Bill St. Thomas / Aichelin

Bill I am always curious-how did you get started in the heat treating industry?

“Gord, I guess it was in by blood.  My grandfather and father were both tool and die makers. My father worked at Ford for 37 years.  One of my uncles owns a cutting tool shop now based in CA and is still working today.  Another was a refractory contractor and I spent my summers and holidays during college relining furnaces in most of the foundries, forge and commercial shops in the Midwest.   After I graduated I was offered an engineering job with Ford, but chose to join Lindberg Furnace in 1976 as a regional salesman.”

What furnace/oven builders have you worked with over the last 40 years?

“I have worked for several and always as a direct employee and based in the Detroit area. I started with Lindberg Furnace and enjoyed selling just about every type of thermal processing equipment available, which included: atmosphere, vacuum, and Induction.
I also spent many years selling large scale Alum HT systems for Despatch, MOCO Thermal and CEC.  I sold vacuum furnace systems for Ipsen, ECM, and Seco Warwick. Currently with Aichelin and back in the Atmosphere market, I am looking forward to working with the AFC/ Holcroft team. ” 

Your experience selling furnaces and ovens now spans over 40 years-what has changed as far as selling and marketing the equipment or is it pretty much the same as it’s always been?

“I would say it has changed quite a lot in both.  Years ago marketing was primarily done by mailing or delivering brochures directly to customers or advertising in magazines and exhibiting at trade shows. Now days you can send a photo, brochure, drawing, or video to thousands of potential customers via the internet.
For selling it has become more of a team effort than in the past.  Years ago a field salesman would be in front of a customer far more that today. For one territories are much larger and customers don’t have the time to meet without an active project.
Projects today are much more involved that just selling a furnace.  Most customers now what to purchase a “system” which typically includes the equipment upstream and downstream from the basic furnace.
Sample testing, process validation, material handling, automation, data retrieval, facility layout and turnkey installation are now  key parts of getting orders and requires a team of people not just one person.
However honesty, trust and individual relationships still remain as the key factors in getting orders and that will never change.

This is going to be a rather leading question but I am trying to make a point here. Because new furnaces are a big ticket item which can easily run into the millions of dollars buyers tend to think that this means large profit margins. What are your thoughts? I said leading question because I run across this scenario on a regular basis.

“As I mention, most of today’s furnace projects take on a systems or manufacturing cell identity rather than a single piece or line of equipment.  We also know that customers no longer have the large staff of people to assemble these cells, so the furnace companies often have this task.

If a furnace maker just wants to mark up every item they want to provide with a fixed rate, they will seldom get the order. I think the furnace makers that have great working relationships with their vendors who provide the companion equipment can make some decent profits. Understanding the scope of supply and the customer’s process and vision is key.  I often find these high valued sub-contractors and suppliers are often great sources for future projects too…”

A fellow who spent his entire life in selling new furnaces before he recently retired always use to say that there is nothing new in the industry everything is just a variation on something which has already been done. Would you agree or disagree?

“I would disagree.  There are so many new materials and processes in the heat treating market. I have been in most Aerospace, Automotive, and Commercial HT plants in the USA and I am  often surprised how components are being made today.  New processes such as hot stamping of automotive structures, the use of Aluminum in cars and trucks, and the renewal of gas-nitriding and FNC processing are just a few. “

In your opinion what furnace design has been most successful? Some examples might be batch IQ furnaces, mesh belt or batch vacuum furnaces. I realize that it does very much depend upon the process and product but setting that aside what style in your opinion has proven to have the longest longevity combined with lowest operating costs and high uptime?

“Without a doubt BIQ’s have been the most successful.  With the ability to build both large and small chamber sizes with a variety of quench medias, they are the most versatile and flexible in the HT world.  Secondly, I would say the single chamber 2-bar vacuum furnace also has a great range of process capability.  Thirdly, the Alum Drop Bottom has been key for the Aerospace and Aluminum markets with ability to process thin Aerospace parts or forgings and castings for the Automotive with water or PAG quenching. 

Now this question is more fun than the one above but is closely related. What is the worst most unreliable design you have ever seen? If you don’t want to single out a particular company that is fine, I am more curious about the actual design than the builder. 

“Easy…. The commercial size (36x48x36) vacuum oil quench for carburizing.  Just about everyone struggles with the material handling issues and inner door sealing properly.  Another short coming is that the load capacity is about 50% less that of what an atmosphere furnace can provide, and the overall cost of the equipment is double or more. The overall footprint and maintenance costs are factors too. I remember one furnace that was built, rebuilt on site, re-purchased and finally cut up… 

To date furnace builders are reasonably regional probably because of the high shipping costs and lack of local support. For instance (and there are obvious exceptions) many of the North American builders especially the smaller ones tend to only market in North America. The same holds true for many Asian builders and European builders. Do you see this changing?

“Yes.  Having recently worked for several European based companies I can say that the cost of shipping is minor in the overall scheme of providing equipment from overseas.  Of course I am not talking about a “stand alone” batch oven or furnace.  One of the factors is the dollar ratio of course, but furnace design and construction is key as well.  Building to our codes and standards is no longer a problem.  Most off-shore furnace makers have USA based service teams, spare parts centers or manufacturing capabilities too.  Keep in mind that in recent years we have had a great deal of Asian and European firms bring their business to North America and prefer their existing vendors from home too.” 

For many years you were an Aichelin fellow, with their acquisition of AFC-Holcroft you are now an AFC-Holcroft fellow. Do you forsee more mergers/acquisitions within the industry in the near future? Certainly there are lots of rumors these days but nothing definite yet.

“I do.  The Aichelin / AFC merging is a great example where two competitors now join forces to cover the entire world.  The Aichelin Group brings several new products to AFC /Holcroft who gains the history and experience of a company that has been around since 1868…and AFC / Holcroft provides the Aichelin Group with market leadership in the USA. I see Alum HT as a very active market and I wouldn’t be surprised with a merger somewhere… 

So what do you like these days? Out of all the furnaces built by Aichelin, AFC-Holcroft and all the others what do you really like to promote and sell?

“I really don’t have a favorite.  What I have is a deep rooted passion for this profession, and a great deal of experience in selling heat treating equipment.  I have a very long list of great contacts and friendships that I look forward to sharing with the AFC/ Holcroft team. “

So what does the future hold for Bill St. Thomas-any strong desire to retire and play golf or are you in this another 40 years? 

“As you well know this this job is fun, when you can travel and see how things are made. I plan to work as long it remains fun and I can pass along my knowledge to others. As far as golf goes I have been lucky to have four aces and still what another, but would be happier if my Lions would win the Super Bowl…”