Peter Devine
You can never tell what will take hold of a young man’s attention, or what will call forth his best efforts. It might be flying airplanes, or sailing to foreign lands. It might be the world of politics, or a career in medicine. Generally speaking, however, it is not very likely that a young man will grow up wanting to be a rigger; but if ever there was a man born to be a rigger, it was Jim Yarbrough.
Born in Mississippi, Jim tried his hand at a number of jobs, and finally settled in as a young iron worker working for the Corps of Engineers. Wire rope slings have always been an integral part of life on the river, and the young Yarbrough saw his share of them. Back in the day, these slings were all hand spliced, and once they were damaged they were usually replaced by new slings, at considerable cost. Jim started taking the beat-up slings home with him, where he would tear them apart and study the different methods of splicing, eventually learning the art of hand-splicing for himself. The extra money he figured he could make selling the slings back to the operators was pretty inviting during those Depression years, and it wasn’t long before he was going at it steady.
He ginned up a home-made vise, hung the slings from a tree limb, did his splicing after-hours, and in the mornings dropped off his hand-spliced river wires on the Mississippi River levees where the river-boat pilots would pick themup and put them back to work. A career in rigging was born.
Like most natural entrepreneurs, Jim looked forward to the day when he could be his own boss, and in 1950 when he was 37 years of age, that day arrived. He began Yarbrough Cable Service in Memphis with just two employees, and along with a healthy measure of down-home ingenuity and plenty of old-fashioned elbow grease, Jim set himself to the task of bringing the rigging industry into the Twentieth century.
The comparatively primitive methods inherent in the wire-rope industry at that time typically resulted in lengthy delays in product delivery, inaccurate dimensions due slipshod testing procedures, and questionable safety margins when wire rope products were put to use in the field. Using an old cottonseed press, Jim built his first swaging machine so his company could move away from hand-splicing. He built his own test-bed (“A reliable test is worth a thousand expert opinions,” he liked to point out) and instilled rigid quality control procedures throughout his shop. Once he mastered the art of pouring big sockets, he was able get into the production of heavier-gauge wire rope products, and it was here, in the production of multi-part, braided slings that Yarbrough truly began to set a new industry standard. In support of the quality and reliability he sought, Jim Yarbrough designed and built one of the country’s earliest and largest open-construction test beds, one with a 2,600,000 pound capacity, enabling YCS to deliver large slings tested under working load, which meant that sling-length calculations could be made with precision and confidence. Known as a tireless taskmaster with a flinty, old-school personality, Jim Yarbrough became the acknowledged industry leader as he nurtured his company across four decades, and by the time the Nineties rolled around, Yarbrough Cable Services employed 40 people and had achieved a reputation for consistent product excellence, becoming the preferred vendor to wire rope and cable users through a large swath of the Gulf South and Middle America.
Two states over and four hundred miles to the South, there was another shakeup going on in the rigging industry, initiated by another entrepreneurial-minded fellow with an eye for innovation and the drive to back it up. After his graduation from the University of Illinois, a young civil engineer named Jon Khachaturian had gone to work for an engineering firm across the river from New Orleans designing spreader frames for lifting modules and topsides. Unfavorably impressed by the time and expense involved in creating these purpose-built frames which would be used just once (or occasionally not be used at all) and then scrapped, Khachaturian invented and patented a reusable spreader bar that in time would have a profound impact on the rigging industry, cutting costs, saving time, and increasing the safety margins of lifting projects.
Like Jim Yarbrough, he started his own company, which he called Versabar, and began renting out his reusable rigging components as part of engineered rigging solutions for heavy lifts. Also like Jim Yarbrough, Khachaturian started with two employees and grew his company conservatively. He too built a test bed, and started a weighing division in order to determine exact weight and center of gravity of items to be lifted in order to remove much of the guesswork inherent in heavy lifting at that time.
As Versabar’s reputation for reliability and cost-effectiveness grew, larger lift projects began coming their way and it wasn’t long before the company was routinely being called upon to engineer lifts of large topsides, modules, jackets and other lift packages weighing in the thousands of tons. At this point, the two founders’ respective areas of expertise inevitably drew them into a working relationship. Finding a source of large, fully certified, dimensionally precise, braided slings of the highest uniform quality became a priority for Versabar. It was clear Yarbrough Cable Services was the only vendor in the country who could not only produce such slings, but also deliver them in the timely fashion required by Versabar to meet their demanding lift schedule. The two companies began doing business together in 1985 with mutually agreeable results: Versabar had the big slings it needed as well as a guarantee of unfailing quality control, and Yarbrough had a high-profile, high-volume customer who could help the company to get to the next level.
Yarbrough has wasted no time in pursuing their opportunity for growth. Founder Jim Yarbrough passed on at the age of 87 in March of 2000, and under the seasoned and capable leadership of Dan Merrill, Yarbrough has solidified its position as the country’s premier supplier of wire rope products. At their new nine-acre facility in Memphis, the pioneering in-ground tester built by Mr. Yarbrough 25 years ago has been replaced by a new state-of-the-art model with the same 2,600,000 pound capacity. A new 40’ Pouring Tower, a shop for large-diameter single-part and braided slings along with a shop for smaller rigging have been added, along with a shop that houses two smaller test machines that range from 10 pounds to 350,000 pounds. In addition, YCS has added to its staff a Civil Engineer, Andrew Mullis, who serves as Test Manager as well as providing valuable expertise in engineered rigging for YCS customers. Most significantly, the company has further expanded its base of operations to include rigging lofts in Pascagoula, MS, Little Rock, AR, and Muscle Shoals, AL. With a skilled and motivated workforce of 58 employees, Dan Merrill feels that YCS is just now beginning to reach its full potential. “Certainly we have worked hard to get where we are, but we feel that we have never sacrificed our commitment to quality and our dedication to our customers’ best interests along the way. When they’re satisfied, we know we’re doing something right,” he says.
Versabar President Jon Khachaturian counts his company as one of those satisfied customers. “Just last month we needed a 260-foot-long three part sling with a 300-ton capacity, and we needed it in 24 hours. You’re not going to be able to fulfill those kinds of requirements with any other vendor in the country, but Dan and his crew produced it for us overnight. When I say that Yarbrough Cables Services is our most important vendor, period, I’m not exaggerating one bit.” Considering that Versabar has performed over 50,000 lifts on six continents, and produced some of the world’s most innovative heavy lift systems, including the Versatruss, the Versabuild, and the Bottom Feeder, those words are high praise indeed. But don’t look for anybody at YCS to spend time resting on the laurels of the company’s position at the summit of the rigging industry; they’re mostly out in the shop working hard at the everyday tasks that got them there in the first place.