A Solution-Focused Culture
Don Ting stands in Pyrotek’s world headquarters in downtown Spokane, holding a rectangular fiberglass mesh bag. It’s a version of the product that started it all for this home-grown family business back in 1956.
“Why has Pyrotek grown so much?”
Ting, the company’s current President who oversees 3000 employees in 35 countries, repeats my question, and patiently begins to explain.
“If a company wants to cast a 20-ton rolling slab from molten aluminum, it is vitally important to remove impurities — but also to create the conditions for a homogeneous freeze rate,” he says.
Though it looks somewhat rudimentary, the bag in his hands does both. By filtering the aluminum, reducing oxides, and creating a consistent freezing zone for solidification, a better slab of material is ready to be rolled into perfect sheets and then shaped by manufacturers — for cars, beverage cans, smartphones, skyscrapers, or thousands of other vital uses in our world.
It needs to be pretty perfect: you don’t want even a tiny hole in your aluminum beer can or in your airplane’s wing (bummers of varying degrees!). And behind the scenes, there is a giant industry obsessed with optimizing the aluminum manufacturing process and avoiding costly mistakes. Pyrotek is a leader in serving that industry.
Dale Swanson, a professional at Spokane’s Kaiser Aluminum plant in the 1950s, came up with the filter bag in Ting’s hands for that very reason. Allan Roy, current Chairman and CEO, joined with Swanson in the 1960s, and over the following decades, the two led a period of explosive growth, as the business began expanding aggressively into worldwide markets where aluminum was being processed.
“We could’ve stopped with the bags,” says Ting. “But over the decades, Pyrotek has grown because we keep asking the question: how can we improve our core products, and also create better products for the whole process? How can we control the flow into the filter bag? Let’s make a better product for that. How can we measure its temperature accurately? Let’s make a better thermocouple, and make a better protection tube for it. And so on.”
He adds, “Not only are most of our products customized for our customers’ applications. Whole new products and services are born out of this desire to keep on solving our customers’ newest problems.”
After sixty years of finding solutions, Pyrotek is seen as a go-to innovator for manufacturers in aluminum, glass, acoustic insulation, and advanced materials. Despite the fact that only a fraction of their employees work here (and that it’s an extra airplane leg to a major travel hub) Pyrotek is happy to continue calling Spokane home.
“Our leadership and team simply like living here. There is a real sense of community.”
Don Ting, Pyrotek
Part of the reason is what Ting describes as follows. “Our leadership and team simply like living here. There is a real sense of community, excellent outdoors activities, and this is a city that punches above its weight in terms of culture. We have a great symphony and museums and performances; we have incredible events and traditions around art and food and athletics. There’s a lot to love.”
Ting goes on to explain that his personal decision to settle his family in Spokane was one of the best he’s ever made.
He tends to understate it, but he had a quite remarkable early life and career in business. An immigrant from Taiwan who came to the U.S. with his parents as a small child, he earned an economics degree from Stanford — where he was one of John Elway’s wide receivers on the football team — and then went on to earn an advanced degree from Oxford and a Harvard MBA. Then his education really began, as he worked hard with the Boston Consulting Group, Goldman Sachs, and General Electric.
“The culture and demands of that life led me to more and more business travel and reassignment. I had a young family, and my wife began telling me that the kids would approach any black-haired man on an elevator thinking he was their dad,” he remembers. “That was my wake-up call to approach things differently.”
Since taking the role at Pyrotek, Ting has been able to help the business continue to grow rapidly — while maintaining a better work/life balance and raising his family. He sees this balance in other members of the Spokane team as well, and credits the cost and quality of living as a factor that helps the company retain staff.
“We have a reasonably low turnover rate, because you can do well in Spokane with a decent paying job,” he says. “We just celebrated a woman’s retirement from our Spokane Valley plant. She sewed filter bags for over three decades. We tried to estimate how many aluminum cans she helped create over the course of her career — I think it was 20 billion or some unbelievable number,” he laughs. “She’s probably touched everyone in the world through her sewing. What a legacy; what an impact!”
A global success story that has maintained its roots and its simple “do the right thing” integrity, Pyrotek’s culture is to constantly seek new solutions for their customers. In a similar way, Spokane’s culture has itself served as a solution for its headquarters — and for the lifestyles of their local employees.