Wolverine Tube Inc.
Wolverine Tube Inc.
Sales: $700 million (1997)
Stock Exchanges: New York
SICs: 3351 Copper Rolling & Drawing; 6719 Holding Companies, Not Elsewhere Classified
Wolverine Tube Inc. is a technological leader in the design, manufacture, and distribution of copper and copper alloy tubular products in the United States and around the world. The company makes copper tubes for the industrial tube product market, including appliance companies, refrigeration equipment manufacturers, automotive firms, and air conditioner manufacturers; technical tubing for the technical tube market, including large commercial air conditioning corporations and water, spa, and swimming pool heater manufacturers; copper alloy tubing for the copper alloy tube market, including ship builders, and refining and chemical processing companies; and fabricated products, including a wide range of copper, copper alloy and aluminum tubing for the consumer appliance, marine, automotive, refrigeration, building and heating, and heavy equipment industries. The company has manufacturing facilities in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, and in three Canadian locations as well. In the late 1990s, management was taking steps to internationalize company operations and open sales offices in Hong Kong and in Lyon, France.
The formation of the Wolverine Tube Company occurred in 1916 in the state of Michigan. The automotive industry was just beginning to manufacture cars for mass consumption, and Ford Motor Company was at the forefront of this revolutionary development in technology called the “assembly line.” Other car manufacturers followed suit, and soon cars were available to larger and larger numbers of people. Manufacturing automobiles on such an extensive scale required that parts be readily available for their assembly. One of the essential parts for making a car was heat-resistant tubing. Seeing the need for such an item, a group of men familiar with the automotive industry and its growing need for component parts decided to establish its own firm to produce a wide variety of tubing and sell it to the car manufacturers. The name for the new company was chosen from the animal whose name is synonymous with the state of Michigan, the wolverine.
As automobile manufacturing grew during the 1920s, the Wolverine Tube Company grew with it. The company sold its products to large car companies such as Ford and General Motors. At the same time, technological advances in refrigeration provided a new market opportunity. Wolverine engineers began to design copper and copper alloy tubing that was employed in the manufacture of refrigeration equipment. As meat markets that used ice to keep their products cold started to purchase large refrigeration units, Wolverine tube developed copper alloy tubing that was both heat and cold resistant. One of the first in the tubing industry to do so, the company garnered an ever-increasing customer base throughout the decade.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the United States experienced a economic decline unparalleled in its history. The Great Depression resulted in the financial ruin of many businesses, massive unemployment, and a national banking system that virtually collapsed. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 on the Democratic Platform of national economic recovery, he immediately implemented comprehensive measures that were meant to bring the country and its people out of the Depression. Unfortunately, the economic recovery was slow in coming, and during the entire decade of the 1930s Americans were forced to live more frugally than ever before.
Wolverine Tube was not able to escape the affects of the Great Depression, and like many other businesses it was forced to issue massive layoffs or reduced salaries. Some of the company’s product lines were scaled back to a bare minimum. However, the firm was able to survive the worst years of the Depression due to its manufacture of copper and copper alloy tubing for the commercial refrigeration industry, the automotive industry, and the growing chemical and process industries. During the early 1930s, company engineers designed the integral extended surface tube, one of the most innovative products to originate from the tubing industry. The integral extended surface tube was used by companies in the refrigeration, air conditioning, energy generation, and process industries, and its success played a large part in maintaining the company’s financial viability during the Depression.
Wartime and Postwar Production
Wolverine Tube prospered immensely as American armed forces prepared to enter the global conflict that had spread across Europe and the Pacific. The company received large contracts from the U.S. government for copper and copper alloy tubing used in massive refrigeration units on aircraft carriers and at training facilities for new recruits. In 1942, one of the company’s first plants outside the United States was opened in Montreal, Quebec, for the specific purpose of manufacturing copper and copper alloy tubes, rods, wire, and extruded shapes. The new plant was at the forefront in technological innovation for testing and manufacturing new shapes of tubing to meet the specific needs of its customers, including the U.S. government.
As the end of World War II grew nearer, Wolverine Tube was well situated to take advantage of the opportunities presenting themselves in the postwar era. The automotive, heavy equipment, and refrigeration industries were poised for phenomenal growth as the war ended, soldiers from the American armed services returned to find jobs, and the United States attained an unrivaled position as the economic leader of the non-communist world. Continuing its strategy of expansion, the firm opened a new facility in Decatur, Alabama, for the purpose of manufacturing an ever-widening range of copper alloy and seamless copper tubes. These items included smooth surface industrial, condenser, plumbing, and refrigeration tubes in various straight lengths and coils. The Decatur facility also began to produce steel and titanium finned tubes, along with hairpin bends and U-bends.
As the company grew throughout the 1950s, more and more sales were made to the automotive, heavy equipment, air-conditioning and refrigeration, chemical, and refining industries. With business booming, management decided to open another facility in Canada, located in London, Ontario. This plant was constructed to manufacture a variety of seamless copper and copper alloy tubes in a host of different lengths, diameters, wall thicknesses, and tempers for use primarily in plumbing and industrial construction. Opened in 1958, the London, Ontario, facility was a significant contributor to the company’s growing success in the plumbing services sector.
The 1960s was a period of realignment and consolidation for Wolverine Tube. The manufacturing facilities that management had built or purchased in different parts of the United States and Canada were brought under more centralized control, with inventory, sales, marketing, plant operations, and distribution undergoing close scrutiny and streamlining for higher efficiency. The company’s engineers continued to conduct research in new applications of copper and copper alloy tubing, resulting in sales to an ever-widening customer base. One of Wolverine Tube’s new capital investments during this time was in the manufacture of sheet, flat, and strip products in copper, tin brasses, brass, and phosphor bronze. A facility at Fergus, Ontario, was established in 1968 as a strip mill which focused exclusively on the manufacture of these products.
