Aug 21, 2023
Chris Adam of Lodi leads a special company where aluminum ingots are blasted into powder and the ice cream is free
If you were to fly low over the heavily industrial area near the Stockton Metropolitan Airport, you would see a company that looks like any other. There are sprawling metal buildings, warehouses and
If you were to fly low over the heavily industrial area near the Stockton Metropolitan Airport, you would see a company that looks like any other.
There are sprawling metal buildings, warehouses and parking lots.
Look closer, though, and you will see this operation is far from ordinary.
Workers pedal around the campus on three-wheel bikes. Each day, an ice cream truck pulls up to serve free sundaes and popsicles to employees.
There is an orchard on the grounds dripping with apricots and figs.
All is deceptively calm. Inside, though, is a fury of heat and flowing metal blasted to smithereens.
Valimet, this company is called. Its products are both vital and valuable: metal powders. The powders help propel spaceships and missiles, help create auto parts and electronics and solar panels.
Chris Adam of Lodi is president of Valimet. He is an engineer steeped in the art and craft of turning metals into powders. He is also a deft manager focused as much on people as products.
In the world of powder manufacturing, he is a luminary.
Last month, he was honored with a distinguished service award from the Metal Powder Industries Federation.
He currently serves as president of the Association for Metal Additive Manufacturing.
His has been a career of steady advancement and accomplishment. Yet, at 55, he is still pushing, still learning, still leading.
The son of a farmer, Adam has a passion for growing.
And growth, bottom line, is his mission at Valimet.
Quest for a leader
“We didn’t just want to rely on headhunters,” said Roy Christensen, the former president of Valimet. “We wanted someone with unique qualities, so we decided to do our own recruiting.”
In 2019, Christensen was ready to step down as president of Valimet while continuing as chief technology officer.
With 45 employees, Valimet is a relatively small company with a very small rate of turnover. (Valimet is a mashup of Valley Metals, the name of a predecessor entity.)
Since 1977, it has been owned by Kurt Leopold. Though he is based in New York City, Leopold takes a keen and personal interest in his company in south Stockton, especially regarding the attraction and retention of employees.
Leopold was born and raised in Germany, where he said companies take pride in employee satisfaction.
“If there is a lot of turnover, people look at a company and wonder about that,” he said in an interview at the company.
So through the years Leopold and his management team have nurtured a familial culture at Valimet. There is profit-sharing along with good pay and benefits. There are employee breakfasts and picnics and niceties such as the ice cream truck and the orchard where employees can harvest and enjoy fresh fruit.
With Leopold’s support, Christensen scoured dozens of resumes, pored through social media sites such as LinkedIn, and checked with trusted colleagues, searching for right person to lead Valimet.
They identified an ideal candidate: Christopher T. Adam, an executive with a degree in engineering from Iowa State, a fellow with a reputation for being both innovative and collaborative.
Christensen personally called Adam, then based in Pennsylvania as a vice president for Carpenter Powder Products.
Adam had already heard about the job in Stockton, but he had no interest in applying.
“I didn’t see my future being in California,” he said. “And I had a very good position with Carpenter. But it counted with me when Roy called. He wasn’t a headhunter; he was the president and someone who cared about finding the right person to succeed him and lead the company.”
After discussions with Christensen and Leopold, and visiting the plant in Stockton, Adam agreed to join the little company in South Stockton and lead it into the future.
ingots to powder
Stacked at the edge of a Valimet storage lot like metallic firewood are gleaming aluminum ingots. Each weighs 1,100 pounds. Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth. Before its processing became more efficient, it was as valuable as gold; Napoleon prized his extensive set of aluminum dinnerware.
Aluminum has several qualities that make it especially useful today. Compared to other metals, it is light. It resists corrosion. It is an excellent conductor of electricity. In its powder form, combined with other materials, it is an ultra-powerful propellent, which makes it a preferred ingredient in launching rockets and missiles.
What happens at Valimet is simple: The gleaming ingots are melted and turned into powder. How that happens, though, is complex.
