The Staying Power of Investing and Innovating

Kim Phelan

Twenty-five years ago, Lincoln Thompson Jr. had a vision to modernize his Culpepper, Virginia, gray iron foundry, AFS Corporate Member Bingham & Taylor (B&T). He built two buildings, one to house an electric melt system, and another for a new sand plant, but financial challenges of the time and the management of several other manufacturing operations across three states stymied the projects. The building intended for electric melt gradually became a storage catchall––that is, until his daughter and successor, Laura Grondin, made an executive decision in 2020 to pull the trigger on a $25 million foundry upgrade.  

Last October, a ribbon-cutting event feted the completed commissioning of two new Inductotherm 8,000-lb. electric furnaces, as well as upgraded molding equipment, refurbished shakeout system, and new cleaning equipment. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and other elected officials came to celebrate B&T’s achievement, which is on track to add 32 hourly and 13 salaried jobs into the community. The foundry specializes in castings used in water and gas infrastructure, primarily iron boxes that provide underground access to security valves and meters, as well as some accessory products. 

Grondin, who took over as president/CEO of the company in 1999, says foundries are “self-cannibalizing” in terms of their harsh processes and the effect on equipment––which is why B&T is committed to continuous investing. Additional near-term projects they’ve identified include improving finishing operations, painting/coating equipment, and expansion of its molding lines with additional automation. 

“If you want to be in manufacturing, you have to invest in equipment,” she said. “And we've proven investments are having a financial benefit to us. We have the opportunity to almost triple our output … and we are now running two shifts as opposed to one.” 

But the benefits of a new electric melt system go well beyond the foundry’s pocketbook. 

Grondin added that the replacement of their cupola furnace has led to substantial reduction of injuries and has completely changed B&T’s environmental profile, lowering carbon emissions by 98%.  

People and Pride  

Investing in renovations came with good public relations advantages, too. Many residents of Culpepper and the surrounding area came to B&T’s ribbon-cutting, people who “had never crossed the train tracks to see the foundry,” said Grondin.  

The community is well-acquainted with B&T as a good corporate citizen that contributed the town’s welcoming arch as well as artistic light fixtures for a local theatre, among other physical reminders of its giving-back mindset. Nevertheless, the impact of seeing and hearing about the now-cleaner manufacturing business through in-person tours was powerful.  

The event also ushered in something of a new dawning for the 100 employees of B&T’s foundry. 

“I think they derived a much deeper appreciation of what we're doing as a company and walked away with a feeling of pride in what they're doing. I talk a lot about the fact that we make parts that help bring clean drinking water to people's homes. And that is beginning to resonate with people. This is basic industry in the United States, something we should all be proud of. We make things here! The country can't survive as a service economy alone. It's just not reality.” 

Grondin said she’s proud of the foundry’s diverse workforce that comprises large numbers of Hispanic and African American employees, and the entire team is characterized by a strong work ethic.  

B&T has successfully stabilized labor attrition over the last few years, and unlocking talent retention has been a tiered effort––the key, according to Grondin, is identifying what’s meaningful to people and demonstrating that you care about them. Two years ago, the foundry implemented a sizeable wage increase that made B&T more competitive as an employer. Improving the foundry work environment with its recent upgrades has also been a big plus. Other steps to improve retention have included free lunches and gas cards when fuel costs spiked in 2022. 

“We’re not maternalistic or paternalistic,” Grondin said, “because that implies that people can't take care of themselves, which I don't believe––I think people are capable of taking care of themselves; but we work to make choices that help our employees live a good life. That's our goal. And we want to help them advance if that’s what they want, so we provide training opportunities to do that. 

Opportunity Aplenty 

The future is bright for B&T––as they’ve become poised with significantly greater capacity, Grondin expects the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will pump fresh supplies of public funding into the underground water utilities industry her company supports. But the foundry’s approach is far from passive. B&T has introduced a product into the marketplace that is aggressively competing with Asian imports to meet a specific demand from its customer base.  

