The Lucky Dogs of South Pittsburg

Among the most prized objects owned by Southern families are the cast-iron skillets passed down from generation to generation. The ones in your kitchen probably came from Lodge Manufacturing Co., in the tiny Tennessee town of South Pittsburg. Most of us know well the memories contained in those old skillets, but we know very little about the integrity of the people who make them. A visit to the Lodge foundry certainly has lessons to teach us about the South and its culture. But more importantly, Lodge also exemplifies something remarkably rare in today’s business world: a family-run company that has built a booming, global business without selling out its hometown.



 
 
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If you have spent time in small, once-industrial Southern towns, the house that sits at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Third Street in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, would probably strike you as familiar.

The brick home just has that substantive, sturdy look of a place that once housed the most important family in town. The house was built in 1877 by one Joseph Lodge. You already know his name: It’s on the bottom of your black-iron skillets.

But unlike many such homes in similar towns, this is still very much the town father’s house. Today, its occupants are Lodge’s great-granddaughter, Carolyn Kellermann Millhiser, and her husband Bill. Joseph Lodge and his wife, Ann Elizabeth Harvey, had two children — a son, Les, born in 1883, and a daughter, Edith, born in 1881. Edith married Charles Richard Kellermann. Thus, the Lodge and Kellermann families have owned Lodge Manufacturing Co. throughout its 120-year life.

Millhiser calls herself the company’s “historian by default.”

“I have stuff,” she says. She looks at Mark Kelly, a Lodge marketing promotions manager who’s tagged along to introduce me to Carolyn. “Does he want to look at my stuff?”

“Believe me,” Kelly says. “She has a hell of a collection.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

I definitely want to look at her stuff. She graciously guides me through the house and into its tiny kitchen.

“Right here is some of my stuff,” she says, and points to some shelves just outside the kitchen. “The dogs.”

The shelves are full of small dogs of various breeds, black and heavy, cast from iron In the Lodge company’s foundry a few blocks away. Their purpose was to be doorstops.

“These are the things they sold when the Great Depression was on,” Millhiser says. “They could sell doorstops when they couldn't sell skillets.”

There are dozens of other items in the house Millhiser remarks upon — all with delicious stories behind them, particularly the pan for cornbread sticks that the company had to discontinue because the finished cornbread didn’t come out looking like an ear of corn, as intended, but instead resembled … well … a man’s naughty bits.

But I am more interested in the other stories that these little dogs could tell. Stories about an independent, family-owned corporation that found a way to keep its employees working through the Great Depression and has now gone on global success. Today, after 120 years, Lodge Manufacturing’s brand reaches around the world. The company is constantly finding innovative ways to make more and better products, and it has sold millions of skillets — not just the black, cast-iron pans it has always made, but also lines of seasoned steel and enameled cast-iron cookware. And for all those years, through all that growth, the company has never left South Pittsburg, its little hometown of 3,000 people on the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga. In the age of globalization, how did that happen? And why? With a business so big and still booming past its 120th birthday, surely the Wall Street investment bankers would have come calling, the management consultants would have parachuted in to do corporate mojo, and the whole business would have been broken up, with the town’s jobs shipped hither and yon. And South Pittsburg would have wound up like so many other small Southern towns that once thrived on heavy industry. 

But it didn’t. It thrives. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.

The story I’m most curious about is why it did happen here: how this global company has remained family-owned, controlled by 40-odd members of the Kellermann and Lodge families.

Carolyn Millhiser is one of those shareholders, and since she has already owned up to being the company’s “historian by default,” I decide to ask her.

 
 
 
Carolyn Millhiser
 
 
 

“One of the things that's immediately striking about Lodge,” I say to Millhiser, “is that, typically, when you have a company that's making a product that is so widely consumed, sold in different countries, usually what happens is investment bankers from Wall Street show up.”

“They've tried,” Millhiser replies, the faintest air of disdain in her tone.

“Well, how did the family resist?” I ask. “What was it that made everyone want to keep running the company as a family company?”

“I don't know,” she says. “We just …” She pauses for a moment, then says, “It was in our ethic. Not only are we fourth-, going on fifth-generation owners, but the employees are also third- and fourth-generation employees. You know, we're part of the fiber of this town. We're the only real business that's been here for a long time. We're the only one that's really left, and I don't think we've ever thought about selling. It's made a living for the people that were working here and those of us who lived away and have some ownership through stock. It hasn't been a necessity.”

She pauses again, then asks me, “Do you know what I'm trying to say?”

I think I do. Millhiser is trying to say that for five generations, her family has been more interested in this question …

What will it do to South Pittsburg?

… than it has been in this one:

How much money can we make?

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure the members of the Lodge and Kellermann families live well, and I’m not naive enough to think there haven’t been squabbles among the members over the past 120 years as they discussed those two questions. But throughout their company’s history, the family, as a group, chose its hometown over the gleaming, Wall Street vision of wealth, in which too much is never enough.

