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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

One of Charlotte’s most iconic manufacturers has found the grass greener in the country

Charlotte Pipe and Foundry forged cast iron into pipes near the Queen City’s center for more than a century before moving in September to a new foundry in pastoral Stanly County. Opening the $460 million plant 35 miles from its traditional home was a huge decision for the Dowd family, which has been among Charlotte’s most prominent business owners for generations.

The fact that Roddey Dowd Jr., the company’s vice chair, bought a Stanly County farm 31 years ago didn’t hurt the relocation decision. He passes three stop signs on rural roads on his five-minute commute to the foundry, which sits on 700 acres in the town of Oakboro.

The proximity is mostly coincidence, he says. He moved to Stanly County to get out of Charlotte so he “could shoot and hunt, you know, stuff like that.”

“For some reason, I wanted to have a farm, and so I bought a farm,” says Dowd, part of the fourth generation running the business. ”It was falling down, and we picked it back up.”

To be sure, family members had long discussed the increasing challenges of operating a major manufacturing business so close to a fast-growing center city. “I mean I heard (uncle) Frank and Dad [Roddey] say we needed to get out of Charlotte. That’s been in our DNA since the mid-60s. But I had no idea. That wasn’t even in the filter back then.”

The Dowds have traditionally been extremely private, rarely talking with the press. Financial details are closely held. The name is perhaps most associated with the YMCA near downtown Charlotte.

Hooper Hardison and Roddey Dowd Jr.

“We’ve never pounded our chests or said a whole lot about ourselves over the years,” says Hooper Hardison, who succeeded Roddey Dowd as CEO in December 2021. His father, Ned, was a veteran company executive. “We’ve kinda tried to stay beneath the radar.”

But Charlotte Pipe provided a tour of the foundry and interviews with top officials, reflecting the momentous occasion of opening a plant after three years of construction. It’s one of the state’s largest privately held companies, making cast-iron and plastic pipes and fittings for commercial and residential plumbing.

Charlotte Pipe has more than 2,700 employees spread across 10 plants in eight states, including 530 who work at the Oakboro foundry. Plastics represent about 60% of Charlotte Pipe’s business, the remaining 40% in cast-iron pipes. A July 2022 acquisition added Wisconsin’s Neenah Enterprises, a leading producer of manhole covers.

Hardison, dressed in a button-down shirt, red tie and dark trousers, described the process that led to the company’s move. “When you have a plant that’s 100 years old, you’ve done a lot of adding on and fixing this and fixing that,” says Hardison, who has a bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill and a University of Virginia MBA. “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.”

At the interview with Business North Carolina, Dowd’s dress reflects his less formal style. The sleeves of his half-unbuttoned, stained blue work shirt, are rolled up. Two patches – one with his first name, the other with the company name – are above the shirt’s two front pockets. One sleeve of the shirt has a patch that says “safety first,” the other sleeve adorned with a patch of the U.S. flag.

Dowd remains hands-on, having started his morning working with a team on the foundry’s floor. While he never felt city leaders appreciated Charlotte Pipe’s contributions, the relocation decision came down to practicality, he says.

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

He wasn’t the only person happy about the relocation, which is benefiting from more than $50 million in state and local incentives. For many years, much of the uptown foundry’s workforce has lived in Stanly or Union counties, with routine hour-long commutes into Charlotte. One employee told Hardison the move to Oakboro would save him $4,800 a year in fuel costs. Some employees now live close enough to drive their golf carts to work. When the company announced the move to Oakboro, employees played Kool & the Gang’s classic funk song “Celebration” over the PA system, Hardison says.

Senior Vice President Greg Simmons and Charlie Ponscheck, Charlotte Pipe engineering manager for the cast iron division, led the planning for the facility.

Charlotte Pipe chose Charlotte-based Barringer Construction as general contractor for the project. While it has worked on company projects for more than 30 years, it had never built a foundry, says Josh Ramsey, senior project manager for Barringer. The development’s size, safety protocols and technology required working together with multiple specialty engineering firms to build one of the world’s most sophisticated foundries.

Over nearly three years of construction, more than 500 construction workers were on the job site each day. More than 1.2 million hours of work were registered. Construction supplies and materials for the foundry were 100% made in the U.S.