Continued Growth and Expansion
The postwar era had been good to Wolverine Tube, and the firm had grown both in terms of assets and sales. The number of employees at the company’s facilities continued to increase, as new markets were entered due to the ingenuity of the engineering department employing its expertise in copper and copper alloy tubing for new applications. One example of these new applications was the design and manufacture of small diameter capillary and control tubes for the fabricated components market. The Ardmore, Tennessee, facility was established in 1974 to manufacture these items, plus a wide range of fabricated components produced from finned and smooth surface tubing. During the same year, since the company’s sale of its products to the refrigeration, plumbing, and industrial markets were increasing at a much quicker rate than expected, a new facility at Shawnee, Oklahoma, was opened for the purpose of manufacturing seamless copper service tubes in a variety of straight lengths and coils, for these markets.
Wolverine Tube continued its uninterrupted growth during the 1980s. In 1982, the firm opened its Greenville, Mississippi, plant to manufacture specialty fabricated parts, components and sub-assemblies. This facility became part of the company’s Fabricated Products Group during the 1990s. By this time, the company had also relocated its administrative offices from Michigan to Alabama. Taking advantage of the lower costs for rent and employee wages, the company had moved its corporate headquarters to Huntsville, Alabama, while its domestic and international sales office was relocated to Decatur, Alabama. The move was made possible by the increasing sophistication of worldwide telecommunications, allowing the company to remain in constant contact with its facilities throughout North America and wherever its growing international list of clients were located. The last major expansion of the decade occurred in 1989, when Wolverine Tube constructed its Booneville, Mississippi, facility. A technologically advanced, state-of-the-art plant designed and built specifically to produce the company’s inner ridged copper tubes, dubbed the industrial Turbo-A and the Turbo-DX, both these items were sold to air conditioning manufacturers.
The 1990s and Beyond
In 1992, the company reported net sales of just under $500 million, and in 1994, that figure had increased to approximately $520 million. However, by the end of fiscal 1996, net sales skyrocketed to $700 million. Most of this growth in net sales was a direct result of two outstanding acquisitions the company made during the mid-1990s. In 1994, Wolverine Tube acquired Small Tube Products, Inc., a well-known manufacturer of copper and copper alloy tubing that focused on small-diameter, high-value added commercial items in almost 1,000 different sizes and shapes. Manufacturing a wide-array of products such as musical instrument flute bodies, thermostatic controls, lighter cases, capillary tubes, and transmission oil cooler tubes, the company’s customer list included such prestigious names as Caterpillar Tractor, Thermadyne, the Siebe Group of Companies, and Long Manufacturing Company. Wolverine Tube incorporated Small Tube Products into its operations, and made it the cornerstone of its Fabricated Products Group. Following the astute acquisition and reorganization, the Fabricated Products market became the fastest growing segment of Wolverine Tube’s business.
Another major acquisition was made in 1996 with the purchase of Tube Forming, Inc., a manufacturer of copper and copper alloy tubing established during the early 1970s in Corrollton, Texas. Tube Forming, Inc., acquired for $35 million, had a worldwide reputation for producing high-quality items such as return bends, manifolds, and headers primarily used in the refrigeration and air conditioning industries. Also part of the Fabricated Products Group, Tube Forming had compiled a list of over 250 customers, and was acknowledged as one of the most innovative firms in the industry.
One of the major opportunities for Wolverine Tubing was the regulated phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, a major cause of ozone depletion and closely tied to global warming. Banned by most of the industrialized nations in the world in January 1996, CFCs were the primary coolants used in large commercial air conditioning and refrigeration units. With over 80,000 of the world’s commercial chillers located throughout North America, and only a mere 25,000 having had their tubing refitted or replaced for the use of new coolants, Wolverine Tube projected a major demand from customers who wanted new and more efficient tubing for alternative coolants. This market development led the company to implement a comprehensive four-year capital expenditure program to improve the efficiency and production capacity at many of its plants in the United States, especially at the Booneville, Mississippi, facility. The company’s newest plant, constructed in 1995 at Roxboro, North Carolina, as part of the capital expenditure program, was built for the purpose of manufacturing copper enhanced surface tubing to take advantage of the future demand for its use in large commercial refrigeration units and air conditioning units in North America and around the globe.
The opening of offices in both Europe and Asia indicated growing market demand for Wolverine Tube’s products, a demand that was not likely to diminish in the near or even distant future. In fact, a new manufacturing and distribution facility undergoing construction in Shanghai, China, and scheduled for completion by the end of 1998, was indicative of the confidence Wolverine management had in its product line and the growth of its markets. As the worldwide technological leader in the manufacture of copper and copper alloy tubing serving a wide variety of industries, Wolverine Tube looked forward to a very bright, and profitable, future.
Small Tube Products Company, Inc.; Tube Forming, Inc.
Barnhart, Dale G., “Copper Tube Market Remains Strong,” American Metal Market, April 2, 1997, p. 14.
“Cleaning The Air Will Boost Copper Tube Sales,” Purchasing, June 6, 1996, p. 32B12.
Coplan, Stephen, “Asia Next Stop For Copper Tube,” American Metal Market, July 30, 1997, p. 1.
——, “Copper Tube Mart Creeps and Crawls Back into the Black,” American Metal Market, July 24, 1997, p. 1.
——, “Copper Tube Said Wanning in Key Sectors,” American Metal Market, October 22, 1997, p. 1.
Stundza, Tom, “Demand Reflects Slowing Economy,” Purchasing, February 13, 1997, p. 20B1.
——, “Erratic Demand Fogs Up The Price Horizon,” Purchasing, Octobers, 1995, p. 32B1.