The ingots are melted in a furnace, then poured into a crucible. At 1,800 degrees, the molten aluminum, sometimes mixed with other metal alloys, is streamed through gases under high pressure and blasted apart, or atomized.
The resulting powder is carefully collected and segregated by the size of particle, usually between two and 200 microns. A grain of salt, for comparison, is 100 microns. The smallest powder particles are not visible to the naked eye.
Everything — the heat of the furnace and crucible, the addition of alloys, the molten flow rate, the gases — must be tightly controlled and monitored.
The powder is packed in drums or heavy-duty bags and shipped out.
Atomization produces a range of particle sizes. Typically only a portion of any lot is the right size of particle for a single contract. The residual powders are kept for later use.
Valimet has a number of defense-related contracts, and security is tight. The defense work is largely confidential, but the Valimet website includes a photo of at least one product: defensive decoy flares launched from a helicopter.
In coming years, Adam sees his company embracing a frontier known as additive manufacturing.
Additive means an object is made layer-by-layer until completion, usually through 3-D printing. In contrast, so-called subtractive manufacturing is made by cutting away at a solid block, such as metal or plastic.
There is less waste in additive manufacturing and more flexibility, as the final product is a single, seamless piece without welds or bolts. Valimet’s powders go into turbochargers, piston heads and power generators, among other products.
As America becomes more and more electrified, Adam sees promise in aluminum’s excellent conductive qualities. He’s working with a team at his alma mater, Iowa State, exploring new ways aluminum can be used in transmission lines.
Another opportunity Adams is pursuing: new and more lucrative markets for the residual powders.
Corn, oats, and hard work
Adam was raised on a 700-acre farm near Ottumwa, Iowa, planted in corn, oats and hay. There were 13 kids in the family, and all learned the value of hard work.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so when something broke, we couldn’t just call in a mechanic. We had to fix it ourselves. I learned an awful lot from my dad working on the farm,” he said.
He learned how to build and fix, and how to grow, talents that would help define his life and career.
After accepting the job at Valimet, Adam moved to Lodi with his wife, Christy, a nurse who works from home as a medical records auditor.
Lodi, he said, reminds him of his childhood in Iowa.
“I like being close to the orchards and vineyards and Lodi’s downtown is just beautiful,” he said.
Along with his engineering degree from Iowa State, he has an MBA from Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania.
Maybe growing up in a large family gives Adam an appreciation for teamwork, a quality cited by several colleagues.
One of the true believers at Valimet is Adam Mancia. He started in 2010 as a production assistant and worked his way up to maintenance manager.
“When people ask what I do, I tell them I make sure the atomization process is working smoothly and I also make sure the light bulb in the kitchen is OK,” he said.
In the last couple of years, Mancia had to miss several weeks of work due to family illnesses.
“It got to the point where I went into HR and said: ‘I know I am missing a lot of days. I love working here, but I don’t want my absences to be a hardship. So if you have to let me go, do what you have to do.’”
The answer came back: Take the time you need — your job is safe.
“Those were the darkest days for me and my family and Valimet and Chris stood by me. I will never forget that,” he said.
Flipping burgers and
growing the team
Adam regularly ceases all production so employees can gather for team-building sessions. They break into small groups and tackle various projects, from egg drops to crafting the best paper airplanes.
Complimentary breakfast and lunch is served.
On a recent day, Adam flipped burgers and hot dogs for employees at a company lunch, then huddled with colleagues to solve a computer glitch.
He’s hands-on, and according to Christensen, he’s also a hard-charger.
“He’s dynamic. He keeps us moving and he’s always looking forward.”
In his off hours, he and Christy enjoy trips on their Harley-Davidson. Adam also enjoys rebuilding cars.
When he arrived, the company orchard needed a bit of work. With help from Christy, Adam spent weekend hours creating a gravel pathway winding through the orchard. He pulled out some the dead trees, and planted new ones.
After all, for Chris Adam, the son of a farmer, making things grow is a passion.
Rich Hanner can be reached at [email protected].
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