HEAT EXCHANGE

Dowd says the new foundry has a “good green story” to tell. Charlotte Pipe invested $58 million in the foundry’s environmental systems and controls. The biggest change: the new foundry uses electricity to forge the iron, while the old foundry used a coal product known as foundry coke.

Workers at Charlotte Pipe’s Oakboro foundry earn an average wage of about $48,000, which is 140% greater than the average Stanly County wage of $34,211.

The change reduces annual carbon emissions by 40,000 tons, which the EPA says is equivalent to a year’s worth of carbon emissions of 32,638 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles. Environmentalists should be pleased, though that didn’t motivate the investment, he says.

“The point of the matter is, Charlotte Pipe believes in doing the right thing,” Dowd says. “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 much easier with state and federal officials, Dowd adds. An on-site 70,000-megawatt substation for the plant, which is fueled by natural gas distributed by  Union Power Cooperative, produces enough electricity to power 70,000 single-family homes. Charlotte Pipe chose the Monroe-based electric cooperative as its energy partner over Duke Energy following a lengthy analysis.

For workers, the plant is a major contrast to the old foundry, which got extremely hot even on chilly winter days. High ceilings and systems to pump in air and collect dust make the new foundry more comfortable for workers, and make the plant less susceptible to weather extremes, says T.J. Costello, vice president of cast iron operations.

GLOBAL CONFLICT

Opening a foundry in Stanly County also aligns with the Dowds’ long-time commitment to North Carolina and battling foreign rivals. “It’s a poor rural county that had a textile base that got wiped out when we were stupid enough to let” the Chinese take the industry away, says Dowd. “This is a real shot in the arm for the county. It’s a rural farming community. Really good people.”

Charlotte Pipe has spent “tens of millions” of dollars fighting Chinese trade practices dating back to the 1980s. Dowd says he went to China in the late 1980s to study competitors, whose products were imported at lower prices than Charlotte Pipe’s.

“We were over there not because we wanted to partner with them, but they were dumping all this stuff. Our goal was to try to find out if they could really do what they were doing,” he says. “We found out that there was no damn way. I mean, these were primitive foundries. They would have looked like Charlotte Pipe in 1915.”

In 2019, the International Trade Commission voted unanimously in favor of Charlotte Pipe in an anti-dumping case involving imports of cast iron soil pipe from China. The U.S. Department of Commerce concluded that Chinese products undersold the fair market value of Charlotte Pipe’s cast iron, prompting new duties of more than 250% to level the playing field. That same year, the company got global attention by publicizing how a Shanghai company has been illegally using the “Charlotte” trademark for its products for more than a decade.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Sherrod Brown of Ohio  introduced the Fighting Trade Cheats Act, which would strengthen U.S. trade law enforcement. “This anti-circumvention trade legislation is critical to holding Chinese and other bad actors accountable when it comes to enforcing lawful dumping and subsidy duties,” Dowd said at the time in a press release issued by Tillis. The legislation is pending.

Neither political party nor any administration has done enough to curb China’s trade practices in the last 40 years, Dowd says. “They are bad people,” Dowd says of the Chinese government. Roddey Dowd Jr. has given almost $73,500 to Republican candidates in federal elections since Jan. 1, 2022. Hardison has given about $54,000 to Republicans in federal elections in that same time period.

“Our job is to make money,” says Dowd, “but it’s also not to let anybody get put out of work. We have a duty to protect our workers’ jobs. This is a family company and most of them have worked for us for generations.”

Charlotte Pipe hasn’t laid off anyone in its plastics divisions since 1982 and no one at the foundry since 1957, Dowd says. When the company lost money in 2009 and 2010, everyone kept working. “We invested in brooms and paint back then,” Hardison says. The plant was kept particularly clean in those lean years, he notes.

NEW USE, BUT NO STADIUM

Charlotte Pipe still owns its huge land parcel adjacent to Interstate 277 and near the center city and South End areas. It’s in no hurry to make a decision on what to do with that property, says Hardison, who joined the company in 1988. A third of that land was used for production and the rest for storage and warehousing.

A few years ago, Charlotte Pipe secured the intellectual property rights to the term “Iron District” for its valuable property. The company engaged real estate services company CBRE last year to market the property.

For years, popular perception was that Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper would buy the Charlotte Pipe property for a new stadium. Now, the focus is on renovating Bank of America Stadium through a partnership with the city of Charlotte.

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

Charlotte Pipe wants to ensure the land will make a positive contribution. “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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