A Publication Dedicated To Coal People

                          June  2006  Issue 




















From Coal People
      

Tom DeWitt and Frank Dulin
By Ginna Royce

 Frank Dulin’s grandfathers worked in the coal mines; his paternal grandfather was confirmed with one of the first diagnosed cases of black lung disease.

 

Tom DeWitt’s grandfather raised and managed the ponies that were used to pull mine cars in coal mines in Preston County, West Virginia. 

 

Who knew that DeWitt and Dulin would end up in business together . . . but that’s the coal industry, and stranger things have happened.

 

TOM DEWITT

At the age of 10 Tom DeWitt started traveling to coal mines with his father, Harry.  The elder DeWitt, a field sales and service representative for Bradshaw Hydraulics, picked up failed hydraulic or mechanical components for repair.  The younger DeWitt eavesdropped on those conversations between his father and the mine maintenance personnel. 

 

“One of the first coal industry managers I remember meeting was a young mine superintendent named Bob Murray,” DeWitt said.  The same Bob Murray who owns and operates Murray Energy Corporation today.

 

A few summers of “hydraulic troubleshooting” was all it took to get DeWitt hooked.  He wanted to solve equipment problems.

 

His father insisted on education, so DeWitt enrolled at West Virginia University’s School of Engineering.  To help pay his way through college, DeWitt landed a part-time job at Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics in Morgantown, WV., as a night janitor. His father had since left Bradshaw Hydraulics in 1966 to join MM&H and, DeWitt admits, his father got him the job.

 

Following DeWitt’s postgraduate degree, MM&H offered him a job as an engineer.  He also had job offers from Monsanto and General Electric. 

 

“I told John Meredith, general manager of MM&H, that if he would match Monsanto’s offer of $1,000 per month then I would stay at Morgantown Machine.  They agreed and I became the first degreed engineer to work for the company.  I was very humbled to learn later that my father – the driving force behind the growth of Morgantown Machine, who possessed years of experience, vastly superior knowledge compared to mine, and who was a better engineer than I could ever hope to be (degree or no degree) – was also being paid $1,000 per month.

 

“Never underestimate the power of education,” DeWitt said, noting that it was his father who had insisted that he get as much college education as possible.

 

Full-time employment at MM&H was interrupted to fulfill obligations to the U.S. Army.  While at Ft. Bliss, Texas, DeWitt learned that the company was purchased by National Mine Service Company.  Neither of the DeWitts were assured a job with the new owners. 

 

But tragedy struck within a few months of the NMS acquisition:  Meredith, the MM&H general manager, suffered a severe stroke.  Harry DeWitt was “informally elected” by his peers to lead the company while NMS searched for a new GM.  It didn’t take long for NMS to make the “informal election” official.

 

“As for the working relationship between my father and me, it was simply great.  There was never a cross word between us and a great deal of mutual respect.  He was a mentor extraordinaire and not just to me, but to every young person who was fortunate enough to work with him.”

 

INVENTING THE CONTINUOUS

MINER RETRIEVER

It was around 1975 when the younger DeWitt received a call from John Stopka, a mechanic at Bethlehem 58 Mine near Mariana, PA.  His challenge for DeWitt:  pull a continuous mining machine out from underneath a roof fall. 

 

At that time, the common practice was to attach a steel cable to the miner and run it through a series of sheaves and pulleys.  A shuttle car or cars were used in series to generate enough force to pull the miner out.  That method was dangerous, and usually unsuccessful.

 

The mechanic required safety, ease, and a quick setup.  When DeWitt asked how much force the mechanic required he replied, “If I could hook a CAT D-9 dozer to it, I know I could pull it out.”

 

DeWitt contacted a Caterpillar dealer and determined the tractive pull of a D-9, then tripled it.

 

“We needed a 12-inch bore cylinder with 2000 psi of hydraulic oil pressure to give me the 100 tons of pulling force that I estimated we’d need,”  said DeWitt.  “But we would also need something to secure that cylinder.   The age old “dead man” anchor was an easy choice.  I laid out a large 2” thick steel anchoring plate with connection for the pull cylinder and a place to set in two large steel H-beams that would wedge between the mine roof and the anchoring plate.

