BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – There’s no better definition of a family-owned and operated business than Fort Madison’s Huffman Welding & Manufacturing, Inc.
Bob Huffman Sr., was one of the best welders in the area in the late 60s and early 70s, according to his son Mike. Huffman turned that trade in a multi-million dollar family business. Whether he knew to what degree putting up a building in Fort Madison for welding services would pay off, is a question for him.
But on Nov. 4, Huffman Welding & Manufacturing, Inc. will celebrate it’s 50th anniversary with a day of tours at the plant located at 6224 Avenue O, including a lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and hors d’oeuvres from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the old Business After Hours format.
In a convoluted generational history, Mike Huffman, Richard “Hank” Huffman, Bob Huffman, Jr., and Jason Huffman oversee operations of about 50 employees outside of the company’s retail offshoot Huffman Farm and Home, with approximately 106 employees total.
Mike is getting close to stepping aside and said he couldn’t be happier that Hank, Bob and Jason are there to carry the mantle. Jason is Mike’s son and is just 10 years younger than Bob, who is 22 years Mike’s younger brother.
“I’m still in the second generation,’ Bob Jr., said. “But the second generation goes on quite a while. Jason is the third generation but we’re only 10 years apart. We’re actually closer in age than Mike and I.”
Mike started working with his father when Bob Sr. decided to open the business in 1971. He said he helped, along with his grandfather and uncle, level the ground and put up the building.
“We painted and did whatever needed to be done,” Mike said.
Then he took some machinist trade classes and joined his father in the business, along with his brother Hank, who Bob Jr., said “is the hardest working guy in the place.”
“He’s totally hands on and is the dirtiest, greasiest guy walking through here. He loves to work with his hands. He’s actually on site on a bridge right now working on that project for us. He leaves all the social stuff, marketing, and PR to us, but he’s just as much a part of our success as any of us.”
Bob Jr., graduated from Fort Madison High School and then from St. Ambrose’s business degree program. After getting his degree, he took a semester of machine trades at Southeastern Community College and then brought that knowledge to the family business. About a year into Bob’s time in the company, the floor foreman took another job and Mike installed Bob as the new foreman.
“Without a doubt, I value my time and contributions of my business degree, but I gained even more respect for the business from seeing how smart our employees are dealing with it day in and day out,” he said.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me here because I was really forced to learn the machines, about estimating, fabrications, reading drawings – really the all-encompassing part of this business.”
Jason Huffman joined the company also after graduating from St. Ambrose, but Jason graduated from the engineering program and now has embraced keeping up with technology.
Huffman attends trade shows and brings back ideas for technology to share with the family.
Those ideas have resulted in millions of dollars of investment in cutting edge, literally and figuratively, technology that helps keep Huffmans not only able to provide services and products to almost every manufacturer in Lee County, but also compete on a global scale.
Mike said Huffmans has done work with every industry in the county, but also has shipped fully built equipment, parts, and repairs all over the world.
“That’s why this has always worked in the family – we’ve never really tried to trip over each other trying to do the same thing. We all had our niche areas where we had our focus and that worked. We’ve had plenty to keep us busy and we knew we had to hold up our end of the deal,” Bob said.
In 2018, the Huffmans brought in a $750,000 milling machine that was so big they had to put on a 12,000 square foot addition for a $1.3 million investment that year. Since that time, the company has added a second larger mill, which is still under construction on site. They’ve also put in a state-of-the-art press brake which bends heavy sheets of steel, some more than 1/2″ thick. A completely automated Python Structural steel processing machine was also added and new Doosan CNC lathe and mill machines.
All three of the Huffman’s said without the trades people they have on staff, the company wouldn’t be positioned the way it is today.
“The thing about our business and our craft is we don’t work in inches – we work in 10ths, 100ths, 1000ths of an inch, the thickness of a hair. And we have some of the best craftsman in the field,” Bob said.
“We get paid to do it right, not to do it over. To see how complicated these projects are and to see how our people do it with relative ease, was a great learning experience for me.”
Bob said Jason seems to always have big asks that need to be considered, but without those improvements, the company wouldn’t be able to provide some the extremely specialized services they are capable of providing.
“Over the last five years, we’ve invested in a lot of new equipment that’s very exciting for the future and that’s allowed us to be more competitive and opening doors that weren’t there before,” Bob said.
“That has to do with Jason pushing me, I’m a bit more conservative and I’d be nervous about taking these leaps and he would bring something to me and I’d have to sit on it and get my head wrapped around it for a year or two, but just about everything he’s brought he’s got eventually. I’m glad he did that because it’s made us a better company and given us an opportunity to look out to the next 25 to 50 years.
“You have to get on the train or get left behind.”
Jason said sometimes he comes back with ideas thinking, “Bob’s gonna kill me,” but he said that’s the part of the next generation of Huffman manufacturing.
“Even before this technology what I thought was important was that we be able to adapt. There’s been times when we’ve done product lines that don’t work anymore for us and we’ve shifted,” Huffman said.
“There were times we’ve been heavier in certain areas of our business because of the team we had. The ability to adapt has gotten us through 50 years, and here lately it’s been the technology that has adapted. Before that it may not have been added computer equipment, but adding the right other equipment or more team members at the right time,” Jason said.
Bob said the company for the past five years has had a “Now hiring machinists and fabricators”, posting on their outdoor sign, not necessarily because they are short staffed, but because they don’t want to let a good one get away.
One of the things he’s most proud of is that the company has never laid anyone off due to lack of work.
“We have a standing policy that if a fabricator or machinist comes in looking for a job, that person immediately gets an initial interview. We just don’t want to let someone that could bring more to the team go by,” he said.
Mike Huffman said it’s been that philosophy that’s spurred Huffmans’ expansion over the years.
“The basic here is that we’ve been able to work with a lot of really good people. We’ve been able to expand over the years because we’ve hired the right people – welders, machinists, engineering. We’ve been just blessed with that. Sure, we’ve had a few lucky choices along the way that seemed to always work out, but if it didn’t we just worked harder,” Mike said.
Mike said Bob and Jason are the future and who knows what other family will step into roles. Bob has two sons, Ethan and Owen. Ethan is the oldest and is a freshman in high school, who just started working in the families Farm and Home retail outlet in Fort Madison.
Mike said he was informed a bit unceremoniously recently that he was now the oldest employee in the company.
“They mentioned that to me a couple weeks ago – something about a fossil or something,” he chuckled. “But over all these years it’s always been exciting to me. We do so many things that have always intrigued me. I see how that’s brought out in the inspiration that we can do what others can’t do… or don’t want to do.”
Bob said that’s why the retention at Huffmans is so high and turnover so low.
“I think that’s why we have employees with 47 years of experience and a multitude of retirees that had 20 to 25 years with us. We’re always doing something different that challenges them and not doing the same thing day in and day out. It’s just one of the things that sets us apart.”