From Coal People
Tom DeWitt and Frank Dulin
By Ginna Royce
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.
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
The following was a typical
conversation between the two companies once the shields were
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
CUMBERLAND: “Two-leg Dowty
MM&H: “Which two-leg Dowty
CUMBERLAND: “The Oak Grove
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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
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,
“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
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