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Tube & Pipe
Monday | 29 April, 2013 | 1:15 pm

The silver lining

By Gretchen Salois

After its plant was uprooted by a tornado, Independence Tube’s strong team of employees helped rebuild

April 2013 - In April 2010, a series of more than 55 tornadoes raged through the Midwest and South United States, resulting in fatalities and the unraveling of many lives. Companies were not exempt from nature’s upheaval, and rather than lose a large portion of business, Independence Tube rearranged resources and ended up learning a few things before re-opening its Decatur, Ala., facility.

After the EF-5 tornado struck the company’s Decatur facility, Independence Tube transferred nearly all its Decatur customer orders to the company’s two locations up north in Chicago and Marseilles, Ill. Decatur employees had the option to rotate on one- to four-week shifts in either facility. Those who couldn’t leave their families for weeks at a time were used by the local contractors in the facility’s demolition, which would make way for the rebuilding. With 40 years in the business, Independence Tube has never laid an employee off. “That’s why it was important to us to keep everyone we could working during the reconstruction,” says  John Tassone, manager of marketing.

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Spending time in the Chicago and Marseilles divisions allowed the relatively new crew from the Decatur facility, which opened in 2006, to learn new and different jobs from previous posts. As a result, employees brought back fresh know-how to the reopened Decatur plant.

“We’re seeing benefits of how working in Chicago and Marseilles helped Decatur employees,” says Tassone. “If someone goes on vacation or calls in sick now, there are a number of people who can easily fill in because of all the cross-training that went on when they were in Chicago and Marseilles.”

The company’s primary product is structural tubing, made to ASTM A500 specifications, as well as ASTM A252 pipe piling, which is used in building and bridge construction. While rebuilding the Decatur plant, the company was able to modify parts of the tube mill to add two new sizes (14 inches OD and 16 inches OD) to its pipe piling offerings. 

“We have been supplying ASTM A500 products for 40 years now and know that market fairly well,” Tassone says. “Pipe piling is a new product for us. We just started selling rounds in 2006.” Independence Tube now has the capability to produce carbon steel tubing in sizes from 2 inch square to 12 inch square and rounds from 1.66 inches OD through 16 inches OD. Material thicknesses range from 0.109 inch through 0.688 inch thick.

Taking advantage of the unexpected

Of the 435,000 square feet of the original Decatur plant, 385,000 square feet were completely destroyed by the tornado. “I’ve been told the tornado came through the building around six feet off the ground. Remarkably, no one was hurt and the mm-0413-tube-image2mill was spared, other than getting rained on. If the tornado had stayed on the ground, as it did when it came through the outdoor pipe storage yard, the tube mill would have been severely damaged,” Tassone says. When the tornado hit the outdoor storage yard, it picked up and threw two 123⁄4 inches OD pilings, 60 feet long and weighing just under 2,000 pounds a piece, more than 200 feet into an open field next to where the building once was. It also moved one of the plant’s rail spurs 4 feet. 

The chance to rebuild allowed the company to expand square footage, as well as rethink its material handling efficiencies. “Now we’re making pipe piling up to 16 inches OD, and all of the piling can be stored outside,” he explains. “When we rebuilt the plant, we added a 90-foot bay so we can convey the tubes to the door off the mill and then a forklift picks it up and moves it to the outside storage area.  

“We increased the size range of the mill and added two more sizes to our range of products because of this tornado,” Tassone continues. “Before the tornado, when we saw inquiries for A252 pipe piling, there might be sizes on the quote ranging from 8.625 inches OD through 16 inches OD. Since we could not supply any size larger than 123⁄4 inches OD, we’d more than likely not get that order. Now we can, and now we do. Without the tornado, we could never have afforded to shut down the Decatur mill for months to increase the size range of the mill.” 

From April 2011 to approximately April 2012, there was no building in Decatur and no cranes or trucks to load. Independence Tube’s southern customers purchased from the company’s Chicago and Marseilles mills. The company absorbed those additional shipping costs associated with 500 extra miles of freight because “it wasn’t our customers’ fault a tornado hit our building,” Tassone says.

Slow start-up yields rewards

Getting the Decatur plant back up to speed was slow going at first. “Even though we had sent out motors and gear boxes to be cleaned, it’s amazing where insulation gets blown when you have a 200 mile-per-hour wind behind it,” Tassone says. “At the beginning we’d run a couple of days and then have to shut down a couple of days to address any issues. Now we’re up and running full time with a more efficient plant, larger size range and a much more experienced workforce.”

Since reopening in April 2012, Independence Tube Decatur has gone through a series of customer quality audits and was certified by Caltrans, California’s state transportation agency. “We were approved and can now supply projects in California, which we wouldn’t have been able to do before without those two additional sizes,” Tassone says, adding although the company would have applied without the two sizes, “we were more attractive to the State of California now.”

Tassone visited the Decatur facility in early February 2013 when some bad storms were going through the area. “We pulled all our employees into the tornado shelter we built inside the building [after the April 2011 storm],” Tassone says, “Everyone is a little weary during tornado season now, and that is totally understandable. There were about 20 employees and a truck driver at the Decatur plant when the tornado hit at 4:00 p.m. All of the employees took shelter in a concrete cinder block office inside the building. At the time, that room was not tornado-proof.”

During the rebuild, Independence Tube made that room tornado-proof and “it’s now a solid tornado shelter,” he says. “Even today, looking at the landscape around the facility, you can still see where the tornado went over the river and cut through the forest of trees across from us—you can still see the burrowed opening in the tree line. It’s a reminder every day when our workers come into work. We wanted to make sure we had taken as many safety precautions as we possibly could.”

To celebrate everyone’s hard work in getting the facility back up and running, Independence Tube held a grand reopening exactly one year to the day from the destruction. “We had 300 employees and their families, contractors, as well as the governor of Alabama and other state and local officials attend the reopening,” Tassone adds. “It was great to have everyone there celebrating the future.” MM

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