Made in TF country: Linked to history
Tim Catlett, director of materials at Laclede Chain Company in Maryville, Mo., inspects transport chain that has been coated in a process that electrically deposits zinc to its surface.
Samples of chain are cut and pull-tested to destruction several times during the production process to ensure their integrity. This particular sample didn’t break until subjected to 48,000 pounds of pressure.
After the wire rod is cleaned and drawn to specified diameters, they are loaded onto high-hat spools to await their turn in the manufacturing process.
Lori Sticken assembles Duo-Grip Tractor Tire Chains. Several types of traction products are made here in the Maryville plant, but most are manufactured at Laclede’s other production facility in Vicksburg, Miss.
Nearly all of the production of Laclede products is completed in-house, except for some accessories and fittings that are manufactured elsewhere and delivered to the Maryville plant for assembly on various types of chain. The plant also has on-site engineers, electricians and machinists to perform necessary repairs, make replacement parts and update equipment.
Troy Moore, left, and Ricky Hart package powder-coated chain that has been painted in high-visibility green for construction applications. The powder-coating line is one of the latest additions to Laclede’s operations.
Most of the products made by Laclede Chain, including those sold by MFA, are manufactured at the company’s 160,000-square-foot facility in Maryville, Mo. “We carry Laclede products because they offer chain that is made in America at a price that is competitive with imported products,” said Ryan Mauzey, product manager in MFA’s Farm Supply Division. “I also really like that we’re supporting a local business since the chains we purchase are manufactured in Maryville.”
The chain-making process begins with rolls of raw steel rod wire, which arrive at Laclede in various grades and diameters, depending on the product to be made. The wire is cleaned and drawn into an exact wire diameter and coiled onto high-hat spools for processing.
The drawn wire is loaded by EmeryPritchet into the former, where it is stamped with the grade and trace code and cut into small sections. Those sections are then formed into links and interconnected.
The chain passes into the welder, where each link is electrically welded by machine, forging the cut ends together.
After the chain is formed and welded, it goes through a series of quality-control checks. It is calibrated to ensure the consistency of each length and its strength is tested several ways. Here, Jessie Wilmes analyzes a chain sample in a machine that stretches the links to ensure their safety under heat and pressure.
The next steps in the production process depend on the grade of chain and customer requests. Transport and alloy chain goes through quench-and-temper heat treatment. Here, the chain is heated to1,600 to 1,700 degrees, quenched in water and then tempered to 400 to 600 degrees.
After heat treatment, chain is proof-tested here by employee BlakeGladbach to two times its working load limit. This procedure is another level of Laclede's stringent quality control.
Transport chains are cleaned and then flow through the electro-plating process in which the links are coated with zinc. Some of these chains remain silver in color, while others receive a gold finish.
The finished chain is cut and assembled to create a wide variety of products. Here, Scott Lance assembles tractor tire chains. Some products are stock items while others are made to meet a customer’s unique requirements.
Russ Moeller packages Grade 100 alloy chain into drums for shipment to a customer. This particular drum will hold 400 feet of continuous chain.
Employees such as Robin Burns ship all of Laclede’s Maryville-made products right from the facility. The company prides itself on having a 99.8% on-time shipment rate.
Outfitting wagon-train travelers was big business in St. Louis in the mid-19th century. The bustling Mississippi River town was the launching point for many adventurers who were headed west to unsettled areas of America. Blacksmiths were essential for repairing and equipping the covered wagons that would carry these pioneers and their possessions into unknown, often untrodden, territories.
This historical setting marks the beginning of Laclede Chain, which has origins dating back to 1854, making the company the oldest chain manufacturer in the U.S. The business started in a St. Louis blacksmith shop, where skilled craftsmen produced breast chain, trace chain and anti-spreader chains to support those loaded, westward-bound wagons. The chain was all formed by hand with a blacksmith’s hammer and individually welded links that were joined over a hearth and bellows.
Some 166 years later, transportation chains are still a mainstay of Laclede Chain’s operations, but the manufacturing methods have been modernized and the product line has greatly expanded. Around 1 million links of chain are produced every day by Laclede employees, who churn out dozens of different types, grades and sizes of chain for all kinds of uses.
Laclede products, many of which are available through MFA, include chains for transportation, cargo control, agriculture safety, trailers, overhead lifting, construction and even marine applications, along with the appropriate fittings and accessories such as hooks, snaps and connectors. No matter the chain, the process begins the same—with raw, American-made steel, which arrives at the factory in rolls of wire rods in various diameters to accommodate Laclede’s wide variety of chain products and sizes.
