The old choo choo Glenn Miller made famous in 1941 now sits a stone’s throw away from one of the most dramatic stretches of Interstate 24, where the road snakes alongside the Tennessee River through the shadow of Lookout Mountain. The locomotive landmark is still the best-known gift Chattanooga has given the world of transportation, but the calendar said 1970 when Terminal Station last saw the Birmingham Special leave town.
Now the city nestled at the junction of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama makes its name known to transportation circles in a different way.
There’s the muffler on your Corvette, for instance. Or the wire supports for the rear seat of a shiny, new Camaro. Or, if you prefer Japanese models, the heat shields for Honda’s catalytic converters.
The tie that binds — or welds — is that all these parts are produced using machines designed and crafted at T.J. Snow Co., a full-service resistance welding company founded in Chattanooga in 1963. Today, the company has contracts with automotive component suppliers across the world.
According to company CEO and chairman Tom Snow, credit for T.J. Snow Co.’s primo position in the industry belongs to Mark Pepping, vice president of sales and marketing.
“[Mark] is who talked my father and me into going after the automotive market many years ago, as manufacturers started moving into the Southeast, ” Snow says. “Our company happened to be at the right place at the right time, but Mark made the difference and we’ve grown tremendously as a result.”
T.J. Snow Co. specializes in resistance welding, a rapid-fire process used to join metals together in a fraction of a second using high pressure and closely controlled electrical heat. In addition to its standard spot-welding machines, the company also produces custom-designed, complex, multi-gun welders and turnkey robotics systems — key elements to the production line used by today’s automotive manufacturers.
To hear Pepping tell the story now, one could be forgiven for believing it was the obvious decision.
“Chattanooga used to be the hub for the stove-making industry in the United States, ” he says. “We had the majority of stove manufacturers in and around Chattanooga, which was great for T.J. Snow Co. And the company got into the automotive industry much the same way. With plants coming to Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and so forth, we were just able to use our location and proximity to our advantage.”
Pepping’s foresight allowed T.J. Snow Co. to be on the leading edge of businesses catering to Southern auto manufacturers. He says companies like Volkswagen, which opened a plant in Chattanooga in 2011, were just beginning to look to the South to build production facilities where there was a lack of unionization and “more laid-back lifestyle.”
Competitors entered the market closely behind T.J. Snow Co., but Pepping maintains the Snow family’s way of doing business kept their clients close.
“We were doing things other companies weren’t, especially in regards to specific ways a company might want something built, ” he says. “I’ve always told people, ‘If you want a machine painted green with pink polka dots, we’ll do it.’ A lot of our competitors, especially going back 30 years ago, couldn’t say that.”
Pepping says he knew little about Chattanooga, having only stopped through on family vacations to Florida, before he moved to the city in 1978. By that point in his career, however, he’d already learned how to operate welding machines and forge the relationships needed to sell and service them.
His path to the South began on his 20th birthday, December 6, 1971, when his father convinced him to put off dreams of being an architect and instead go to work in the welding shop for Berkeley-Davis Co., in Danville, Illinois. From that role, he moved into tests and services, repairing and improving machines throughout the region and building industry relationships along the way. Eventually, he channeled his expertise and his network into sales.
“My machining background gave me the foundation to understand how these machines were designed, why they were designed like that, and what you can do to make them perform best, ” he says, before repeating an old line in the sales field which feels particularly appropriate. “Once you know how a car’s put together, and why it has four tires, it’s a whole lot easier to sell it.”
It was Pepping’s knowledge not of cars, but of the machines that make them, which changed the direction of T.J. Snow Co. for good. When Pepping joined the company in its 15th year, the eldest Snow had turned his father-son company into an internationally known supplier of appliance parts. The company’s founder, T.J. “Jim” Snow was comfortable with the living it afforded his family and his employees.
But the new VP of sales was, in his own words, “a very outgoing personality.”
“I came down with a machinery background, so I asked Mr. Snow to let me chase some machinery business, ” says Pepping. “I remember the first really nice (automotive) order we got, going back 30 years ago, made the company something like $10, 000. I was joking with Jim and said, ‘You’ve got to sell a lot of leg carts to make that kind of money.’ He knew I was right.”
To accommodate for its growing business, the company moved offices multiple times through the years, most recently bringing nearly 100 employees into a 52, 000-square-foot facility next to Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport in 2013. Relocating into a building that nearly interferes with the airport’s main runway was not by convenience or coincidence, but rather a strategic decision to bolster the customer service T.J. Snow Co. offers its clients. The company’s service department employs two pilots, ready to take Pepping and others to urgent meetings in the Midwest or, more importantly, to an ailing production line at a moment’s notice.
“No one I know of in the United States offers that kind of quick-response service, ” says Pepping. “If somebody from Ford Motor Co. or Toyota or General Electric calls at 7 a.m. and says they are about to shut a production line down, we’ll run out, jump in the plane and fly wherever to get things going. Our hangar is at the end of our street, a quarter mile down the road.”
The traveling occasionally leads to a hectic lifestyle for Pepping, but he says he would never trade it to be an architect. He looks forward instead, to a date just a few years down the road.
“My target date to hang it up is December 6, 2021 – my 70th birthday, ” Pepping says, “There’s very few people who can say they’ve put 50 years into an industry, and I’d like to do that.”
Plus, he says, this line of work utilizes his unique skillset. “I beg real good.”
Text By ELLIS METZ // Photos by KATHLEEN GREESON