 

The retriever was named the MR100 (Miner Retriever 100 Tons) and it succeeded the very first time it was used, which was three weeks after it was delivered to Bethlehem 58.  A few minor changes were made, however the MR100 is still produced and sold today.  In fact, there is a MR150 (150 ton pull) and a recent request has been made for a 200-ton assembly.

 

THE PETITTO MULE

During his tenure as a WVU Engineering student, DeWitt had performed some part-time drafting work for Petitto Mine Equipment Repair Company.

 

Petitto Mine Equipment Repair Company’s owner, Angelo Petitto, and DeWitt’s father, Harry, had worked together at Bradshaw Hydraulics and remained close friends throughout their lives. 

 

During lunch one day in 1976, Harry and Angelo sketched the first “Petitto Mule” on a napkin.  Harry helped Angelo design the hydraulic system.  While working full-time at MM&H, Tom designed the hydraulic cylinders for “The Mule.”

 

CHANGES AT MM&H

In 1980, Harry announced his pending retirement from NMS. 

 

“Kent McElhattan, president of NMS, came to Morgantown and said he wanted me to follow my father and be the next vice president and general manager over the Hydraulic Division.” 

 

DeWitt remembers thanking him for the opportunity and McElhattan’s reply, “The only opportunity I’m giving you is an opportunity to fail.  Any other opportunity you have is yours to take.”

 

By 1981, NMS had grown to over 400 employees with annual sales of approximately $25,000,000.

 

And it was around 1980 that the professional paths of Tom DeWitt and Frank Dulin not only crossed, but eventually consolidated.

 

FRANK DULIN

“After graduating with the largest mining engineering class ever from WVU, I was exposed to the cyclical nature of the coal mining industry,”  Dulin said.  “Lacking a better opportunity and realizing that a working knowledge of hydraulics would undoubtedly enhance my resume, I accepted a position as an entry level draftsman for Morgantown Machine and Hydraulics.”

 

It was Tom DeWitt that gave Dulin the latitude to work in a somewhat unstructured environment and allowed and, in fact, encouraged him, to complete advanced mechanical engineering courses to become a registered professional engineer.

 

“What attracted me to MM&H, and the reason I am still with the company 26 years later, is the fact that MM&H is more than just a hydraulic repair shop.  Rather than simply repairing hydraulic components as originally designed, the company endeavored to identify patterns of failure in hydraulic components.  In many cases, we were able to modify the original design by either changing the material, geometry, or application resulting in a better, longer lasting product.  While eliminating repetitive repairs seems counterintuitive to business, our customers appreciated those efforts and the company was rewarded with increased volume.”

 

THE ERA OF SHIELD REPAIR

In the early 80s, longwall coal mining was growing at a rapid pace in the United States.  Virtually all longwall shield designers were based in Europe.  U.S. conditions differed enough to cause numerous hydraulic and structural problems.  Coal mines would remove the defective parts underground, then ship the parts above ground for repair.  Once repaired, the parts were reinstalled underground using mine labor.

 

“U.S. Steel’s Cumberland Mine was experiencing so many problems with their shields that they decided to send about 20 units to MM&H for repair.  We struggled with the learning curve, but the shields were repaired in about 30 days,” Dulin said.

 

Dulin provided the technical expertise required to function test the shields and he used DeWitt as a resource for technical issues.  But it took both men to transport the final shield back to the mine.

 

“We were hit with a a severe snow storm, no commercial driver would accept the job, and we wouldn’t even think of asking one of our employees to take the risk.  Since delivery was crucial, Tom drove the truck and I played traffic cop at the dangerous intersections.”

 

The shields were safely returned to Cumberland where they ran successfully until their retirement a few years later.

 

“In all honesty, hydraulic repairs were the company’s forte -- the shield structure was viewed as a necessary nuisance to gain access to the hydraulics,” Dulin noted.

 

But the major turning point for MM&H’s shield rebuild business occurred in 1987 when Consol decided to transfer an entire face of shields from their Loveridge Mine to their Arkwright mine.  The project required the rebuild of approximately 150 supports, but the time frame was limited to only six weeks.

 

Fortunately, NMS owned a large vacant building in Mannington, W.Va., which was directly along the route from Loveridge to Arkwright.  Experienced manpower was pulled from the shop floor in Morgantown with the remaining workforce hired “green” from nearby communities.