The “Bison Box” is a hybrid cast-iron and plastic innovation for underground utilities, which they have been selling into the gas industry for 50 years, says Grondin. Now, they’re getting good traction as they demonstrate its relevance to water infrastructure. Water utility customers want rugged durability, so B&T responded with thicker walls and an overall improved robust construction. But adding plastic was the game-changer, which lightened the valve- and meter-box’s weight. 

“Imagine trying to put a 200-lb. box into the ground––it's not so easy, right?” Grondin said. “You’ve got to have a couple of people and some heavy equipment to do it. Now suddenly, if you can make that same product weigh only 50 lbs., it's a lot easier for them to install. And it's white–– so when you go to shine a flashlight down and look at a valve and everything is dark, it's a lot easier to see it.  

“We feel like our time is now to push this product because of the infrastructure spending,” she added. It’s a domestically-made product people don’t have to pay double for, and they’re willing to take a look at it in a way they weren't before. So that's why we're bullish.” 

Let’s Just Get the Work Done 

Today, Grondin’s umbrella company, Virginia Industries (soon to be rebranded as V Industries) is comprised of the two original organizations for which it was founded in 1959: Hartford Technologies (with two plastics plants) as well as Bingham & Taylor, which also has two plants with plastics operations. Grondin resides in Connecticut, which is where she grew up, and commutes down to the Virginia-based foundry about once a month.  

She joined her dad’s business after college, first in data processing, and she then quickly assumed additional responsibilities. When Thompson was 71 he made Grondin CEO––she was in her mid-30s. 

“My father believed in me and he was willing to put his faith in a woman, which was not necessarily characteristic of his generation,” she said.  

And it was a difficult period of time. First, men who had worked for her father were now reporting not only to a female, but a young female, and some struggled with it, she recalled.  

“There's no question that I've had men in my career who have had challenges reporting to a woman. “My approach has generally been to not think about whether there were men or women in the room and to just focus on the people who are in the room. I focus on being one of the people engaged in getting the work done.” 

But it was rough for other reasons, as well. In those days, Virginia Industries was losing money with another foundry it owned in Alabama, which Grondin eventually decided to close.  

“I spent the first five years trying to fix things that weren't quite right,” she said. “It’s why we stopped the expansion project at that time. We just needed to get stable. Ever since, my focus has been on growing and improving the company.” 

Throughout B&T’s peaks and valleys, she says leaning into relationships and resources from AFS was the right thing to do.  

“In the foundry business, people are very open and willing to help each other. It's a strength of this industry that hopefully will never be lost,” Grondin said. “There is something special about people––even people who compete with each other––being open to sharing information and supporting domestic manufacturing.” 

But association networking requires commitment and consistency before the payback happens, she believes.   

“My advice to young people, whether young female or male, is: You have to show up, and you can't just show up one time and expect people to open the door and embrace you,” she said. “Relationships are built over time. And sometimes, they want to see, are you going to keep showing up?” 

Just like her experience with customers and employees, being a minority gender in the association took a little extra navigating to break into networking circles, and she had some good help along the way.   

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Henry Lodge at Lodge Cast Iron, when I was struggling with some of the men who reported to me and were making decisions without consulting me. Henry said to me, ‘Laura, you just don't get it. We're guys. We're just going to keep going until you tell us to stop.’ That was very valuable advice. It made me realize that I had to be clear about what my expectations were, about what decisions required my input, because they were not going to come back and ask me questions.” 

Grondin says connecting with other women in the association has also been very gratifying, and she fully endorses the career support women can give each other in a male-dominated environment.  

“Often, women do not have other women within their companies with whom to speak about how to navigate various situations. The women’s group in AFS is one of the places to find that support and network.,” she said. 

“But I have to admit,” she added, “that some of the best advice I've gotten has been from the guys about how to deal with men!”