Inside the VC Foundry
By Richard Wright
Photos: 2013© Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.
The Vermont Castings foundry in Randolph, Vermont (pop. 5,009) is the only cast-iron foundry in the hearth industry. There, parts are cast then trucked eight miles away to Bethel, Vermont (pop. 2,030) where assembly takes place; it’s also where the Vermont Castings line of grills is manufactured.
If that eight-mile separation seems like an unnecessary and devilish distance, read on; it also feels that way to those who have to deal with it every day.
Most folks in the hearth industry have never seen the inside of a foundry such as this, where tons of metal car parts are fed into furnaces, reduced to a molten lava, then poured into sand molds that form the various parts of stoves, grills or OEM products for manufacturers such as Lodge (cast-iron cookware).
From his vantage point, Bob Wright, general manager of the Vermont Castings cast-iron foundry, has seen it all – the good, the bad and the incompetent. His employment coincided with the opening of the foundry in 1979, a bold and brash move by the company’s founders, Murray Howell and Duncan Syme, and, in effect, a big bet on the future of wood heat.
The cost of the foundry was $5.5 million (real money back then), while the company was grossing only $16 million. According to research by a member of the Vermont Castings staff, there had not been a foundry built in the U.S. for the casting of stove plate since almost the turn of the century. Other companies were actually closing their foundry operations and importing stove plate from Taiwan.
To date, no other hearth products manufacturer in North America has created or bought its own cast-iron foundry (but many must wish they had). Today, castings are sourced from around the globe, from Belgium to Germany to China and Siberia.
When Wright joined Vermont Castings it was already four years old and riding a rocket of consumer demand fueled by the beauty and functionality of its first stove, the Defiant, and others that followed. It reached the consumer market through a mail order strategy that had a very important secondary effect: Small ads placed in related magazines such as New Times and Mother Earth News not only sold stoves, they exposed countless consumers to the name Vermont Castings.
Thus was an iconic brand created.
The strength of the Vermont Castings brand that developed was prominently displayed when, in August of 1983, a surprising 10,000-plus satisfied VC owners, in response to an invitation, convened in a meadow on the outskirts of Bethel, Vermont, for two days to drink beer, listen to music, dance, eat and talk about – what else? – wood heat and their love of Vermont Castings stoves.
It was called an Owners’ Outing and the number of attendees was way beyond what anyone at the company expected. Years later the car company Saturn would organize an outing of its own, most likely based upon this one.
The Big Green Egg has been holding an annual EGGtoberfest for a number of years now; in 2013, it was held at the Atlanta Motorspeedway to accommodate the 3,000 attendees – Egg lovers all.
Very few consumer products have been able to attract such passion and loyalty, and that’s exactly what was so cavalierly squandered by most of those who followed in the footsteps of Murray Howell and Duncan Syme.
A strong brand is a difficult thing to create and a terrible thing to waste.
History of Vermont Castings Ownership
Hearth & Home: When did you begin work at the Vermont Castings foundry?
Bob Wright: “That was in 1979, when Maury Howell and Duncan Syme built this facility. I was a young whippersnapper and needed a career; they needed somebody who would enjoy learning the foundry business. Duncan and Maury were very adamant that they were going to train local folks to work in their foundry.”
Did you at least have a mentor to train you?
Wright: “They brought in three people who had foundry experience to train us. It was immediate on-the-job training, and over the course of a few years I started managing the facility. When Vermont Castings first started, they had a pretty fast-paced rise to success. It was the right time and the right place, I guess.”
Early on, Maury Howell gave us a tour of the facility. That was when engine blocks were being lowered into vats of boiling metal and just disappearing. It was impressive.
Wright: “Yep. We did use some engine blocks. There was pig iron in the charge and, over time, we realized from a metallurgical point of view that there was other cast-iron scrap more compatible with our product. Currently, 80 percent of what we use is recycled brake rotors mainly from cars and light trucks.
“Of course, we do porcelain enamel and that puts a little bit of pressure on the performance of the foundry because all of the iron that we’re pouring has to go through that porcelain enamel facility as well. So our grade of metal has got to be compatible with the needs of the porcelain enamel shop.”
We’ve been told that a decent amount of upgrading to the foundry has been done over the past few years. Can you elaborate?
Wright: “There have been a number of upgrades over the course of 10 or 15 years, but most recently we did a complete teardown of the molding machine, rewired it and put in all new electronics – all the pump controls, all the valve controls. There is a PC operator interface now; it’s a much more intelligent machine, if you will, compared to the computer technology that was available in 1979. The original computer on that machine had like an 8K programmable memory and 2K RAM. So you can image how primitive some of that was.
“That was upgraded in 2010, I believe. It brought the molding machine from where it was state-of-the-art 1979, to state-of-the-art 2013. Through the years, we’ve done a lot of the mission-critical kind of stuff that keeps our reliability at a high level.
“We pour only three or four days before assembly, so we don’t have a lot of inventory. We’re pouring on a make-it-to-order basis and that puts a lot of focus on our performance, from not only a scrap and quality point of view, but also up-time on the molding machines and the foundry itself.
“We need to know that, when we come in Monday morning, we can turn the machines on and they all run.”
How many tons of metal are you going through daily?