 

As project manager, Dulin coordinated the needed hydraulic repairs with Morgantown Machine, made the changes requested by Arkwright to suit their differing mining requirements, and completed the project safely -- a significant task considering the number of rookies working on the new venture.

 

“We hit the deadline with a few days to spare . . . and the shield rebuilding era at MM&H had begun,”  Dulin said.

 

AN INDUSTRY OF TRUST

Unlike other industries where people tend to come and go, the vast majority of those who start in the coal industry spend their entire career in the industry.  Great business and personal friendships are built upon mutual respect and trust.

 

Dulin and DeWitt were about to learn just how far trust would take them.

 

Shortly after the Loveridge to Arkwright project, the U.S. Steel Cumberland Mine’s 360-ton split caving back shields were unable to hold up the roof, and succumbed to geology.  Cumberland ordered new shields, with a lead time of nine to twelve months.  Hoping to get back in the coal sooner, Cumberland turned to Dulin and the MM&H staff for alternatives. 

 

At the time spare shields were limited and no complete set of shields was available.  Using a multitude of resources, MM&H and Cumberland were able to come up with enough shields to fill out the face, which ultimately consisted of seven different shield designs.

 

“We found about 70 surplus shields at AEP in Ohio.  On a Monday I negotiated a purchase price of $750,000 with AEP and promised to have the check to them no later than Thursday.  I called George Scull at the US Steel Mining Company’s main office and told him that it was a fair price, that the shields would work and that I needed a check for $750,000 within 24 hours.  George’s reply was, ‘who do we make it out to?’ 

 

“There was no paper work, no specifications, no contract, and no purchase orders; just a trust between us that we could put a longwall face together to get Cumberland Mine back in production,” DeWitt said.

 

Overcoming the obstacles of tip to face, matching ram strokes, feed line sizes, and panline connections, Cumberland was up and running in a little over two months.

 

The following was a typical conversation between the two companies once the shields were installed underground:

CUMBERLAND:  “We need an advancing ram for the longwall.”

MM&H:  “For the Hemscheidt, Klockner, or Dowty shields?”

CUMBERLAND:  “Advancing ram for the Dowty shield.”

MM&H: “Two-leg or four-leg Dowty shield?

CUMBERLAND: “Two-leg Dowty shield.”

MM&H:  “Which two-leg Dowty shield?”

CUMBERLAND:  “The Oak Grove Dowty shield.”

 

In the end, Cumberland actually set mine production records with this hodgepodge of shields.

 

In the months that followed, shields poured in from virtually every mine in the region.  The shield division of MM&H quickly grew to the point that, on average, 600 shields were repaired annually.

 

MORE CHANGES AT MM&H

During the mid ‘90s, Dulin and DeWitt made several attempts to buy MM&H, but were finally outbid by The Marmon Group, a multibillion dollar conglomerate from Chicago.

 

“The entire time Frank and I had been negotiating with NMS to buy Morgantown Machine we had also been meeting with the owners of both CWS and Swanson Plating Company in Morgantown.  We were proposing a merger between MM&H and CWS / Swanson once Frank and I acquired MM&H.  We felt that the companies joined together would be a much stronger company than we each were separately,” DeWitt said.

 

After the MM&H sale to the Marmon Group, Gary Cain, Stan Wassick and Paul Swanson, owners of CWS / Swanson Plating, lured Dulin and DeWitt away from MM&H.  Ironically, Paul Swanson had been a sales manager for Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics in 1964.  He left to start a hard chrome plating business which primarily served the plating needs of MM&H.  And Cain?  He had served as purchasing manager of MM&H in the 1970s.  Yes, all admit, there is an incestuous history here.

 

Dulin and DeWitt joined CWS / Swanson Plating Company in May of 1995 with three edicts:  1)  Dulin and DeWitt would form a new company, called Morgantown Technical Services Company (MTS), which would provide longwall shield rebuild services for the coal industry; 2)  Swanson Plating’s relatively small hydraulic repair shop would go head-to-head with MM&H for hydraulic and mechanical repair business from area coal mines; and 3) eventually Dulin and DeWitt would gain ownership in CWS / Swanson Plating Company as part of a management succession plan.

