He had hundreds of friends and made each of them feel like his best friend.

This month’s editorial is written by Scott Franz, publisher of SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES.

The greatest joy of my career as an advertising sales rep and now publisher of this esteemed magazine has been the relationships developed over the years. I am blessed to count among my business clientele dozens of people I can also call friends.

I am profoundly saddened that on our nation’s Independence Day 2007, I lost one who ranked at the top of that list. An article in our PVF News section provides more details about the passing of Mr. James J. Coulas Sr., founder and CEO of Weldbend Corp. There’s a lot more to his story, though.

The great honor of first meeting Mr. Coulas occurred in the spring of 1989. We were introduced by a mutual friend and my boss - Charlie Horton, the founder, owner and then publisher of Supply House Times. From that first meeting I was struck by Mr. Coulas’ way of doing business. He had a fierce sense of fairness and was brutally honest in telling you anything he didn’t like about the business at hand. Not everyone could handle it.

I was one who admired his straight-shooting intensity, however, and I convinced Charlie to let me handle the Weldbend account. He was understandably hesitant to hand over the magazine’s best advertiser to a new sales rep, but he saw quickly that Mr. Coulas and I were becoming close friends.

One doesn’t usually refer to close friends with the formal “Mr.” prefix, but it never seemed right for me to do otherwise, even when speaking about him to my family or co-workers. Mr. Coulas and I shared many meals together and countless conversations about matters extraneous to our business dealings. I fondly remember a trip to Washington, DC, on his company plane in the early ’90s. Despite these bonds of friendship, he will always remain MisterCoulas to me. Partly that stems from my upbringing and being mindful of our vast age difference. Mostly it reflects the deep respect I held for this incredibly talented and compassionate man.

His generosity was legendary, and I’ve always been fascinated by his knack for commanding respect without having to ask for it. He always made me feel like his very best friend, although I knew he had hundreds, maybe thousands, of other friendships, many of which no doubt were even closer than mine. Mr. Coulas had an incomprehensible ability to make all those friends feel like best friends.

I work out of a home office in Ohio and journey to the Chicago area frequently for business or family visits. In those travels I’ve almost always scheduled time to stop in and see Mr. Coulas. There was little reason to do so from a business standpoint.

But I loved hearing his stories. I loved riding around the Weldbend plant in a golf cart with him, listening to him boast about his people and his machines, some of which he designed himself with an eye toward boosting efficiency so Weldbend could continue to compete against cheap overseas labor. Nobody was more determined to preserve American jobs - especially the jobs of the loyal people who worked for him. They, too, were his best friends.

On a few visits to the plant I brought my sons, who enjoyed the roar of the machines and the table full of treats that was always waiting for us at the end of the tour. Mr. Coulas delighted in giving plant tours to customers, and even opened his factory to competitors, which always amazed me. He told me once that he doesn’t have any “super secrets … just hard work, and nobody can steal that from me.” 

I was last in town three weeks before his death, and had a lunch date planned with Mr. Coulas that I had to cancel on short notice because of a family emergency. How agonizing to miss that one last opportunity to see him alive. When I received notice of his death, I went to my “Mr. Coulas notes” file to review a large stack of personal notes he’d sent me over the last two decades. I also took a long look at pictures from his 90th birthday celebration, which was the best birthday party I’ve ever attended. In reviewing his notes, I realized this customer of mine was first and foremost a friend, and even more, he was a teacher and mentor - having given me priceless life lessons. I will miss him greatly.

 My favorite quote has always been Charles de Gaulle’s statement: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” I’m beginning to rethink its premise.