By 2014, Johnny Holifield and Jimmy Quick had several years of experience under their belts, along with some clearly defined notions about what it means to be an “elite” welder and turnaround specialist. After all, they had honed their skills working 15 years for an elite turnaround contractor, and had mentored numerous others in the process.
As sometimes happens, a series of corporate buyouts and recapitalizations led to a change in their employer’s corporate culture. “They went from being the best and hiring the best people, to how much can we do and how much work can we get,” Holifield says. “They started taking on too much work and grew too fast, and they ceased to be successful.”
The two began to feel a profound sense of job dissatisfaction, and following another buyout they decided it was time to leave. With the goal of assembling an elite group of welders specializing in enhanced welding services, they founded Specialty Welding and Turnarounds (SWAT) in Gonzales in April 2014, with Holifield as president and Quick as vice president.
THE RIGHT EXPERIENCE
Construction was a significant departure from Holifield’s original goal as a young man of becoming a dentist. A native of Lafayette, he majored in biology for two years at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before deciding to turn his part-time construction job into a career.
Construction was a more obvious choice for Quick—he grew up in a construction family. “I’d get off the school bus in the evening and walk in the shop there,” he says. “I’d meet all the welders and fitters. I was around it all of the time.”
While starting a new business can be daunting, the two found that their reputation for fast, expeditious work preceded them, and work came easily. Finding a good quality staff of supervisors wasn’t difficult either. “When we left, we took our core group of supervisors with us—all of the guys that we trained through the years,” Holifield says. “From 1999 to 2014, most all of the project managers and superintendents were trained by Jimmy or me.”
The supervisors’ willingness to leave the safety and security of an established company for the risk of joining a fledgling business was testament to their loyalty. “These guys were fitters and welders, and became foremen and superintendents under our guidance,” Quick says. “We trained them in planning, scheduling and cost control. They knew that the positions they were in were based upon what we did to make them better.” Tapping into that level of experience from “Day One” was crucial, enabling SWAT to begin working in the field as if it had been in operation for years.
Relationships were key to getting work, at least in the beginning. A catcracker project at Placid Refining Co. in Port Allen was the company’s first job, and was awarded mostly because of an existing business relationship the owners had with the plant and maintenance manager there. At the time, SWAT only had seven employees on staff.
Alon USA Refinery (formerly Valero) in Krotz Springs was another job that came easily. Wayne Ardoin, maintenance planning superintendent and turnaround manager at the refinery since 2007, says he had worked with Holifield and Quick for years. Additionally, many of SWAT’s supervisors had worked at the Alon plant and were familiar with the refinery’s stringent safety requirements.
Alon uses SWAT welders on emergency piping jobs, and leans upon their mechanical division to perform exchanger and tower work. “We call them when we need somebody here now,” Ardoin says. “The quality of the work is important; if it’s not quality, we have to do a lot of re-work. I don’t have to take them by the hand and babysit them. If I give them a set of plans, they can go out there and do the work.”
Ardoin also uses SWAT supervisors to oversee mechanical work at the site, a task typically performed by Alon employees.
THE PRODUCTIVITY FACTOR
Since beginning operations, SWAT has not missed a project window or budget. That’s important to its clients, since time is money. “Our guys are geared to be functional,” Holifield says. “We structure ourselves to get the most out of our people. Some of these others, their productivity rates are typically running at .65 or .7 for every man hour planned while we’re running a 1.2 or 1.3 [according to norms established by Page & Nations, a labor productivity norms standard]. We’re actually getting more than a man-hour of work out of our guys. It comes down to aggressiveness.
“If a plant’s making $1 million a day on a unit and they have a 20-day turnaround, a contractor that’s running a .85 productivity rate might cause them to miss that window. For every day they don’t make that date, they’re losing that production.”
Petrochemical owners hire SWAT for highly specialized, high-productivity projects. They know costs are high for such a firm, but that the costs of project delays and delayed production are higher. “They call us when they have critical path areas, problem areas or difficult tasks that have to be done in a short duration,” Quick says. “They know we have good people, our productivity rate is high and that our guys are job knowledgeable and skilled so we don’t have safety issues.”
