The Faces of Entrepreneurship: Kay and Gary McClure, Walhonde Tools Inc.
Issue:Winter 2015 : Articles
Walhonde Tools Inc. of South Charleston designs, develops, manufactures and markets 10 different-sized patented precision tube and pipe fitting tools for the worldwide power, pulp and paper, petro-chemical, food and drug processing and shipbuilding/repair industries. alhonde’s customers include many Fortune 500 companies, the U.S Navy, NASA, contractors and international concerns. Not bad for a small, family-owned company that was created almost by accident.
The husband and wife team of Kay and Gary McClure formed their company after Gary, a construction boilermaker, thought there must be an easier way to fit pipes and boiler tubes together. He started tinkering, trying to develop a tool that would make things fit together a little better. He came up with a tool he called the Boomer that had two grips on it and a handle in the middle. The tool helped line up pipes and tubes a little better for welding. But he didn’t patent it. Instead, he simply tossed it into a closet.
But that changed in the mid-1980s. When construction jobs disappeared, Gary had trouble finding work. So he and Kay decided to do something with that almost-forgotten tool he designed. They patented it and decided to start selling it. The couple formed a company but didn’t know what to name it. Eventually, they christened it Walhonde, after the Delaware Indian name for the Coal River, where they had their little house. Almost immediately, the young company faced a problem. During the time span from when the Boomer was designed to when it was patented, welding techniques had changed, and the Boomer wasn’t needed. So in the middle of the night, Gary came up with another design. “He woke up and told me to get him a piece of paper and sketched out his idea,” Kay said. “The next day he whittled the design out of wood. He called it the Buck. And when you put the Buck with the Boomer, it made what we called the Boilermaker, and it could be used in (the new type of welding).”
The couple took the two tools to their first trade show that year in Atlanta. The business quickly took off. At that point, Gary still was working as a boilermaker, so Kay went out to sell it. “Gary was working on a 900-foot stack at the John Amos Power Plant, so if there was a question I didn’t know the answer to, I’d beep him on his beeper, and he’d call me back when he had a break,” she said. “Or if customers wanted to talk to him directly, he could call them back. The customers never knew he wasn’t in an office somewhere, that he was actually working 900 feet up.”Over time, the McClures heard people complain about having trouble fitting waterwall tubes in boilers.
A waterwall is a row of narrow pipes in a boiler. So they developed a tool that could line up a single pair or two pair of tubes so welders could have an easier time putting them together. The tool, called theWallbanger, became a top seller. The company expanded into pipe alignment after the Navy called to see whether the Wallbanger would connect pipes on nuclear submarines.
It didn’t. But within a year, Gary had designed a tool that would.
At that point, the little company was making everything in its garage. But as demand for its tools grew, so did the need for a bigger working space. So the McClures bought an old shopping center on Childress Road and turned it into their business headquarters, research and development center and shipping hub. Outside suppliers make all of the tools’ component parts, but the actual assembly of the pieces and shipping occurs on Childress Road.
Kay said the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) has played an instrumental role in Walhonde’s successful growth. “For more than a decade RCBI has provided us with access to cutting edge technologies that we in no other way could afford — and the training and expertise we need to use it properly. This ongoing assistance continues to make it possible for us to compete and succeed in today’s global market.”
Matthew McClure, Kay and Gary’s son, is Walhonde’sTube and Pipe Fitting Manager. He offers an example of how RCBI has assisted the company: “We used RCBI services to redesign one of our patented tube and pipe alignment product lines, which has enabled us to make modifications that improved several of its components. These changes have helped us address specific customer needs and concerns. We used the rapid-prototyping process and made 3D drawings of all of this product line’s components … and then we used the 3D printer at RCBI to make prototype components for further configuration and design. Once we completed this, we used the abrasive water-jet cutter, Swiss Turn and Okuma vertical machining center at RCBI Charleston to produce finished parts to integrate into the new tool model.”
Walhonde remains essentially a small company, even though it has customers worldwide. Despite its success, the company remains true to its roots. “We’ve just so grateful for everything that’s happened,” said Kay. “We’ve been able to experience so much that we didn’t even know existed. When we started out, we didn’t have any money, but we had a dream. And we didn’t ever give up.”