Back in the factory, huge ladles pour molten iron into molds of dark green compacted sand. Up in the front office, George Boyd Jr. turns into an instructor, his deep, calm voice using simple analogies to explain new processes enhancing the properties of one of the world’s oldest forged metals.
Goldens’ Foundry has been around since the late 1880s in the same brick building astride railroad tracks in downtown Columbus, a structure completely utilitarian in its origins but now exuding an industrial trendiness. (An Alan Jackson country music video was filmed there a few years back.)
With his command of the foundry’s processes, you’d think the attorney-turned-company-partner has been around at least for a few decades.
But it wasn’t till the 2009 recession flattened the economy — and the company’s business making parts for heavy trucks, excavators, tractors, mining equipment and more — that Mr. Boyd came in with his brother Ed during a restructuring that made them owners of a family business where his father had long been a partner and where they had already worked for five years.
“We didn’t lose customers; the orders just stopped, and then coming out of restructuring, the business returned,” he said of that difficult time, when the company had to lay off workers to stay afloat.
Mr. Boyd’s return defied his father’s orders to go off to school and never come back into the business for a career, and it did require some re-education.
“Going from law to doing this full-time, you go back to the beginning of a learning curve which is exciting and a little bit discouraging,” said the Columbus native and University of Georgia law grad.
Not only did he have to learn how super-strong but less brittle ductile iron is created by bubbling magnesium beneath it, or how a heat treatment called austempering can strengthen it even further, cutting out unnecessary bulk and making the overall product lighter. He also had to learn about the cycles of the global economy and how they affect the company’s prospects.
“We’ve got a wide range of customers, which typically is a strength for us because as industries go though their own cycles it gives us a little padding, but the economy has been so anemic over the past couple years that that’s been kind of frustrating,” Mr. Boyd told Global Atlanta during a visit conducted in partnership with Next Generation Manufacturing, an Atlanta-based trade group that aims to link up manufacturers across the state.
Recently, many of those customers have been American firms with manufacturing operations in Mexico and Canada, meaning the company exports — in one way or another — about one-third of its production, even though parts often go to customers whose corporate bases are within the U.S.
“We’ve got trucks running to Mexico two times a week,” he said, clarifying that a semi-truck manufacturer is buying parts from Goldens’ and shipping them to its Mexican plants.
Goldens’ has thought about setting up its own shop in Mexico or serving customers there directly but for now has determined that the safer bet (both physically and in terms of business) so far is to keep serving the American companies who are keeping business in this hemisphere rather than chasing margins further afield.
“Right now it’s hard for us to identify a Mexican market for iron castings of any size that’s really independent of these domestic manufacturers,” he said.
Castings can be made more cheaply in places like India, which have lower-cost labor and fewer environmental and safety restrictions. But companies are beginning to realize the value of having a manufacturer in their backyard rather than tying up inventory in warehouses and on ships. Some buyers still choose to outsource, but many see the benefits of having someone to call if something goes wrong.
“When you deal with knowledgeable casting buyers, they have more of a big-picture view, whether it’s landed cost or just the total cost of the supply chain, and you have others who are still just in a piece-price mindset,” Mr. Boyd said.
Automation has been key to competitiveness, though the company still employs about 280 people between Columbus and a facility in Cordele, Ga., it bought from a Canadian company in 2007.
Watching the blend of heavy mechanization and finishing craft at the Columbus plant, it’s easy to see how Goldens’ has carved out its niche.
“A lot of the areas where we try to compete are on parts that have some engineering complexity to them,” Mr. Boyd said.
A massive machine occupying nearly an entire room of the sunlit factory compresses sand around customized clay forms to create four-foot-square molds.
“It’s a big cake of sand,” he said, noting that the silicate — “beach sand” — is reintegrated into the production process after each use.
When finished, the molds include the impressions into which iron will be poured to create castings. After hardening, castings go to the machine shop for fine-tuning, like shaving off the iron flakes that may form during cooling. They may be shipped out to other factories around the South for painting or heat treatment before delivery to the final customer.
Mr. Boyd said the company’s workforce has been relatively stable. The foundry runs one shift from late night to early afternoon, for two reasons: it’s less sweltering for the employees in an environment heavy with dust and gusts of heat, and power rates are tied to the time of day electricity is used.
But it’s been hard to find skilled maintenance people and machinists with fewer coming out of technical schools. The company trains most of its workers on the job, reducing the load on individual employees by breaking up the process into simpler steps that require less specialization.
Mr. Boyd’s employees come from all over the world, including a few Africans and many Latin Americans. (Once, he used Swahili learned from a friend to recruit a Kenyan staffer during a phone call with the state labor department.) The company has had to start doing some safety training in Spanish, with one of its Honduran employees helping out with the language barrier. Often, employees born outside the U.S. recruit their family members, citing the company’s friendly environment.
“We’re a family company in the sense that now the ownership is my family, but we’re also a family company in the sense that we have a lot of families that work here,” Mr. Boyd said.
After being in business more than 130 years, the question now for the company is whether it will accelerate its export operations or simply keep fending off competitive challenges from overseas.
“We’re worried about everybody,” Mr. Boyd said about competitive forces around the globe.
But like its castings, Goldens’ has been tempered by trials and plans to stand firm for the long term, partially by launching its own products in addition to those it makes for others.
The Goldens Cast Iron Cooker is the first, a kamado-style grill in the form of popular ceramic cookers but with the resiliency of iron. Learn more about it here.