Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Charlotte Pipe goes country with move to Stanly County foundry

Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, which has forged cast-iron pipe near downtown for more than 100 years, has officially gone country, with its new $460 million plant surrounded by pastoral Stanly County farmland.

Located 35 miles east of its former home of more than 100 years, Charlotte Pipe’s 500,000-square-foot foundry is situated on 700 acres in Oakboro, a town of around 2,100 residents. After three years of construction and more than a decade of planning, the first melt of iron on the former farmland took place in February. The foundry became fully operational in early September, and approximately 530 people now work there. The foundry ships its products across the country, mostly by truck.

Bird’s-eye view of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry in Oakboro. The plant became fully operational in September 2023.

This new foundry includes a $58 million investment in environmental systems and controls. It sets the family-owned company up for the next 100 years of business and sets a course for its fifth generation of leaders, says CEO Hooper Hardison and Roddey Dowd Jr., vice chair of the company’s board. 

“We always knew we needed to get out (of the Uptown location) because we were landlocked in Charlotte,” says Dowd, whose great-grandfather, Frank Dowd, started the company in 1901 with 25 employees.

Cotton fields have replaced skyscrapers as the foundry’s neighbors in its new location, but the business’ most notable change is inside, where the company has shifted the way it melts iron. The Charlotte operation used coal, also known as foundry coke, to liquify iron to about 2,800 degrees. Electricity now does this job. The change reduces carbon emissions by 40,000 tons, Dowd says. The EPA says that’s equivalent to the carbon emissions of 32,638 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles driven for one year.

Roddey Dowd isn’t a proponent of the global movement to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the use of coal and other fossil fuels. But he agrees that Charlotte Pipe’s new foundry has a “green story” to tell.

Charlotte Pipe CEO Hooper Hardison, left, and Vice Chair Roddey Dowd Jr., board vice chair.

“The point of the matter is, Charlotte Pipe believes in doing the right thing,” Dowd says in a conference room at the plant office, his stained work shirt branded with his name and company patches. “You do the right thing environmentally and do the right thing by your people, your customers, (and) safety.

“You just walk the talk and, and to the extent that, you know, whatever kind of arcane argument that wants to be made about the environment, there are environmental laws and, we’re gonna meet those laws and exceed them,” he says. “I mean, if you don’t, you’re gonna be out of business or you’re gonna be in jail. I’m not going to jail for anybody.”

Pivoting to heating by electrical induction over coke made the environmental permitting process easier from a “hostile government” to industry, Dowd says. He says switching to electricity also offers Charlotte Pipe efficiencies and flexibility. The on-site 70,000-megawatt substation produces enough electricity to power 70,000 single-family homes.

Why Oakboro?

Dowd describes his commute to the foundry by counting stop signs from a farm he bought 31 years ago. At the time, he says, he just wanted a place away from the city to hunt and shoot. Much of the foundry’s workforce had already been making the hour-long commute into Charlotte from Stanly and Union counties for decades.

Charlotte Pipe also has six plastic manufacturing plants across the country, with an $80 million, seventh plastic plant now under construction near Wichita, Kansas. The company declined to disclose revenue, but noted that plastics makes up 60% of business, with 40% involving cast iron.

Charlotte Pipe and Foundry’s new $460 million plant in Oakboro.

One foundry employee told Hardison the move to Oakboro would save him $4,800 a year in fuel costs. Golf carts that employees drive to work occupy a few of the foundry’s parking spaces. When the company announced the move to Oakboro, guys played Kool & the Gang’s classic funk song “Celebration” over the PA system, Hardison says.

Charlotte Pipe’s board approved the move in 2019, and the company announced its intentions in May 2020. Senior Vice President Greg Simmons and engineering manager Charlie Ponscheck estimate they went through 75 iterations of the foundry’s design over the past four years. The Great Recession had delayed company plans to move in 2008.

And so here we are today and we moved because, you know, when you have a plant that’s 100 years old, you’ve done a lot of adding on and fixing this and fixing that,” Hardison says. “And while we were very productive and very efficient, there were also a lot of things that could be vastly improved to make us even better, and we needed more space.”

Charlotte Pipe uses electricity to forge iron at its Oakboro plant.

The company limited downtime by making a slow transition from the old to the new. A platoon of workers would come over to train on new equipment to ease into the move, Hardison says.

Charlotte Pipe chose Charlotte-based Barringer Construction as general contractor for the project. Barringer has worked on Charlotte Pipe projects for more than 30 years, but it had never built a foundry, says Josh Ramsey, senior project manager.

The development’s size, safety protocols and technology required using a hybrid, design-build method and working together with multiple specialty engineering firms, says Ramsey. More than 500 construction workers were on site each day, and all of the construction supplies and materials for the foundry were 100% made in the U.S., according to Charlotte Pipe.

High ceilings and systems to pump in air and collect dust also make the new foundry more comfortable for workers. Foundry workers will not be as hot in the summer heat or cold in the winter months, says T.J. Costello, vice president of the foundry division. Machines can shape iron into 2,500 patterns. “It’s amazing to come to work and make something everyday,” Costello says.

Charlotte Pipe is also a major recycler, annually melting more than 150,000 tons of scrap iron and steel. “We don’t throw things away,” says Costello. “It just gets reused, reused and reused.”

Charlotte Pipe and Foundry in Oakboro.

Charlotte Pipe still owns the 55 acres of prime center city land at Clarkson and Morehead streets. It’s in no hurry to make a decision on what to do with that property, Hardison says. A third of that land was used for production and the rest for storage and warehousing “Now, we move out here, and our plant’s sitting on over 11 acres and we’ve got 700 acres right here. So we’ve got a lot of room to flex our elbows, and spread out.”

New uses for old places

A few years ago, Charlotte Pipe secured the intellectual property rights to the term Iron District for its former plant. The company engaged Charlotte real estate and investment company CBRE last year to market the property.

At one time, it was thought that Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper wanted the property to build a new stadium for his NFL team. Now, the focus is on renovating Bank of America Stadium through a partnership with the city of Charlotte.

Outside the Charlotte Pipe and Foundry in Oakboro.

Hardison says Charlotte Pipe has not spoken with Tepper or his colleagues about the property for years. Still, he often runs into people who think the hedge-fund CEO owns the property.

Charlotte Pipe won’t have a direct role in the marketing of the property, but the company also won’t be abandoning the land, Hardison says.

“We do have a legacy there that we want to preserve and we want to do something to make the city and the citizens of the city proud of it. So it’ll be something nice. But who knows what it’ll be? We’re a long ways away from that.”

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