I had intended to come to South Pittsburg to write a story about the peculiar romance Southerners have with their cast-iron skillets — how these inexpensive, utilitarian objects are handed from one generation of family cooks to the next with a reverence typically accorded only to objects of much greater economic value. But the truth is, I’m not sure I could capture that better than these two sentences from John T. Edge’s 2002 book, “A Gracious Plenty”:

“Each time a Southern cook hefts a skillet to the stovetop, he or she is not alone. Trapped within the iron confines of these skillets and stewpots are the scents and secrets of a family’s culinary history.”

And anyway, when I asked Carolyn Millhiser about the skillet-as-heirloom thing, she pretty much nailed it in one line: “That's because of the good food that the cooks made in it.”

So I decided to tell a different story. For about five years of my life, I wrote about big corporations as a journalist, and for another 15 or so, I worked as a writer or consultant for quite a few of them. I’ve written about CEOs, and I’ve written for CEOs. I’m no master, but I know enough about how big corporations work to see another story to be told: the one about how two families could grow a global business in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, across five generations, all the while resisting the lure of Wall Street because selling out would kill their hometown.

I know enough about big business to know this: What Lodge Manufacturing Co. has achieved, in today’s business world, is just a damned miracle.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The first thing you need to know about Lodge, as a business, is that the company is just as dedicated to — and just as successful at — innovation, efficiency and quality control as any big publicly traded company. In fact, I find myself wondering if all those management consultants — with all their Six Sigmas and “lean manufacturing processes” and whatnot — might do well to visit South Pittsburg. They might learn a thing or two.

After you get over being wowed by the thousands of flying sparks that result from any operation involving streams of molten metal, the first thing you notice when you walk into Lodge’s foundries is two giant piles of raw materials: One pile is raw pig iron, but the other one confuses me a bit. It’s a giant pile of unseasoned cast-iron skillets.

So I ask Larry Raydo, the technical services manager who is walking me through the foundry, why the skillets are part of the raw materials. He takes the opportunity to explain Lodge’s quality-control process to me. Here’s how it works: After the individual skillets come out of their black-sand molds, each one is hung by a hook on a system of conveyor chains. As the pans move through the rest of the manufacturing process, any Lodge employee — even if that person’s job isn’t in the foundry — has the right to pull a skillet off its hook and dump it in the scrap heap, right up to the second when someone in the packaging operation pulls the pan off the hook and slides it into a cardboard box. Even the slightest imperfection can doom a skillet and send it back to the raw-material pile.

I ask Raydo what percentage of each day’s production gets recycled as raw material. He tells me the answer is somewhere north of 10 percent, and that on some days the number can go as high as 14 percent. I wonder aloud why that makes business sense. Then he tells me the Lodge’s customer-return rate. Out of all the Lodge skillets shipped to retailers worldwide, customers return only 0.03 percent. That means, for every 33,333 Lodge skillets that leave the foundry, only one of those skillets will be returned. Your chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime is about 100 times greater than your chance of buying a faulty Lodge skillet.

Empowered employees equal better quality control and greater efficiency. It’s a gospel management gurus like to preach. Lodge has it down cold.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The second thing you need to know about Lodge, as a business, is that in 2002, the company scored a major innovation when it figured out how to send cast-iron skillets out of the factory already “seasoned.” Anyone who bought a Lodge product in the 20th century knew the process of seasoning that new skillet was fairly laborious, and a variety of methods were offered. Some said to crank your oven to the highest possible temperature, to coat the skillet with a light film of cooking oil and place it upside down on the oven rack, and to leave it there you smelled smoke. Lots of grandmothers said to cook cake after cake of cornbread in it until the gray of the freshly cast iron turned into that luscious, shimmering black you see on a well-seasoned pan. And speaking to Rita Stephens, who has been running the Lodge Factory Store in South Pittsburg for a couple decades, I learn that there are countless variations. She knows every one of them.

But when Lodge figured out how to season the pans in the factory, meaning that every new cast-iron skillet would go out the door completely ready to cook in, it set off another wave of growth. Sales soared, and by 2007, every product left the foundry pre-seasoned.

 
 
 
 

I got to see the seasoning process at work, but it’s proprietary. If told you what I saw, somebody from South Pittsburg would probably bring a skillet down from the mountains and hit me over the head with it. But I am free to tell you a story about how such innovation can produce unexpected consequences. After Lodge switched to in-factory seasoning, the company began to see customer-return rates go up. If you’ve ever seasoned your own skillet, using the smoking-oven method described earlier, you might remember a drop or two of brown, caramelized oil clinging to the rim — the last remnants of the oil you used to begin the process.

