Paul Huffman, Jr.
Materials Science and Engineering
Class of 1978, BS
By age 14, Paul Huffman, Jr. wanted to earn a paycheck and his father’s business, the Virginia Foundry Company, provided him the perfect venue. This experience not only chartered his career, but provided him the opportunity to work with his father who Huffman described as his mentor, best friend, and coach.
“The first time I saw molten metal I was hooked. It was a raw, basic, smokestack industry that is a much cleaner process today,” acknowledged Huffman, who played a part over the last several decades in making this a cleaner process.
The Northside High School graduate would spend five years studying metallurgical engineering at Virginia Tech. The fifth year was necessary because he took the initiative to create his own co-operative education position at the Lynchburg Foundry in the 1970s. Prior to Huffman’s tenure at the foundry, it had not participated in Virginia Tech’s co-op program.
The position proved successful for both Huffman and the Lynchburg Foundry. He worked with the company’s engineers to design a quality and process control system for a new startup operation, and the relationship paved the way for future co-ops to train at the facility until it closed in 2009. The on-the-job experience also helped him acquire about a dozen job offers when he received his diploma in 1978. “It was a great time to graduate. Everyone in my class had multiple offers,” he added.
Upon graduation, Huffman accepted employment at Pangborn Corporation of Hagerstown, Maryland, as a foundry metallurgical engineer. This large manufacturer of industrial shot blast and descaling equipment had just obtained $6 million to modernize its foundry operations. The small company would be placing a lot of faith in the abilities of this brand new graduate.
His experience at Pangborn propelled him into a management position after five years. He joined the Graham-White Foundry, a decision that brought him back home to southwest Virginia. During his nine years with this manufacturer of equipment for the transportation industry, Huffman was part of the team that installed new processes, modernized its foundry, and increased the commercial business. “We grew from one-and-a-half shifts, five days a week to three shifts, six days a week. When I joined, 80 percent of our production was captive to our railroad product line with 20 percent going to commercial customers. Nine years later, after a successful focus on growing the commercial side the foundry, this production mix completely shifted to 20/80.”
Graham–White was a stepping-stone for Huffman, but one that had long-range benefits for both. “I knew I eventually wanted to run a large foundry operation or engage on the sales side. I had prepared for this goal by enrolling in business classes for all of my electives at Virginia Tech and taking graduate MBA courses during my work career, ” Huffman explained.
“My vision was to start a company that was a supplier of metal castings but not a manufacturer. Twenty-two years ago the concept of outsourced manufacturing was in its infancy, and I agreed this was the only way to be competitive. As a business model, I knew it would work. I had faith, but it was semi-blind faith,” he acknowledged. So he met with his managers at Graham-White and explained his vision to branch out on his own. His relationship with Graham-White flourished as it agreed to become one of his manufacturers.
Huffman’s basement was the first corporate headquarters for his start-up, Dominion Metallurgical (DOMET), opening in 1992. After three months, he hired his first employee, but they were still working from his residence. By the time he reached four employees, and meetings had to be moved upstairs to his dining room, he realized the company needed to relocate.
Today, the business has grown to 20 employees and is housed in Roanoke’s Valleypark Industrial Park. “It has been a wonderful journey,” Huffman said. “Our unique business model has attracted experienced technical foundry and manufacturing individuals to join us. Instead of capital equipment our company’s resources are focused on systems and people, allowing us to become intensely customer service-based, setting us apart from our competitors. We engage with our customer’s purchasing, engineering, quality, and manufacturing sectors in order to provide comprehensive solutions to their requirements.
“We have attracted exceptional technical metal manufacturing personnel to become the supplier as opposed to the manufacturer,” Huffman elucidated. These professionals “have extensive experience in manufacturing,” and they use their expertise to supply cost effective, high quality metal and plastic components for industrial and consumer applications.
Domet matches the customer to the manufacturing process to supply tooling, prototypes, castings, forgings, machining, plastics, fabrications, and turnkey components, as well as many value added operations. Corporations such as GE, ABB, Manitowoc, Kollmorgen, Daiken, United Technologies, Sikorsky, and Dominion Resources rely on Domet’s expertise
As a result of this model, several sister companies have been formed. One such company, Safety Step LLC, used the Domet model to design and manufacture a niche line of step stools for several specialty market channels. Their products have grown to become the leading step stool solutions for the recreational vehicle and transportation industries.
The business Huffman started 22 years ago is now coming full cycle, as the off shoring of the manufacturing part of the foundry industry is now returning to the U.S. This change in production is one of the reasons Huffman involved himself with his department, now called Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech.
“For several decades there had been little university production of materials science students to enter into the foundry business in the middle-Atlantic region. An educational void existed. Foundries in this area were forced to go outside this area to find young engineering talent,” Huffman, an adjunct professor for the materials science and engineering department, explained.
So, some 10 years ago, he started spending more time with David Clark, materials science and engineering department head. He joined the advisory board and started fund raising for Virginia Tech’s own teaching and research foundry. “As a board member, I spoke about the need for an interdisciplinary teaching and research laboratory,” Huffman recalled. “So when John Kroehling (a fellow alumnus and advisory board member) created his legacy, he funded the Virginia Tech Foundry Institute for Research and Education or VT FIRE.”
The new world-class teaching and research facility, emphasizing green engineering and industry’s best practices, had its first molten-metal pour in the fall of 2010. “The new young talent that is being trained here will keep our industry strong,” said the Hokie who co-chairs the VT FIRE steering committee.
Another area where Huffman made a significant contribution to his alma mater was through the Corps of Cadets. Although he was never a member, Huffman and his father’s association with the Corps is forever etched into the history books at the university. When three cadets, including Homer Hickam, the author of The Rocket Boys that was later produced into the movie October Skies, decided in 1962 that the school needed a cannon to compete at the football games with VMI’s version called Little John, they turned to the Virginia Foundry. Huffman Sr., a former Greenbrier cadet, agreed to provide the casting at no cost.
The students named the cannon Skipper in honor of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated the same day in 1963 that the artillery gun was transported from the Roanoke Foundry to Blacksburg.
Some 20 years later when the Corps needed to replace the original Skipper, they again were saved by a Huffman – Junior this time. When he read about their plight, he called and said he would create the next generation Skipper, and, most importantly, at no cost. He was just honored to be following in his father’s footsteps. Skipper II has just finished its 30th year of service, debuting at Lane Stadium in October of 1984.
For his profession, Huffman serves as the education chair and as a director for the American Foundry Society, and he is a past trustee for the Foundry Education Committee. He is a member of the American Society for Metals, and, when he was a student at Virginia Tech, served as president of its student chapter, the only materials related student chapter at the time.
Huffman, his wife, and three sons continue to live in Roanoke, Virginia.
Class of: 1978
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015