Striking reminders of the ancient heritage of metal casting cover the surfaces of desk, table, and bookcase in the President Gene Mulloy’s office of the Laurel Machine and Foundry Company.
According to Gene Mulloy, his collection of bronze sculptures celebrates the man and the method, the heat and the toil of this age-old industry.
The ten sculptures are a set from a limited edition series by Hugh Sims of Birmingham, Alabama. The series is titled “The End of the Era.” Mulloy agrees that the era depicted by the sculptures has ended, with technology rapidly changing both the methodology and the pace of the business.
“Hugh Sims is one of my idols. He was one of the most successful men in this business,” Mulloy says of the Birmingham native who turned to the art of metal casting when health problems forced him to retire from the physically taxing business. We call these sculptures number twelve and a half.” Mulloy chuckles. “Somehow, when I bought this set, I got the thirteenth number of the series. Way back, starting with my dad, this family has refused to have the thirteenth of anything. So we number everything between twelve and fourteen, twelve and a half.”
The love of the age-old process is obvious in the primitive beauty of the bronzes and the appreciation of them by this modern industrialist, whose grandfather, grandmother, and great uncle began a south Mississippi dynasty in the metal casting trade.
Several local examples of LMF’s custom casting work are shown here—magnolia panels and lighting fixtures that were created for the Woolfolk Building in Jackson, Mississippi.
Casting tools from metal has enabled mankind to control his environment since the Bronze Age, and the improvements in the process throughout the intervening millennia have introduced the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution and the Space Age.
It is an accident of history that has allowed Mulloy and his family to witness the transition between the two ages in a matter of three generations. Laurel Machine and Foundry was established in 1904 as a manufacturer and supplier of metal parts for the Lindsey eight-wheel wagon factory. The Mulloy family purchased the company in 1912 when there were fewer than a dozen employees housed in two wooden buildings, and the primary clients were local sawmills.
Today, the company employs 130 people in a complex of metal and wooden buildings with a separate warehouse facility. Laurel Machine and Foundry still serves the wood industry through related industries such as the sawmills, paper companies, the pulp industry, as well as the timber harvesting equipment manufacturers.
Customers also include the marine industry, the oil industry, the “aftermarket” for truck manufacturers (suspension systems), grain elevators, and the poultry industry. “Of course we still do a lot of work for Masonite,’ Mulloy says. “We supply their plants here, in California, Pennsylvania, and overseas.”
From wagon wheels and axles to computer numerical controlled (CNC) machining of parts for highly exacting specifications, LMF and its owners and employees have seen the business change from what one employee described as “the stone age to the space age.”
Mulloy agrees. He says that keeping up with technology is the biggest challenge in today’s business world, “I think technology is going to change tremendously in the next few years, particularly for machining parts with computers. The equipment is changing so fast that it is out of date before it is paid for.
Mulloy says that the scope of business has changed dramatically since he’s been involved with the company. He came on board in 1965, was made vice president in 1972, and became president in 1982.
“When I began with the business, most of our customers did a lot of the finishing work themselves. But the trend in this country is that most companies just want to assemble parts. So now we furnish complete parts that have been cast and machined. We ship a lot more finished products now,” he says.
Mulloy is proud of the tradition of family ownership because he feels that it provides an atmosphere of stable and secure management. He thinks this is one of the reasons that employee turnover is low, productivity high, and pride in workmanship and service is genuinely part of the attitude as well as the philosophy of the company.
Laurel Machine and Foundry began with wagon wheels, made parts for bridges and buildings before the advent of cutting torches and welding machines, and has made a profit every year except 1932, the only year in which the Great Depression took a serious toll. It is Laurel, Mississippi’s oldest industry, and certainly one of the most successful in the entire state.
Gene Mulloy is proud of that, and he loves the reminders of how rapidly change comes. But he also loves the reminders that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Thus the bronze sculptures of the sinewy men, the hot metal, the sweat of physical labor that are monuments to both the people and the technology of industry.
COPYRIGHT © 2008 THE NEW SOUTHERN VIEW | 11/18/08