Lodge worked out the whole process so that seasoning would leave only one tiny drop of caramelized oil, precisely at the lowermost point of each hanging skillet. A customer would take the skillet home and usually never notice that tiny droplet until one day, when the rim of the skillet would bump up against another hard object — maybe the wall of a kitchen sink — and the droplet would break off. The broken droplet would then look brown, like exactly what it was made of: caramelized oil.

Some consumers, however, interpreted the brown spot as rust, and they’d return the skillet to the store. That’s why today, at the very end of the Lodge manufacturing line, right before the skillets roll into the packaging department, there sits a lone man or woman with a blowtorch. That person’s job is simply to apply the blowtorch to that last, little bubble of browned oil and burn it away. Result: a perfect, flawlessly seasoned, unblemished cast-iron skillet.

Sitting in a chair with a blowtorch all day isn’t the most favored job in the factory, so the workers take turns with it. Whoever winds up with the job gets a one-day nickname: Bubble Boy or Bubble Girl. Not only is Lodge Manufacturing a family-run company, it seems its people operate like a family, too.

 
 
 
 

 
 

If you want to learn not only about the Lodge and Kellermann families, but also about the South Pittsburg-area families that depend on the company, a great place to begin is a chat with Jerry Don King.

“I got a few years under my belt here,” says King, with a mountain twang that sounds like home to my ears. King was born and raised in South PIttsburg, and took a job at Lodge when he was 18. That was 39 years ago.

“My father's father worked here,” King says. “He retired here. My father and his brother retired here. I've had several uncles that's worked here. I've got a brother that works here right now. Practically the biggest part of the King family has worked at Lodge Manufacturing Company. I think I'm probably the third generation of our family here.”

I ask him if the family tradition extends to a fourth.

“Yes, sir,” he says. “I've got a little nephew, Dakota Mitchell, that's here now. He works on second shift in packing.” He pauses, and I can see in his eyes that he’s running through the King family tree. “Oh, I've got another cousin here, Bobby Poe. He works in the finishing department. That's all I can think of right now, I don't think I've got any more at this time. It could be, though.”

King’s own career at Lodge began in the packaging department, which is where many new hires start, then took him through the finishing department. “That's where we get all the castings, get them finished, complete, ready to go into packing,” he says. Over the years, he’s moved through literally every phase of the operation. If a ghost gets into any of the machines at Lodge, King knows how to get it out.

“A lot of times, you've got to work on stuff that breaks down on us,” he says. “When we have a breakdown, we try to get it repaired and right back on line as soon as possible. We've got so many people down there, so many different machine operations going on, that maybe somebody might need some help. I go up and show them what to do.”

 
 
 
 

King has seen the company move from casting skillets in hand-made molds to the sophisticated machinery he’s become expert in over the course of his career at Lodge. But his conversations always circle back to the primary goal of his job: making sure the products are of the highest possible quality. “It’s a quality product,” he says. “You can't beat this Lodge cast-iron cookware.”

To make his point about quality, King tells me a story about a hunting trip he took about 20 years ago in Sweetens Cove, the mountain holler where he grew up just outside South PIttsburg.

“We were out on top of a mountain and we ran into some guys that we knew, and they were chilling out there at camp,” King says. “They were going to stay a week or 10 days or something. They had just set their camp up, and one of them said, 'Well, I'm going to go get our skillets.' He took off with his shovel right off from the camp there. They'd actually buried them. They had some kind of a plastic container. It would hold a pot, an eight-quart dutch oven, a biscuit pan, and it had four or five skillets in it. I looked at that real close, at what he'd done. They'd taken Crisco grease and they took and they just rubbed it all over them thick. They sealed that back, and they just buried it there at their camp. When he took and dug that up and brought the container out and popped that lid on it, you could actually still see some of the grease, and the skillets were still just black and cold, like they'd laying there waiting, ready to go.”

Long story short: The product is good enough to bury, a year at a time, between hunting trips.

 
 
 
 
 
 

I end my two days in South Pittsburg with a visit to Bob Kellermann, Lodge’s CEO. He has worked in the company for 46 years. He recently announced that he will retire in two years. After that, Henry Lodge, who has served as president under Kellermann, will take the reins.

After he retires, Kellermann says, “I am still planning to pop in, check on things. I only live six blocks from here on the bank of the river.”

This is his first day back in the office after a family vacation, a cruise. He’s freshly tanned, and, he says, “I feel like I’ve got wine coming out my pores.”

Kellermann has overseen the most impressive growth of the business in the company’s history. I ask him how he feels about what the company has achieved.

“When I think back over 46 years, we have come a long way,” he says. “And it delights me to no end to see our brand as it stands now globally and certainly here in the U.S. market. We have a lot of passionate people. I think back when we were a fraction of the size, and we weren't even putting skillets in a box at the time I arrived. We put in a piece of wire with a hang tag imprinted with the customer's name and address, and just wired the skillets together and threw them on the truck four or five stacks high.