Wright: “We’re pouring anywhere from 75 to 85 tons a day.”
How does that translate into the number of units going out?
Wright: “It’s a little complicated because we do a lot of outside work. The foundry is producing a lot of castings for various industries other than Vermont Castings. Cookware (Lodge) is a big piece and obviously our barbecue business. We have a few companies that make automatic hand dryers that you find in public bathrooms.
“We make some pan supports for gas ranges for Whirlpool, Maytag and others. We’re holding metal 24/7, and have to have a good flow of work to utilize that product. We also make castings for some of our competitors (such as Hearth & Home Technologies).”
How many furnaces do you have?
Wright: “We have three melt furnaces. They are 30 tons each and all electric. Most of our electricity comes from Hydro Quebec. It used to be nuclear. I think that portfolio has changed a little bit with the closing of our Vermont Yankee plant here.”
What temperatures do you reach?
Wright: “Our pour temperature is 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, and we’re operating four or five days a week pretty much year ’round. Even though our stove business is seasonal, we have enough outside work to keep our output relatively flat.”
So it’s not that you’re just filling up a warehouse with VC products?
Wright: “No. Everything that we do is made to order, whether it’s our own stoves or a customer’s product. There is literally no inventory in this process. I might have two or three days of material staged for shipment, but that’s about the only inventory we carry. Everybody thinks that a big old foundry must be filling warehouses full of parts. Not at all.
“We’ve learned over the past 30 years that survival is linked to maximizing what we’re good at – cosmetic-type castings – and capitalizing on quick turnaround, a short lead time and reliability. It doesn’t make any sense to have weeks’ worth of inventory in stock when you can make it the day before you need it.
“That’s an advantage we have over others who have to get stuff from overseas. I think that’s what made us attractive to some of our competitors, as well.”
I’ve always wondered why you have your foundry in Randolph and your assembly eight miles away in Bethel, Vermont.
Wright: “Yeah, yeah. We do, too. We know the answer, but it still hurts to be eight miles apart. We might as well be 800 miles apart some days.”
Exactly. Just loading and unloading the truck must be a huge pain in the neck.
Wright: “Yep. Plus there’s the redundancy between the two facilities. But in the beginning, Maury and Duncan built a foundry here on enough acreage so they could have built on to this building, given enough time and planning. But this business was evolving at such a fast pace that they had to find an existing building and, literally, move into it within months, not years.”
I can understand that. I can’t understand why, through the years, one of the other owners didn’t …
Wright: “Oh, tell me about it! Yeah. It has been discussed a number of times – ‘Oh, my God! Wouldn’t that be great and look at all the savings.’ But the upfront capital to do it is always the daunting task.”
Well, maybe the new owners, Ricardo Leon and his team, will see the wisdom in making the move once they’re more firmly established.
How many employees do you have in Randolph, and then in Bethel?
Wright: “Here at the foundry we have around 72 people right now; there’s about 125 in Bethel. They have a little more seasonality than we do, as you can imagine from an assembly point of view. They also have the grill business that has now been integrated 100 percent into Vermont.”
Am I correct that the sand-casting method of production is the best way to go?
Wright: “It’s probably the most efficient and economical. This is a Green foundry. There’s no hazardous material in anything that we make. So it’s an economical process. The sand is recycled; the metal obviously is recycled.”
Do you know where Duncan Syme is these days?
Wright: “He was in Phoenix for a while, but I believe he’s in Hanover, New Hampshire, now.”
It’s quite amazing that he could create his first stove – the Defiant – and have such a winner right out of the gate. It’s really like a rookie hitting a grand slam home run in his first game, isn’t it?
Wright: “It sure is. Plus that was just absolutely perfect timing, and it’s a beautiful stove; it worked – and it still works – well. It’s quite successful even to this day. I’m still getting calls from folks who want parts for it; we still produce some of those parts, just not all of them.”
1. A huge metal magnet picks up recycled iron to charge the furnace at the Vermont Castings Foundry in Randolph, Vermont.
2. Recycled car parts being melted in a furnace.
3. Metal being melted in one of three electric furnaces.
4. Iron being poured from the furnace into a ladle; it carries molten metal from the melting furnace to the pouring furnace.
5. A worker pours molten iron into the pouring furnace.
6. A worker running the sand-mold machine.
7. Foundry general manager Robert Wright at left, has a chat with John Rullo in the pattern maintenance shop.
8. Molten iron being poured into sand molds.
9. Workers remove castings from sand molds after the shakeout machine has done its job.
10. Iron castings going through the shot-blast cleaning machine to remove molding sand.
11. Following the shot blast, parts are taken to grinding where parting lines and grates are removed.
12. Patrick Chandler drilling stove parts at the foundry in Randolph.
Bethel Assembly Plant
13. Kraig Kernehan bends sheet metal in the metal fabrication area of the Bethel, Vermont, assembly facility.
14. Cutting sheet metal in Bethel.
15. Workers prepare and paint stove parts with the Vermont Castings’ signature red color in the enameling area in Bethel.
16. Workers assembling stoves in Bethel.
17. Lab manager Doug Fongeallaz, seated, and senior lab technician Dan Whitcomb check gas readouts in the test burn area.
18. Manufacturing manager Rick Grant at the Bethel production facility.