Business View Magazine interviews Tom Shull, President of Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company, as part of our focus on steel fabrication companies.
Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company (CBT) was founded in 1905 to serve the boiler repair and vessel fabrication needs of the Tennessee Valley area of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Although the company is still in the same location in Chattanooga, it no longer makes boilers, but rather designs and constructs both shop-fabricated and field-fabricated tanks, stacks, silos, and pressure vessels from stainless steel, carbon steel, aluminum, and exotic alloys. Its primary markets are the power, pulp and paper, chemical, metal and mining, water and wastewater, and oil and refining industries. Since 1987, the company has been owned by Williams Enterprises of Georgia.
All of CBT’s products are custom-designed. “We have our own engineering department in Chattanooga,” says company President, Tom Shull. “We’ve also got about 50 shop craftsmen and 35-40 office support for our shop and field. The field division constructs large tanks and vessels that can’t be shipped over the road. We’ll fabricate the components here in smaller segments that can be shipped – 40,000 pounds of steel is about the maximum you can ship as long as it’s not over width or over length. We’ll ship it to the field and offload it with cranes and fully assemble it. The shop will fabricate the components that our field will assemble and they also build a complete fabricated vessel of the size that you can ship by truck or rail. You can go to just about every state in the country and see a unique product that we’ve been involved with over the years.” In addition to new fabricated products, the company also has a well-regarded repair division and has performed extensive repair to scrubbers, coal silos, pressure vessels, and tanks throughout the country.
Shull believes that what differentiates his company from the competition is its century-old traditions of quality and productivity. “We have a great name in the industry and live off our reputation,” he states. “To stay in business as long as we have, you’ve got to be doing something right. It’s about customer relations, honesty, and integrity. We make mistakes, but one of the things that separate us from our competition is how we deal with that; we go out of our way to keep the customers content and satisfied with the investment they made in us.”
In addition to relying on word-of-mouth and its 113-year-old name, CBT participates in various trade shows to stay fresh in its customers’ minds. For example, it regularly exhibits at POWER-GEN, one of the largest power generation shows in the world. Regarding its high level of productivity, Shull reports that its fabrication department stays current by employing the most up-to-date versions of CAD design technology, and uses the industry’s most modern forming and welding equipment. “We have, in the last four or five years, had a decent-sized expansion,” he notes. “We’ve upgraded facilities, put in larger cranes, and some new blasting and painting equipment to make ourselves more competitive in the market – that was a several million dollar investment. And we are in the process of buying a new burning table to help facilitate the products we desire to build.”
Shull admits that even a company that has been in the forefront of its sector for over a century still has its challenges. “It is a competitive world we live in, and we anticipate the market to be a challenge as we move forward,” he avers. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to do more with less. You have to have the ability to be more productive, whether that’s an investment in technology, or training for our employees, or a good marketing team to find the work. What we do is specialized, but there is some good competition and we’re just going to have to work hard to prepare for the future.”
One particular challenge for companies such as CBT is finding enough skilled craftspeople at a time when many young people are choosing college and white collar jobs over a career where they are trained to work with their hands. “You can really make a good living and have a long, productive career by choosing a craft,” Shull states. “We hire welders and fabricators and fitters – skilled guys. We hire college-educated employees, as well; we’ve got engineers and accountants. But there is a void in today’s society for craftsmen. And if a guy or a gal is willing to roll up their sleeves and learn how to perform some of these tasks, they can make a nice living. It’s an honorable trade and really rewarding. When you get finished with a product and see what you’ve constructed and what it’s going to do for our society and our economy, it’s very rewarding.”
Meanwhile, Shull is hopeful that, for the next hundred years, Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company will continue its tradition of being one of the sector’s leading firms. “You can travel to almost every state in our country and point to some steel process vessel or custom-designed steel structure that we have fabricated and erected throughout our history,” he declares. “This has built a lot of pride into our organization over the years and continues to be a motivating factor to our staff. It’s a very family-oriented company; we have fantastic employees and we fully recognize that our employees define us. It’s a stressful market and a stressful business, but we roll up our sleeves and work well together to deliver the product to our customers.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company
WHAT: A fabricator of tanks, stacks, silos, and pressure vessels
WHERE: Chattanooga, Tennessee