“People have asked me over the years, ‘How have we survived as a 120-year-old family brand?’” he continues. “And I guess I boil it down to four things: innovation, unwavering commitment to quality, reinvestment and dedicated, passionate people. We stayed up with the times. We have done business with Wal-Mart for 36 years. I know how long it has been because I called my wife from Bentonville, Arkansas, to ask her for our first date. We just had picked up Wal-Mart's business.”

Kellermann talks about the difficulties Wal-Mart suppliers typically face. “They now have 4,000 stores here in the states. Typically, they outgrow their suppliers and then they have to go to secondary suppliers. Then it gets to be a price war between the suppliers.”

But because, under Kellermann’s leadership, the company has been able to expand its production capacity fast enough over the years to keep up with the giant retailer’s growth, Lodge has never fallen victim to such price wars.

Kellermann could talk all day about the innovations in manufacturing technology that have allowed to keep pace with a radically shifting American retail economy, but I sense that there’s something deeper than those innovations that has held the business together over all those years.

I tell Kellermann what I’m thinking, and he goes immediately to the company’s connection to its community and its employees.

“Lodge couldn't be made in New York City,” he says. “We are proud that we are made here in this little teeny town in Tennessee and been a member of the community for all these years.”

Lodge has 300-plus employees in South Pittsburg. I chatted with a nice sampling of them, and there is one constant refrain among them all — their stories about Bob Kellermann.

“He doesn’t just know all our names. He knows the names of our children and grandchildren.”

“Bob is one of the nicest guys you could ever want to work for, and he would do anything for me."

I pass along a couple of those stories to Bob. I ask him, “Why does it matter so much to you and other members of the family over the years to keep that really close, tight relationship with the community and the people in it?”

“It’s just our culture,” he replies.

I ask him if he’s talking about the culture of his family or the culture of the company.

“The culture of the company and the culture of the family,” he says. “We are a family business.”

Now, I see. To Kellermann, the “family business” culture is not just about the Lodges and Kellermanns. It’s also about the hundreds of South Pittsburg families who have depended on the business for their livelihoods.

“Our employees,” he says, “are dear to our heart.”

And then I see something I never saw over 20 years of talking to CEOs. Bob Kellermann begins to cry. I can see I’ve touched a nerve, so I decide not to press him about his feelings. We talk some more about the business and its growth — how exports to South Korea will probably expand by about 50 percent in 2016, how Lodge was honored last year with the White House’s Presidential “E” Award, which recognizes companies that are successful at exporting American-made goods.

 
 
 
 

We also talk a bit about Lodge’s five “core values,” which are probably the most direct and simple “values statement” I’ve ever seen at a company.

  1. Treat all people with dignity.
  2. Act with integrity.
  3. Provide stability and security for our employees and families.
  4. Work safely.
  5. Have fun.

I tell Kellermann this: “I think if I was approaching retirement, I would be proud of all the accomplishments of the business, but I would probably be prouder of the way those employees feel about the company and about each other.”

“Yeah,” Kellermann replies. “It’s pretty damn special.”

Then it happens again. Tears come to his eyes.

“Why does it touch you so much?” I ask. “Why does it matter to you so much?”

“It is hard to put into words,” he says.

“Could you give it a try?” I ask.

Kellermann pauses, then finally says, “Not at the moment.” He grabs a tissue to blot a new stream of tears from his face.

 
 
 
 
 
 

I don’t know what else I can ask him. I’ve heard dozens of CEOs talk about how they value their employees, but this is deeper. I realize that this company, led by this man, has mastered every business skill required to make it in the realm of global commerce, but it has always avoided the easier route of shipping jobs overseas. To this company and the family that owns it, the town of South Pittsburg and its people matter too much to do that.

It’s been a long time since Lodge had to sell cast-iron doggies to keep the town afloat. But as I’m leaving his office, Kellermann says, “I want to make you a member of the Lucky Dog Society.”

He hands me a tiny, black, cast-iron dog.

“It is the only dog in our line, by the way,” he says.

“Do you sell these?” I ask.

“No,” Kellermann says. “We just give them out to special people.”

I don’t know what I’ve done to be a special person in Kellermann’s eyes, but I feel genuine gratitude for the gift, because I know the significance of the story behind that little dog. My lucky dog sits on my desk, smiling up at me as I write this. I think I’m going to keep it there, because it reminds me of something important: that even in the merciless, cutthroat world of global business, it remains possible for a company to grow, to stay up with the times, to succeed in big ways, while never neglecting its hometown and its people.

South Pittsburg, I conclude, is a little town slap full of lucky dogs.

~~~

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're inclined to visit, South Pittsburg's biggest weekend of the year — the National Cornbread Festival — is coming up April 23 and 24.