Stainless Valve Co.’s story begins with diamonds. Super-hard diamond particles are used on cutting tools, affixed with bonding material for very high grinding efficiency, quality and—above all—finite precision. They are the darlings of the machining industry.
“Actually I was on the poor end of the diamond business,” Dirk Lindenbeck says with a laugh. The 70-year-old retired chairman of Stainless Valve and super-sharp engineer from Germany earned his start in the tool manufacturing industry at De Beers in South Africa.
With Lindenbeck’s relocations from Germany to South Africa to Brazil and to the U.S., B+E and Stainless Valve, located in Monroe, have rich history in creative design, engineering and manufacturing, fueled by Lindenbeck’s dream of owning his own business. They now provide a comfortable, stable niche for his two sons: Axel, 33, president of Stainless Valve, and Michael, 32, president of B+E Manufacturing Co, Inc., the parent company of Stainless. Combined, the two companies employ 19.
After years in the diamond tool industry, B+E, a machining shop, was Lindenbeck’s first acquisition in the Charlotte area, manufacturing a variety of tools to specification. But after purchasing Stainless Valve Co. in 1990, the company turned its attention to a “real moneymaker,” as Michael says, manufacturing specialty industrial valves—some which cost nearly $400,000 a piece. The company’s clients come from pulp and paper, mining, food, petrochemical, chemical, power, and biomass energy businesses.
So how did a man who grew up in a very tiny German village wind up running a very specialized valve design and manufacturing business in Monroe, nearly 4,000 miles across the globe?
Honing His Skills
Lindenbeck grew up in northern Germany. He attended the Bismarck School during his earlier years and spent his young adulthood at what is known today as Leibniz University, both in Hannover where his family had moved after World War II.
At age 27 with a Ph.D. in engineering, the fresh-faced Lindenbeck left for South Africa to work for De Beers for three years. “I did some research on the grinding process using diamonds and cubic boron nitride and was promoted to the head of a department that manufactured tools,” he says.
In 1974, Lindenbeck moved back to Germany for one year to begin work for Ernst Winter und Sohn, one of the world’s largest diamond tool manufacturers.
“During that time, we were working on designing a new diamond tool manufacturing plant in Brazil,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful location on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.’”
In mid-1975, the plant began production of resin bonded diamond tools to grind tungsten carbide. Later, metal bonded products were manufactured to cut stone, concrete and glass. Industrial use of diamonds has historically been associated with their hardness, which makes diamond the ideal material for cutting and grinding tools.
As the hardest known naturally occurring material, diamond can be used to polish, cut, or wear away any material, including other diamonds. Common industrial applications of this property include diamond-tipped drill bits and saws, and the use of diamond powder as an abrasive. Today, over 80 percent of the industrial diamonds are synthetic diamonds replacing natural diamonds.
Brazil brought other changes for the young engineer. He married his Brazilian wife and both Michael and Axel were born there, learning Portuguese, English and German as they grew up. Today they speak German, English and Spanish. They learned Spanish from school and traveling in Spanish speaking countries where they lived with friends, who also visited them in the U.S., a Rotary-Youth-Exchange program.
In 1979, Ernst Winter und Sohn began planning for another diamond tool manufacturing plant in the town near Greenville, S.C., that would produce galvanic bonded tools with very tight tolerances. The young family moved to Traveler’s Rest, S.C., in 1982, when manufacturing commenced.
Tool and Component Manufacture
In 1987, Lindenbeck moved his family, including a new daughter, to south Charlotte when he purchased B+E Manufacturing Co., Inc., a small job shop with six employees. The established machine shop was located in Mint Hill and owned by Arthur Culbertson of Charlotte.
“The time was right to have my own business,” says Lindenbeck. “It started to look like there was a company to purchase, and I felt like I knew how to run a plant.”
The elder Lindenbeck says that he liked the idea of buying an existing company rather than financing a startup from scratch. “Here in the United States, it’s much more of the culture than in Germany to start your own business. It’s easer to get money to start up a business or acquire one.”
B+E currently works with milling, turning, drilling, reaming, boring, tapping on almost any material, and supplies machined components, especially custom designed machine parts, assemblies and automation controls. B+E’s machinists build tools, fixtures, equipment and machinery, using milling, grinding, welding, and assembly.
B+E’s job shop work is far flung and touches a variety of industries—both locally and globally. “We do tooling for airports and airplanes, parts for machines that dispense medication, and even make brackets that hold night vision goggles on helicopter pilot helmets for the military,” Michael says.
Though first trained in drawing designs on manual drawing machines, then learning two-dimension AutoCAD computer software , the traditional, elder Lindenbeck is the first to admit that technology has led the way in building and growing the engineering design businesses for manufacturers, especially “job shops.”
“Without computer-aided design we simply could not be so efficient, so complete, fast and so accurate,” says Lindenbeck. “In the past, we had to literally draw every single item to make sure it fit.”
He is quick to show off Solid Works, the mechanical 3D computer-assisted design program that both companies use daily.
