“You can buy HD PE pipes anywhere in the world,
but the quality is the question.” - Gene O'Brien.
Gene O'Brien is the founder of a hose-and-pipe supply company serving the needs of many US and foreign concerns, including the US Defence Department, Northorp Grumman and even some Nigerian dredging outfits. When DDH paid a visit to his business site in Baltimore in early September, a consignment of pipes the company was supplying a Nigerian dredging outfit was in the process of being shipped. Gene formed American Hose and Piping in 1982, according to him, after enduring drudgery and lack of progress with his previous work engagements. Today, the firm supplies pipes to the biggest dredging company in the USA and many other big names in the world of dredge manufacturing. In this interview, he traces how the industry has moved on from aluminum pipes and hoses to high density polyethylene which he says is the leading edge right now in the sand and gravel business. Gene, who has never visited any other country outside the USA except for Bahamas, is a humorous but hardworking man who, though growing old gracefully, keeps in touch with the intricacies of pipes and hosing business. He is in love with cars and has taken part in car racing as a sport. His other hobbies include boating, playing the guitar, horse-racing and more cars. In fact, perhaps due to his influence, his wife and two sons all ride Lexus cars, in addition to a top of the range model of the same car which he drives himself. But, as he freely tells any listener, his company is the leading US specialist in the business of vending quality pipes and hoses of all sizes ranging from 8 inches to about 36. He also explains why it may cost a little more than similar materials from Europe or Asia. Excerpts:
DDH: When did you start the business of pipes and hoses?
Gene: March 1st, 1982. Before then, I worked with some people who were dealing with the customer (in some shameful ways). I said you can't do this to your customers and be successful. In my first month of business, I did $6,000 because I treated people well.
DDH: Was that a lot of money?
Gene: 1982? Hey, I was having problems getting my mortgage payments together. It was quite awakening.
DDH: Now for dredging business, you are doing polyethylene pipes, is that new and what was before it?
Gene: High density polyethylene pipes, about 15 year-old (technology). Before then we were doing aluminum or galvanized pipes, we still have some out there. Now, the problem with galvanized pipes is that as soon as you break the galvanization on the outside, it starts to rust. But HD PE pipe, you can outright bend it, form it and it doesn't take any abuse from rocks or sand, etc. It outlasts galvanized and aluminum pipes because they wont corrode. If you talk about HD PE pipe, it's not only cheaper, it's lighter. And when it has lasted, you can knock it down and make something out of it. You can't do the same with galvanized aluminum pipes.
DDH: Do you have a factory that produces this pipe?
Gene: We are the master distributors for the makers of this pipe. And we are actually doing a big job now for the Maclean contractors (one of the biggest US dredging contractors), 36”, 38” (dredge pipes). They are doing (dredging) at the Inner Harbour (in Baltimore). Now, they come to us not to say, give me the cheapest deal. They come to us and say, here is what we need, here is when we need it, give us a price. They are doing a job at the Chesapeake Bay Islands and they are replenishing the wetlands down there. They called to us to say, what can you do? We need to have this job done by...whatever the date was. And we said, well, we can do it with exception: if you gonna ask us to put together the fuse, the elbows, Tees, and all these kinds of stuff. And instead of them renting a fusion machine from us, at about $13,000 a day, (we suggested) why don't you take one of your fly-bits, take the pieces that you need to put together, run them up to Pittsburg Pennsylvania. They did that in a day and brought it back and I saved them about $45,000.
DDH: But on the dredging side…
Gene: We do a lot of dredging equipment, but we also do a lot of department of defense.
DDH: From which countries do you get orders apart from the US?
Gene: Canada, Nigeria, Egypt and Malawi. There's one we are doing now for Uruguay. And here is what all these boil down to. You can buy HD PE pipes anywhere in the world, but the quality is the question. You can always get it cheaper from somebody else but we won't sell junk.
DDH: What dimensions of pipes do you do?
Gene: Up to 65”. Each of the factories we deal with has something they call mandrils, which is a steel piece of pipe. They wrap a rubber around the mandril to make a 65” piece of pipe. That's how they make suction hose and discharge hose. Now, if you have got a 65-diameter hose, you gotta have a big oven to put this thing in. And apparently, these ovens are 60-ft to 100-ft long, depending on who has them. And not many people have them. But many people have been involved in it that can not do them anymore. Essentially for the dredging industry, 6” on the small size, up to 36” on the large size. Once in a while you run into some big stuff, and this is like the one now on Long Island in the Great Lakes.
DDH: You mentioned Japan and Germany as competitors with the US in pipes and hoses, etc. Can you expatiate on that?
Gene: After the Second World War, we wiped out their industrial capacity and the whole stuff. So, they bought up all these (new pipe-making) stuff, whereas the US is working with stuff from the turn of the last century, and couldn't compete.
DDH: Up till now?
Gene: Yes. That's why General Motors is shut down, they couldn't compete.
DDH: Are you saying by this token that somebody can get pipes cheaper from Japan and Germany?
Gene: Always can. Well, it depends on what the value is. And what we like to call it in our business is value-added. You can always go to another store and buy a loaf of bread cheaper than you can over here. In our business, there are different levels of quality and our quality is top. If you get it over there, it's going to be junk. Well, I can't tell you it's junk, but it wore out far faster than the one from here. If you wanna buy a dredge, you can go to sixteen different people that make dredges around the world and you've got the low-end and the high-end. If you try to accomplish a particular process, you are trying to get this stuff from here over to here, are you gonna buy the lowest end or are you gonna buy the cheapest thing in town?
DDH: You speak about technology with quite some knowledge. Did you have any kind of college training for it?
Gene: Yes, Went to Notre Dame, business administration. Which means, generally speaking, I couldn't do anything else. (General laughter).
DDH: So, you trained yourself in engineering skills?
Gene: I think it was the school of hard knocks, learning how to be on the streets. I was born in South Bend, Indiana, a farm boy. And my family was in the paint business. When my father died, he didn't leave me a nickel. I had to do something, so I started this. And it turned out pretty nicely, I think. And it's just being a straight shooter and treating people on a fair fashion, you know. You are honest with me, I am honest with you; you gotta make a buck, I gotta make a buck. Everybody has got to make a profit: to me that's what the whole deal is all about.
DDH: What is your workforce like?
Gene: Nine, we gonna have to employ about six more people. It's a family business, we have people who are all family, majority family and I think we have a pretty good workforce.
DDH: What kind of feedback have you got from your customers about the performance of the pipes you sell them, especially how it performs in salt water, fresh water, etc?
Gene: We get the job done. They call us and say, 'here is what we need to do'. And this is what we are doing with Maclean right now. They are putting what they call slurry, which is water with sand in it. And they say, how long is the pipe going to last? Well, it depends on how far you bend it. It depends on how fast you are running it. And it depends on the grit, what is the grit of the soil? Are you going to be putting oyster shells through there, that kind of stuff? It's like when somebody buys a car, how many miles can he get out of it? Well, it depends on how fast he drives it, how far he hits the accelerator, you know, that kind of stuff. So, it's all the variables but I think what we are doing in association with Charlie (Sinunu of DSC) and a couple of other people we are dealing with in dredging industry, like Ed Bond, when you are dealing with people who know the stuff, you don't have to question how can we get x number of hours out of something…it depends on how you use it.