Founded in the early 1980s, G&L Tubing has since grown by focusing on custom tubing and consistent but cautious expansion. This approach has helped the company grow from a tiny outfit with a single tube mill in the founder’s basement to one that employs roughly 180 people and counts Fortune 500 companies as clients.
Building its own equipment and tooling allows this Cookeville, Tennessee firm to maintain maximum control over product quality. “We make our own equipment; then the primary business is selling tubing that we make with that equipment,” states President and General Manager Peter Neuberger. “One hundred percent of [our tubing] is customized.”
G&L builds tube mills, cutting machines and straightening equipment in-house. The company uses this gear to produce round tubing, shaped tubing, coiled tubing and other tubing products out of stainless steel. Its tubing products are key components in coffee machines at Starbucks and water purification systems at SeaWorld.
“We make tubing that gets primarily used in three categories of applications which cross many markets. We make tubing that is used to manufacture heating elements that go into everything from baby incubators to aircraft carriers,” says Neuberger. “Then, another big chunk of our business is vehicle fuel delivery systems – fuel lines, anything fuel-system related in vehicles.”
A third big market consists of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and other products such as boilers that require heat- or corrosion-resistant tubing. The heating element segment is the biggest revenue generator for the company, followed by vehicle fuel delivery systems, then HVAC systems.
All of G&L’s tubing “is manufactured for a specific customer’s application,” notes Neuberger proudly. “One hundred percent of our tubing is engineered specifically for use by the end-customer who has ordered it. We don’t make any stock tubing.”
Most of this work is done at a 100,000-square-foot facility in Cookeville that runs continuously. Various types of stainless steels are used to make tubing, and there are no plans to introduce any non-stainless steel material at present, due to the threat of contamination. “You can’t have any copper in a plant that does stainless. You can’t have any carbon steel in a plant that does stainless,” he says.
G&L also runs an operation in Denver, Colorado that employs roughly twenty people; the remainder work in Cookeville. The Colorado facility does similar work to the Cookeville plant, albeit on a smaller scale.
For a few years starting in 2010, the company also had a facility in Nanjing, China which primarily served as a warehouse. This branch was opened largely to accommodate Chinese rules that required foreign companies to establish a presence in China in order to do business in that country. While the company continues to ship tubing around the world, the Nanjing branch has now been closed. The company is content to expand its existing facilities and does not intend to open any new locales shortly.
The firm was founded in 1982 in Cookeville by Robert Gilreath, an engineer who was frustrated with the quality of available tubing. He decided to take things into his own hands and created a tube mill in the basement of his house. Gilreath went to work, and a company was born.
Ownership eventually passed to others, but the company’s operating principles endured. These included an emphasis on customization and steady growth that is achieved by adding a few new customers each year, then expanding the amount of business done with these clients. New types of tubing were also added over the years, but the company has remained focused on its core capabilities.
From the start, G&L has emphasized quality control. The company currently has ISO 9001:2015 certification and produces tubing according to the standards of ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials).
Quality control “starts with the certification of the operators in training,” Neuberger says. Employees go through an intensive certification and training process involving written and oral tests. Some workers might train for two years before being certified to run mills independently. Once certified operators are in place, G&L employs comprehensive quality assurance measures such as constant product testing.
“Every foot of tubing is getting electronically tested with monitor equipment on the line. Every forty-five minutes, we cut a sample from production and perform a destructive test on it. In welded tubing, the key is how strong is the weld? When you do a destructive test, what you’re verifying is that the tube will fail before the weld does,” he explains.
He adds, “In the tube mill world, there’s a fair amount of art that goes along with the science [of making tubing], so there’s a huge benefit in having a stable workforce where people are here for literally decades. It’s not a good place to just plug new employees in every six months.”
To this end, a good work ethic is a must for new hires and loyalty is strongly encouraged. “We have a reputation in the community [as a place] where people can spend a long career. Next week, we have an employee who is retiring who has been here for twenty-nine years,” says Neuberger. Many of the company’s engineers hail from the local Tennessee Technological University.
In addition to a highly-trained, loyal workforce, it invests heavily to automate its equipment processes as part of its commitment to ongoing improvement.
The company appreciates loyal workers and favors loyalty from suppliers. It works with a handful of steel suppliers which provide materials and products made to G&L specifications. “There’s a small number of very high-quality vendors we buy the vast majority of our products from,” he states.
G&L also offers a vendor-managed inventory system that promises fast, consistent delivery and efficient supply chain solutions for customers. It started performing data analytics years ago, even before inventory management software programs existed.
“We have customers that order from us today at two o’clock, and we ship tomorrow,” says Neuberger. “We use our analytics to estimate and predict what [a client] is going to order. Over time, we’ve proven we can predict what they’re going to order better than they can. We make what we think they’re going to order in advance and have a ninety-eight percent on-time delivery rate, with less than twenty-four hours from order to delivery.”
G&L does not have to do much promotion to drive growth. The small number of new clients who do come onboard each year are generally landed through outreach by independent sales representatives. “We don’t participate in trade shows. We don’t do social media. We just continue to make more products for the same customers each year,” he states.
Challenges include “the on-again, off-again tariffs,” says Neuberger. Last June, the U.S. government imposed a twenty-five percent tariff on imported steel and a ten percent tariff on imported aluminum as part of a simmering trade dispute. The Canadian government followed suit with similar levies on steel and aluminum imports.
“Last year, we had Canadian customers screaming, ‘The product just went up twenty-five percent,’” he says. “We had some customers in Canada who said, ‘We have to place orders with European suppliers because our management has told us they will not pay tariffs for U.S. products.’ We lost some orders because of the tariffs.”
A recent deal lifted the tariffs, but market uncertainty remains. No one knows if a new round of tariffs might be imposed. As Neuberger points out, market uncertainty is killer for repetitive manufacturers such as G&L. “When you make the same products for the same customers every month, having a reliable [economic] forecast is critical,” he explains.
The company is also keeping a close eye on trends in the transportation sector. While it does a thriving business making tubing products for vehicle fuel delivery systems, that market looks to change. “You’d have to be living under a rock not to hear about the impending doom of gas driven vehicles. We all know that’s going to be a long-term transition but short-term. Who knows? So uncertainty for us is a challenge.”
In the face of tariffs and market disruption, G&L is determined to stay true to its original vision to be a manufacturer of custom tubing.
“We’re not going to chase projects, and we’re not going to build stock tubes. We’re going to find more ways to customize, and we’re going to continue to look for more ways to innovate with the machinery that we make and continue to look for ways to automate our processes to be more efficient. That’s who we are as a company. It’s ingrained in the culture,” says Neuberger.
“We want to continue doing what we’ve done for the last thirty-seven years, which is add a few new customers a year, grow our business with those customers, and find new ways to customize the product so it’s easier for our customers to use. We’ll continue to find ways to customize products so that they optimize our customers’ production lines,” he says.