“My father bought the 3D program when I was a freshman at UNC Charlotte,” says Michael, “and told me during my early years, ‘Here, figure out how it works—that’s your job.’”
The company continued to manufacture tools and other components, but soon turned its attention to bigger fish when it acquired Culbertson’s other business, also in Mint Hill.
Little did the family know that the jump from a job shop for third-party manufacturing to manufacturing complicated valves for the process industry would spell a move to Monroe, more employees, and, ultimately, more business through focused sales.
Moving Into Valves
In 1990, Lindenbeck decided to expand the business and purchased Stainless Valve Co., again from Culbertson.
The ongoing growth of the business prompted the company to expand. A new larger location in Union County was found, followed by a $500,000 expansion adding four jobs to the company’s 16-employee workforce. On its current six acres off U.S. Highway 74, the company added 7,500 square feet to its building, bringing it upwards of 22,500, while investing $350,000 in additional machinery.
Stainless Valve’s operations were redirected to focus primarily on developing new designs and manufacturing custom designed specialty valves, including large diameter and custom gate valves and other valve designs built to specific application requirements.
According to Axel, they serve clients mainly in the pulp and paper, mining, petrochemical, chemical, power, and biomass energy industries. They also supply to the food, oil and gas, waste incineration industries. Valve customers include International Paper, Georgia Pacific, Irving Pulp and Paper, Westinghouse, Abengoa Bioenergy, GE, BP, DuPont, Exxon, Andritz, Norilsk and Rio Tinto.
There are four “Big” products in the Stainless Valve product catalog which form the basis of all the custom valves they create. The Stargate-O-Port-Valve AS that was developed in 1995 allows use in applications where scale formation and sticky substances can prevent standard commodity valves from performing properly.
The Big Blow valve is manufactured to withstand almost any problem related to batch pulp digesters in the pulp and paper industry. For manufacturers who battle with unplanned shutdowns, continuously halting production, take flanges loose, and manually replacing screens, Stainless Valve created the Big Screen, which allows screens be automatically replaced without stopping production just by pressing a button.
The Big Knife valve is designed to allow solids to accumulate in the bottom of the valve, when a small percentage of solid exist in the flow media, as the valve is being closed. The bottom of the valve can be flushed out in order to prevent compaction of material.
“We have customers tell us that we saved them money in two weeks,” says Lindenbeck. “That’s because they no longer have to shut down and lose money.”
Following in Father’s Footsteps
Axel became head of Stainless Valve Company after studying paper science and engineering at N.C. State, then taking on two master’s degrees at Pfeiffer University—in business administration and in organizational change and leadership.
The older brother worked elsewhere fresh from grad school but was looking for something “more challenging.” His father made him an offer: Work for Stainless Valve for six months while looking for another job.
“I made him an offer to continue working here based on his excellent performance,” says Lindenbeck, “and he made me wait for two weeks before he let me know! It was good that he decided to work for us.”
“My intention was to work outside the family business for seven to10 years and then come back to the family business,” says Axel. “However, after three months in the family business, I found that I was really enjoying the work and helping my father run the business.”
Michael joined B+E in 2008 as president. The Providence High School graduate earned a civil engineering degree in 2004 from UNC Charlotte, and thought he’d find himself working in planning. After two years with the N.C. Department of Transportation, he worked briefly with land development, designing infrastructures for neighborhoods.
And just as the nation saw real estate suffer in the economic downturn of 2008, “Dad came to me and wanted me to run the shop,” says Michael. “Needless to say, I’m doing nothing with civil engineering and doing mechanical engineering now. I’ve learned so much.”
Lindenbeck, although “retired” for five years, still serves as a consultant and attends Monday morning staff meetings. His wife attends to the company’s financial side, and works from home.
“I think I absolutely made the right decision to bring my sons on board,” says Lindenbeck. “They are dong a very good job running the business. And it’s good that they can do it at such an early stage of their life.”
Both brothers married German natives, and are still fluent in two or more languages. Their own children will be multi-lingual, too. They plan to call the Charlotte area home for years to come. And B+E and Stainless Valve will be passed on again one day, it seems.
Michael hopes to see both businesses grow significantly. “We plan to be spending more time to improve our efficiency, increase our volume and see more product go out the doors,” he says. “I’d like to see the B+E side fill in the void when we aren’t working on valve orders. We need to grow that side and most of that would be local companies.”
Axel sees future construction and growth in more countries worldwide. “My goal for the business is to diversify into more industries in more countries,” he says. “Currently, Stainless Valves are installed in 18 countries and I hope we can double that in 10 years,” he says. “I want Stainless Valve to be the name that the maintenance manager or reliability engineer thinks about when he has a valve problem that needs to be solved.”
Michael mentions that the company has an additional plot of land on which to expand and add additional manufacturing facilities—hopefully within the next five years.
“Growth will be organic through the result of a superior product coupled with superior service in a severe service market. We also aim to develop our workforce in both capability and capacity,” he says.
“I am part of the second generation in this company and the goal is to build something that may eventually be passed on to the third generation. That is quite a ways off and there are many roads to travel to get there,” Axel acknowledges.