Made in TF country: Linked to history

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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