As of late, SWAT has noticed a particular need in specialty piping, such as chrome and stainless. While “run of the mill” welders might be working on carbon steel, many petrochemical owners turn to SWAT for these specialty welds.
SWAT’s mechanical division focuses on exchangers, towers and drums. “Based upon what we’ve seen in the industry, the mentality of other companies has not been aggressive,” Holifield says. “We hired an elite, hand-picked group. They have the same philosophy and structure that we do. Now, we’re trying it out and seeing how it works. So far, it’s working unbelievably.”
To accommodate its rapid growth, SWAT recently purchased 5.5 acres of land off La. 44 in Gonzales for a new 12,000-square-foot facility. Already designed, the facility will more than double the size of its existing office once it opens in May 2017.
HIRING BY REFERRAL
Finding available welders and pipefitters is not that difficult when you pay over and above the prevailing wage—the tricky part is finding a dependable group that will meet a higher level of productivity. “We don’t hire people without a work history,” Holifield says. “We hire on a referral basis only and a prior history that works with us.”
To shorten the list, Holifield and Health, Safety and Environmental Manager Troy Rembert pore over a list of referrals provided directly by supervisors in the field. Holifield accepts or rejects applicants based upon experience while Rembert performs an extensive background check. While a large construction company might hire 100 pipefitters for a particular project, only 15 of those would meet SWAT’s more stringent qualifications. By being incredibly selective, it has ramped up productivity and improved its overall safety record.
These hiring standards never change, regardless of job size. That includes a current mechanical turnaround project in Texas City, Texas, where SWAT employs a 500-man workforce—its highest manpower job to-date. “Every employee we hire here comes from a referral,” Rembert says. “We don’t accept people that weren’t referred, and that’s what makes the difference.”
Notably, the recent downturn in the oil and gas market has had a positive impact on the number of available seasoned workers for SWAT, enabling it to more easily ramp up its numbers.
SWAT actively looks for a specific set of work-minded qualities in its craftsmen, such as productivity, assertiveness and efficiency. Employees are also expected to be skilled in multiple crafts. “For other companies, welders just weld,” Quick says. “When they come to work for us, we’re asking them to bolt up, hang pipe, do whatever it takes. We’re getting more out of these guys than just welding.”
While getting the right craftsmen is undoubtedly important, SWAT feels finding good, quality supervisors is harder. “Getting the right supervision, and making sure it’s the supervision that we want, that’s the tough part,” Holifield says. “We hand pick these guys. There are some that just don’t meet our criteria.”
Those that make the cut enjoy certain employee benefits that are unparalleled in the industry. “We’re a ‘double-time’ company, so we pay our guys more,” Quick says. “That means, every time a guy works over eight hours, he gets paid double time. If he makes $30 an hour, after eight hours he makes $60. Our scale and rates are not like those of a large construction company. It’s like in anything else—if you pay more money to get somebody, you’re going to get the better qualified person.”
To prepare employees for work, SWAT live-streams Computer-Based Training (CBT) safety courses to a safety council close to the jobsite. The company also makes sizeable financial investments in safety, such as the purchase of 400 SRL (Self-Retracting Lifeline) safety harnesses, which restrict falls to just 6 inches. The newest technology on the market and at a price tag of $400 apiece, the SRLs provide additional assurance to industrial owners about SWAT’s commitment to a safe work environment.
Contrary to common practice, SWAT prefers to incentivize the reporting of safety incidents rather than dole out safety incentives. “We want them to report all things, no matter how minor,” Rembert says. “Providing monetary incentives can have the opposite effect, and can actually discourage the reporting of safety issues. Number one, we want to get you the best care in such a situation, but we also want to turn it into a lesson learned so that we can take measures to prevent a recurrence.”
SWAT supervisors and safety personnel perform “no blame, no name” field audits, where the findings are captured anonymously. The data is then accumulated and discussed during safety meetings so that measures can be taken. “If we’re on a turnaround working 24/7 and three days in a row we have some housekeeping issues out there, then we know that there is the potential for trips, slips and falls,” Rembert adds. “This way, we can take action.”
Originally published in the third quarter 2016 edition of 10/12 Industry Report.