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KAYLIE: Hi, welcome, and thank you for joining us in today’s AGRU America podcast. In this podcast, we will explore our recent blog titled: “A Fitting History: AGRU’s Rise as One of the Top HDPE Pipe Manufacturers in the USA.” Joining me in today’s discussion is Cody Miles. Together, we’ll discuss AGRU’s past, present, and future. Welcome again, Cody.
CODY: Thank you, Kaylie, glad to be here.
KAYLIE: Let’s start from the beginning. AGRU was founded in Austria toward the end of the 1940s. When I think about it now, it seems like Mr. Gruber Sr. made quite a bold move to launch not one, but two companies shortly after the end of the war.
CODY: I thought it was surprising too and it is definitely easy with hindsight to think it was the obvious move, but data shows that during periods of economic instability the number of new companies drops.
KAYLIE: And I think for good reason, starting a business has never been easy.
CODY: Indeed, and Mr. Gruber Sr. certainly experienced challenges in the early days. We know that one of the businesses was shut down only a few years later and the other struggled to stay afloat.
KAYLIE: How did they manage the turnaround?
CODY: You know how some people say that adversity leads to growth? Well, I think the same applied to AGRU during these trying times. Mr. Gruber Sr. took the second business, which specialized in anodizing metal parts, and expanded its capabilities so that they could also handle powder coatings as well as provide services from an in-house wet paint shop.
KAYLIE: So, the company survived through innovation.
CODY: Yeah, I’d say most companies have to innovate to survive. But the difference here is that the leadership wasn’t satisfied with mere survival. Mr. Gruber Sr. sought to create a thriving business.
KAYLIE: I found this part of the article, which went through the early history of plastics, very interesting. From what I understand, it looks like AGRU existed during the time when plastic manufacturing had reached a tipping point.
CODY: Yeah, plastic was around since the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that chemists discovered catalysts to ease the manufacturing process. With these manufacturing catalysts, plastic could be made at milder temperatures and pressures, making it a more economically viable product.
KAYLIE: But why the switch? Why do you think AGRU went from providing services for metal components, to creating their own with a completely different material?
CODY: I think AGRU was in a great position to understand the value of plastics. For about a decade, the company was delivering services to help protect metal parts from corrosion, rust, and other chemical processes that eventually degrade the part. They knew the costs associated with metal parts, not just the initial manufacturing cost, but also the cost of maintenance. An alternative material that could offer similar benefits with significantly lower costs would disrupt everything.
KAYLIE: They probably also saw a threat, right? I mean, what if all their clients suddenly switched to plastic parts? There would be less demand for AGRU anodizing services.
CODY: Very true. I think when Mr. Gruber Sr. and his team saw the studies coming out showing the longevity, ease of manufacturing, and overall durability of plastics they likely immediately understood two things: First, plastics were a threat to their business and second, plastics were going to become the construction material of the future.
KAYLIE: They saw the opportunity and went for it. But it still wasn’t an easy decision to make, there are an endless number of products you could make with plastic. Why do you think AGRU started with pipes?
CODY: I’m not sure, but it’s possible that they were well aware of the growing number of studies at the time showing the various ways metals like steel and cast iron can corrode in the presence of certain minerals in water. At the same time, most cities were transporting water using pipes made with these materials. Leaks were becoming a very big problem, especially since this time period coincided with one of the biggest changes in human society.
KAYLIE: Urbanization, the movement of people from the countryside and into cities.
CODY: Exactly. So leaks that may have first been seen as a cost of convenience for a city of several hundred thousand, quickly became a nightmare for infrastructure as populations boomed.
KAYLIE: Having access to a pipe that was easier to install and not as prone to corrosion must have been a godsend for city planners and engineers.
CODY: Definitely. Consider AGRU’s timeline: In 1961, AGRU made the decision to start manufacturing plastic pipes. A year later they complete the construction of their multipurpose facility and produce their first pipe. Four years later they have so much business that they are compelled to create a dedicated production hall for plastics and were also manufacturing sheets, round bars, and welding rods.
KAYLIE: It looks like by 1974, the company was exporting products to 20 countries. That’s very impressive.
CODY: Yeah, and AGRU most likely knew that the growth they were experiencing was only the beginning.
KAYLIE: That explains their move to a dedicated office building and installing a computer system for accounting.
CODY: For sure, and the expansion paid off. The contracts coming in allowed AGRU to further expand its production capabilities to include PVDF pipes and semi-finished sheets, the company’s first plastic liners, and its first clean room.
KAYLIE: And it wasn’t long after that AGRU started looking overseas, right?
CODY: Yeah, I think by the late 1980s and early 1990s, AGRU entered a second period of rapid expansion. They created AGRU America, settling first in Boston, launched a joint venture in Germany, and finished a second production facility in Austria.
KAYLIE: It took a few years for AGRU America to move down to Georgetown, South Carolina. What sparked these changes?
CODY: I think the vision for a larger AGRU presence in America was there from the very beginning, but it wasn’t until Mag. Alois Gruber, the son of Gruber Sr., took over the responsibilities of managing the business that it was able to happen. He initiated the strategic relocation and oversaw the promotion of Mr. Robert Johnson as the president of AGRU America.
KAYLIE: I know that AGRU America has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades. What do you think were the most significant milestones?
CODY: Well, I’d say AGRU America’s westward expansion in 2008 with its second American production in Fernley, Nevada was an important milestone. AGRU America also acquired a company in 2012 and began manufacturing nonwoven geotextiles, which allowed the company to create geocomposites by combining its inhouse geonets with the geotextiles.
KAYLIE: That brings us to the present and the grand opening of AGRU’s HDPE XXL pipe manufacturing facility in Charleston, South Carolina. These pipes could reach an outer diameter of 3,500 mm, right? How do you even move pipes of these sizes?
CODY: Funny enough, they are actually not that hard to transport. They can be freighted or even towed over the ocean since they are buoyant.
KAYLIE: What are the typical applications for these pipes?
CODY: The pipes are made for high-volume flow and we’ve recently seen them used to construct outfall piping systems for wastewater treatment facilities, installed as a water main using the horizontal directional drilling method.
KAYLIE: What I find amazing is that AGRU has grown so much over the years, but despite all that growth it still seems to be driven by the same innovative spirit that helped it succeed despite its humble origins. How do you see AGRU innovating past this point?
CODY: I think at its heart, AGRU will always be a company that produces amazing products. But over the years, I’ve seen parts of its business delivering a new kind of experience for customers. Rather than delivering a product and asking the customer to find a way to fit in their project design, our business units have begun packaging entire solutions.
KAYLIE: Shipping a solution rather than a product. Can you give an example?
CODY: Sure. Think about landfill closures. Rather than offer project managers products to fill separate needs, we go a step further and combine several products to solve project needs. For instance, AGRU Integrated Drainage System to handle drainage and containment at the same time. The results are fewer products to track, easier installs, and a higher factor of safety for steep-slope stability.
KAYLIE: It sounds similar to how companies create ecosystems for customers rather than just devices.
CODY: Yes, exactly. Moving in this direction will ultimately allow AGRU to deliver on its mission of being the Plastics Experts. That means solving modern problems through ongoing development of innovative solutions with plastics.
KAYLIE: Thank you so much for you time, Cody! And with that, our podcast has come to an end. To our listeners, thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. For more information about AGRU’s history, our pipes and fittings, and other solutions, please visit us on the web at AGRU America dot COM. As always, we hope you’ve enjoyed listening and we welcome your feedback.