 

“It was all done with a handshake and a trust that we had in each other,” DeWitt remembers.

 

MTS leased, then outgrew, a facility in Preston County.  The time was right to build a new facility and the group selected Mount Morris, Pa. 

 

“Using a clean sheet of paper we were able to design and construct a building to house and rebuild 100 shields at a time,” DeWitt said.

 

The decision to build the new facility was a bold and risky venture at the time, considering the political climate, stagnant coal prices, and the continual assault on the industry by environmental groups.

 

Since opening, MTS has rebuilt 13 complete sets of shields and repairs more than 1,200 shields annually.

 

GROWING AND GROWING PAINS

With Dulin and DeWitt on board, CWS/ Swanson also initiated a small startup firm that complemented the operations.  Laser Processing Company became the fourth CWS / Swanson company and the owners appointed fellow WVU engineering graduate, Mark Carter vice president and general manager for the new startup.  Carter already managed Swanson Plating Company.

 

In July of 1999, CWS Company bought Commercial Drilling in Cannonsburg, Pa. Its line of drilling supplies was a good fit with the CWS distribution business.

 

“More importantly, we got the owner, Bill Gibson,” DeWitt said.  “He had worked with Frank and me at NMS and we needed his management and entrepreneurial talent.”

 

In 2000, Paul Swanson kept his promise and made ownership available to Dulin and DeWitt.

 

The company, renamed Swanson Industries, Inc., was now owned by Paul Swanson, Gary Cain, Tom DeWitt, Frank Dulin, and Mark Carter.

 

“The good news for Frank and I was that we were now ‘business owners,’ a goal we had always shared.  The bad news was that the company had negative equity and was ‘in debt up to its neck!’” DeWitt said.

 

Then came the call from The Marmon Group.  They wanted out of the mining business and were seeking a buyer for MM&H.

 

“After some extensive negotiations we reached an agreement with Marmon to buy the assets of Morgantown Machine and we offered employment to many of the remaining employees,” DeWitt remembered.

 

The deal was closed on December 1, 2001 and Swanson Industries was now “in debt up to its ears.”

 

“The coal industry was in a mini-upswing at the time we closed on Morgantown Machine . . . and that upswing ceased seemingly a day after we closed,”  DeWitt recalled.

 

The next couple of years were financially tough.  DeWitt and Dulin had spent their entire careers at MM&H and believed they knew everything there was to know about the business.

 

“It seemed that every rock we kicked over had a snake under it,” DeWitt laughed.  “Had we known that before we made the acquisition I seriously doubt it would have ever occurred.”

 

The growth was slow at first, but both men credit  their employees for making it all work.

 

“Of all the assets acquired from Marmon, the greatest one was the people.  They worked extremely hard and were extremely loyal,” DeWitt said.

 

NO PLAN . . . BUT TO SUCCEED

When DeWitt and Dulin left NMS in 1995 they were looking to be part of a relatively small, successful company. 

 

“I’d like to tell you that we were smart and had strategic plans to grow CWS / Swanson into a major company, but no such plans or ideas existed,” DeWitt said.

 

From the time both men began working at MM&H through the present, the 12-hour work days that stretched into the weekends have not been uncommon.

 

“My wife, Sharon, and Frank’s wife, Ricki, have endured the growing pains as well.  They’ve both taken late night calls from the mines when Frank and I are on the road,” DeWitt remembers.  “In fact, they both know quite a few guys from the mines just by their voice on the phone!  We couldn’t have done it without them.”

 

Both DeWitt and Dulin acknowledge the large companies that do not have the entrepreneurial trait and willingness to take major risks.

 

“It lets privately-owned companies like ours see opportunity, accept the risks, react . . . and succeed beyond our wildest dreams,” DeWitt said.

 

Today, Swanson Industries is a worldwide supplier of hydraulic, machining and plating services. The company’s expertise lies in designing and manufacturing new products; remanufacturing and repairing components; and distribution. 

 

Headquartered in Morgantown, WV., Swanson operates facilities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Utah, Wyoming, Virginia, and recently obtained a manufacturing agreement in Shanghai, China.  The company employs over 700 people.                                                                           cpm