BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Bob Huffman Sr., who started Huffman Welding in 1971, doesn’t own a computer. He barely uses his cellphone.
He said, in an ultimately charming and simple fashion – “I’m too private. I don’t want anyone knowing too much about me. I’m sure they know more about me than I think they do.”
It was the understatement of the year for the 87-year-old who stood on the floor of Huffman Welding and Machine on Thursday afternoon while about 100 people had lunch and talked with workers as the company celebrated a half a century in business.
People certainly know what he’s done now.
The patriarch of Mike, Hank, and Bobby, Jr., helped usher in a company that now sits as a global player in metal fabrication.
As Bob Jr. says, “It’s not just welding your broken chair, we’ll still do that, but there’s a lot more going on behind these walls than people realize.”
Fabrication machines with price tags in the millions were on full display Wednesday with purple and gold balloons tied to equipment, and swag for guests.
Bob Sr. donned in a Huffman baseball cap and a polo, in contrast to his sons in suit jackets, simply said he started the business to take care of his family.
“I started it 50 years ago to earn a living for my family. That’s what my goal was. It wasn’t to be the biggest machine shop in the area as we are now, it was to make a living. That’s what we did.”
Now the company produces parts, equipment, and metal answers for customers around the globe, and Huffman can quickly recall some of the countries his company has worked in.
“We’ve done jobs in China, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, and Egypt,” he said.
Bob Sr. was a certified welder and opened the shop to offer welding and fabricating. One of his original part-time people was Pat Brotherton. Brotherton sat at a lunch table with a sandwich Thursday talking with Fort Madison Partners Executive Director Tim Gobble.
“Pat over there was a part-time man with me early on,” Bob said, pointing to him at one of the 12 banquet tables set up for visitors.
About five years into the business, Bob said he started selling supplies, because he himself couldn’t always find what he needed.
“We opened up a distributorship because we couldn’t buy anything from anybody. We were doing all kinds of different things. Sometimes we’d have to drill 3,000 or 4,000 1/4-inch holes and I could only find maybe one or two drill bits,” he said.
“So I started stocking that kind of industrial stuff for other people, too.”
Huffman said he never envisioned a facility on the scale that he walked through Thursday afternoon talking with people. When asked if he thought his sons had made the right decisions along the way, true to form with a simple answer, “They’ve done a good job,” he said.
Bob Huffman, Jr. said he was flattered with the turnout that included many customers over the years, city leaders, economic development officials, and former employees.
“It’s a really great turnout. It’s nice to see so many people here recognizing what we’ve done and customers who’ve worked with us in the past,” Huffman said.
Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld, who’s had his own business in the city for 45 years, said the city has been fortunate to have the Huffmans a part of the community and their growth is something most people aren’t fully aware of.
“Just so you know, when you say 50 years, I’ve seen most of those years and I’ve known the dad a long time,” Mohrfeld said.
“Look around, they’re hiring people living wage jobs and bringing projects into our community. That’s like mine, when you can reach outside and bring that back to the community, that’s where you have true economic success.”
The day ended with an hors d’ouevres reception in the evening with music and more shared memories and gazes to the future.