“We take great pride in the fact that we manufacture in the U.S. and are part of the backbone of our economy,” said Tim Riley, Laclede president and CEO. “We’re also proud to supply a lot of product to others who make up the backbone of America, like truckers and farmers and construction workers. This country can’t run without them.”
Riley has been at the helm of the Laclede since 2019, taking over the job when his father, Jim Riley, stepped into the role of chairman of the board. The elder Riley, who had a background in manufacturing steel tubing, and a group of investors bought the chain company from bankrupt Laclede Steel in 2001 and began operating it as a separate entity. Jim became majority owner in 2010, along with partner Steve Heuett.
“The chain side of Laclede Steel was a small but profitable part of that company,” Tim Riley said. “My dad, together with some equity funding and some private partnership, was able to pull that out and create a new company, keeping the name, Laclede. He recognized this kind of diamond that was inside of this large corporation, and it’s been a great relationship ever since.”
Today, Laclede employs 200 people and operates four facilities, including a 160,000-square-foot factory in Maryville, Mo., where most of the products are manufactured. A smaller plant in Vicksburg, Miss., opened in 2011 to make some of Laclede’s traction chains. A warehouse in Vancouver, Wash., distributes the traction products, which include tire chains for all types of vehicles. The management, administration, accounting and sales teams operate from Laclede’s main offices in St. Louis.
“We’re the only chain manufacturer that’s not part of a larger corporation,” Riley said. “As a privately owned company, we’re very family oriented, and we encourage an entrepreneurial spirit among our employees. We like working with customers such as MFA who also have that mindset.”
That familial atmosphere, combined with the company’s focus on quality and service, help set Laclede apart in the marketplace, said Tim Catlett, director of materials at the Maryville facility.
“I suppose that’s a popular answer, but we really do focus on making sure we have a quality product and are able to provide exceptional service to our customers,” Catlett said. “If I look at all of the conversations we have and the things we do here every day, that’s what consumes most of our time.”
In all aspects of its operations, Laclede emphasizes continual improvement, said Chief Operating Officer Robert Nupp, who’s been with the company for 14 years. Recently, he’s been working with management at the Maryville and Vicksburg facilities to help implement a program called the “2 Second Lean,” which emphasizes small improvements to make big differences.
“It’s a concept where all of our employees try to improve what they do by two seconds every day,” Nupp said. “Those small improvements add up over time, and we get to be a much better organization by doing that. It’s also about unlocking untapped potential of employees who have great ideas that perhaps haven’t been heard. The best way to grow is to innovate, be creative with what you’re doing and find ways to do things better.”
One of the newest innovations for Laclede is the introduction of a Grade 120 chain, which is 20% stronger than the next strongest chain on the market, Nupp said. Another recent addition, inspired by an employee suggestion, is a powder-coating process to finish chains and accessories for ATVs in the same paint color as the vehicle’s manufacturer. Laclede has also created a line of high-visibility painted chains, specifically targeted to the construction industry.
“Having these bright colors is absolutely critical on a construction site where there’s a lot of equipment moving around and things being lifted overhead,” Riley said. “We’ve been using the tagline, ‘Safety you can see.’ We’re very focused on that. No matter what industry you’re working in, it’s vital to be able to get home to your family each night.”
The company’s successes don’t come without challenges, Riley said. Sourcing steel is one of the toughest tasks, he explained. Laclede is at the mercy of fluctuating commodity markets in acquiring its domestic-made materials.
“We always have to play the steel markets, which go up and down, up and down,” he said. “With steel rod, especially, there are only a few suppliers, so we’re really limited in our choices.”
Finding new employees is another perpetual struggle, Riley continued, with Laclede competing with other manufacturing industries for a limited labor pool in Maryville’s rural setting. The company recruits from area schools and participates in national Manufacturing Day activities each year, giving students a glimpse into Laclede’s operations and job opportunities.
For those who do find careers at Laclede, longevity and dedication are common denominators. Many of the company’s employees have an agricultural background, Nupp said, bringing with them a work ethic and mechanical aptitude that are advantageous for the chain manufacturer.
“We have a lot of people who have worked with us for 10, 20, 30 years or more, which you don’t always see in manufacturing,” Nupp said. “A lot of them are currently farmers or previous farmers, which is a huge plus for us. They’re part of the community, and so is Laclede, which is important to the culture that we’re trying to build within the organization.”
For more information about Laclede Chain Manufacturing Company and to see a video of the chain-making process, visit online at lacledechain.com. To learn more about Laclede products available through MFA, visit with the personnel at your Agri Services or AGChoice location.
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