Jeff Hemmer / Bluewater

Hi Jeff, let’s start off with a couple of background questions the first being your background-how did you get started in the industry and what positions have you held over the years?

“Funny Story , I had just finished a certified welding program.  I met a girl who lived with her grandfather.  my certificate in welding and charm wasn’t enough to win his approval.  He suggested strongly that get a real job with him at the local heat treat ( Industrial Heat Treating in Indy owned by the Junkins family).   Like many in our industry, I have worked my way through many if not all positions in the heat treat business, from load builder, to furnace operator, to maintenance, to management.  I even filled in as a truck driver at one point in time.”  

What can you tell us about Bluewater? The number of plants, ownership structure, employees and processes offered?

“Bluewater is a privately held company; we have 13 facilities in the Midwest, Canada and in Texas.  We currently employ over 500 people.  Bluewater offers nearly every commercial heat treat process and these are listed on our Website—”

I certainly understand that you are privately held and you might be reluctant to share sales figures but would you be willing to give us at least some idea about what yearly sales are?

“What I can tell you is that YTD our 2015 sales are outpacing 2014  sales and we have several very exciting programs starting this year.

You’ve mentioned a number of different processes offered by Bluewater-is there any one that you would describe as a basic building block for the company? For instance do you regard brazing as key to the company or would you describe Bluewater as a heat treater first and a brazing expert second?

“I would describe Bluewater as problem solving thermal processor.  Some of our core competencies include high volume,  stainless/carbon belt brazing and annealing, high-volume Boriding and high volume aluminum T7 processing. We also have a significant footprint in the Casting/Forging thermal processes.”  

On a personal level do you like some forms of heat treating over others? My personal feeling is that carburizing is the bedrock of all forms of heat treating but I realize not everybody might agree with me.

“I appreciate the thought that Carburizing and IBQ hardening is a staple in this industry and we do a significant amount of these type of conventional processes but we also like the more complex processes that we are having great successes with, for example CCC in our Stainless belt brazing furnaces at the Coldwater Michigan facility.

Do you see much changing when it comes to equipment or will be still be seeing batch IQ furnaces when you and I are old and grey?

“Well Gord, if you haven’t noticed, we are old & grey.  I think the technology will continue to improve, but  batch IQ will always be a key piece of equipment due to its versatility, repeatability and dependability.  We will continue to see things we never dreamt of, like improved automation  and more reliable control and testing equipment.  For example SSI has developed an instrument to test Carbon potential on the fly without the expense of a conventional Carbon analyser.”  

At the beginning of this interview I mentioned that Bluewater is the largest US based commercial heat treater which is absolutely true. However in terms of the number of plants in North America UK based Bodycote is larger. This brings me to the point that many compare Bodycote and Bluewater Thermal-what differences or different philosophies do you see between the two companies?

“I  have to say that Bodycote is a strong company that I hold in high regard.  Before joining the private sector, I worked for Bodycote for many years, during which time I built some of the best and strongest relationships I have today.  I would guide you to read the financial reporting package that BC sends out to understand their direction and strategy/philosophy . Bluewater is focused on having the strongest team possible while fostering a great company culture. We will continue to appreciate organic growth combined with making long term partnerships. We also are open to strategic acquisitive investments.” 

What is your biggest concern as President of the company? Perhaps another way to phrase it is what keeps you awake at night?

“The safety and wellbeing of our employee’s is our number one goal we understand this is a people and equipment business so we take care of both. My goal is and always has been to send our employees home in as good condition or better as they were when they came to work.  Our key safety metrics are always improving and we are better than the industry standard due to our attention to safety.” 

How much autonomy does each individual plant have?

“As I mentioned we have 13 facilities, all of which have their own unique focus & core processes.  Each has adapted to serve their customer’s markets and needs over the years.  We have facilities with one type of furnace serving one or two specific markets as well as facilities with a half a dozen types of furnaces serving  multiple markets.  One thing all of our plants have in common is consistent & reliable corporate support in business development, finance, engineering, continuous improvement, safety and quality.  We have focused on building a rock solid corporate team that is readily available and easily accessible to plant level management.” 

The heat treating industry has been good to me however when my 23 year old son expressed a very strong desire to enter the business I had to think long and hard about the future of heat treating before I made a decision. If any of your children expressed an interest in becoming a heat treater would you encourage or discourage them?

“After the initial shock that my daughter was interested in pursuing a career in our field, I would be proud.  I would definitely expose her to the day to day operations as we all know the life of a heat treat professional isn’t that of a super model.”  

Let’s get personal Jeff, what is your favorite thing about your job and what is your least favorite?

“My favorite thing is easy, that is relationships.  Relationships last a lifetime and those I have made and continue to make are what I like most about my job. I will remind you that I met the love of my life my wife Brooke at a heat treat plant . Bill Junkins and the Junkins family provided me all of my early carrier opportunities and  Ben Crawford introduced me to the world of private equity after working together in the public sector. Ben has been one of the most influential people in my career and in the industry as well as one of my closest friends. Jim Hedman & Craig Zimmerman are two of the most professional respected, technical guys in the industry that I have been very fortunate to work with for many years.  Clint Ooten ( Director Commercial )& Eric Mannix CFO are newer to this industry but very accomplished in their respective areas and it is great to work alongside Senior team members like them.   In my position as President & COO, I have a great group of General Managers  that I rely on daily and an fortunate to mentor and grow with.  Brandon Bethea has been a great personal mentor to me while also providing leadership and communication from the board .  Though his background isn’t heat treating, he has jumped in feet first to learn our business & provide us with all necessary support.  When it comes to my least favorite thing… well my wife tells me, it’s the travel and understanding that my profession is not a 9a-5pm position.  I am a hands-on manager that is available when and where needed and have daily contact with the plants.  The good thing is she comes from a long line of successful heat treaters, so she was knew what she was signing up for.”

Going forward what changes do you see at Bluewater or the industry in general?

“We plan to continue to grow organically with an acquisitive outlook.  As we have, I suspect the industry in general will continue to shift towards developing collaborative, solutions-oriented partnerships and move away from just being another commodity in the supply chain.”