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Career Highlight

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For many people, celebrating their 50th birthday is a great personal milestone. John Knapp of L.B. Foster Company knows what it’s like to celebrate that milestone in his career.

Today’s workforce isn’t like it used to be. It’s rare to hear of someone spending decades of their career within the same industry, let alone at the same company. To stay in one place is boring, even stagnant; you don’t learn anything new, they say.

What about commitment, longevity and the utmost respect? What about loyalty in a career? Aren’t those attributes worth pursuing anymore?

John Knapp of L.B. Foster Company certainly thinks so. On March 31st of this year, Knapp celebrated 50 years – yes, 50 years! – with L.B. Foster. As for loyalty, commitment and respect at your job, Knapp’s been building that and more for 50 years strong.

In the Beginning

The manner in which one obtains a job these days is, like most things, very different from when Knapp first began working for L.B. Foster in 1969. Born and raised on a farm near Windsor, N.J., with 20 acres yielding 100,000 tomato plants and 400 tons of tomatoes, the L.B. Foster plant sat on the other side of a drainage ditch from Knapp’s home farm. 

“The plant manager came down to see my dad; they were talking while we worked on some equipment. The plant manager asked my father if we wanted jobs at the plant; he saw what we were doing and liked the way we worked. My dad told him to ask us and so the plant manager, he tried to run us down on the equipment, but he couldn’t catch us. He went back to my dad and said we could come by the plant office for an interview if we wanted a job. My dad told us and the next day, I went over to the plant and got myself a job.”

While there are pros and cons to living in the city or the country, there’s something to be said about the work ethic that comes with being raised on a farm. It’s what the plant manager saw in Knapp that day, and what Knapp was tested on right away. 

“I was ready to quit after my first week working for L.B. Foster,” laughed Knapp. “They’d dumped about 60 tons of used material on the ground and I had to sort it and palletize it. It was hard labor. I went home after and said, ‘I’m done, Dad.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s up to you.’ But the following week I went back to work. They saw what I’d done that first week and, without me saying a word, started giving me a lot of more interesting things to do.”

Through the 1970s, the company began giving Knapp more responsibility, sending him out to job sites to inspect piling products, assist clients with troubleshooting and, eventually, to purchase products from other vendors. By the mid-1980s, he was named plant manager at the Windsor facility, which closed in 1994. It was October of 1999 that Knapp moved away from his home state after having managed facilities in Bethlehem and Allentown, Pa. for the previous five years. He’s been the plant manager of the Petersburg, Va. facility for the last 20 years.

What it Takes to Stay

When you’ve been at the same location with the same company for as long as Knapp, the inevitable question becomes more and more frequent: why do you stay? For Knapp, the answer begins with the most important thing to him: family. 

“At first, I stayed because I was able to go home to my mother for lunch every day, as I was living at home on the farm at that time. When I got married, I continued to stay because my wife got sick and I couldn’t afford to go looking around for another job. Years ago, it was about loyalty. We were a family-owned company; the work was good and we were getting decent raises all the time. But also, the people at L.B. Foster, they had a lot of respect for me. They were pushing a lot of different responsibilities on me and I liked that. Every day was different.”

Knapp moved up through the ranks at the company with the help of Paul Dean, whom Knapp considers his mentor. 

“I was in the piling division in the beginning under the direction of Mr. Paul Dean. He taught me about all the inspections that have to be done and that’s how I got to go on the road. When they moved me from Bethlehem-Allentown down here, he told me, ‘John, just go set up the plant. You’ve done it for me already. After that, it’s up to you whether you stay or not.’ I really enjoyed working for him.”

It’s clear that the current staff at the company truly value Knapp, as well.

“I have worked for L.B. Foster in various businesses and functions over the years, and when I migrated to sales within the construction products group, John was a tremendous resource to lean on,” said Roman Gwiscz, the general manager of the construction products supply chain at L.B. Foster Co. “He takes ownership in all that he does in order to ensure everything’s done right and delivered on time.”

Changes, Goals and Advice

To say the working world today is different from when Knapp was first starting out is an incredible understatement. Things we don’t even glance at today would have been simply impossible back then. 

“When we started, everything was done with notes,” he said. “You had to keep a handwritten log on everything. You had to know math real good. People would call me from a phone booth and ask what I had on some product! But you felt like you were in control. You felt like it was your company.” 

While “goals” is somewhat of a buzzword today, Knapp says he’s achieved his goal for his work with L.B. Foster. 

“I always wanted to run the facility; I did run two at one time (Bethlehem and Allentown). My goals were just to be able to run a facility like it was my own business and have complete control. For a very long time, I’ve been able to run this facility like it was my own company so I can make the company money. Being able to do that makes me very proud.”

His coworkers have noticed that kind of pride that Knapp has in his work.

“Most of our sales personnel refer to our Petersburg, Va. yard as ‘John’s Yard,’” said Gwiscz. “He is, without a doubt, our sales group’s best ally, not only with the products we supply via our manufacturers, but also in the complex logistics required to support our customers’ project needs.”

Running a facility like the one in Petersburg requires a lot of knowledge, patience and ability to balance all the moving parts – and people. With 50 years under his belt, Knapp has learned a few things about working successfully with others. But his standard advice for newcomers isn’t what you might expect. 

“Everyone is equal in my eyes. The CEO of this company is no better than a laborer working in my yard. Don’t ever downgrade yourself. Don’t ever belittle yourself. You’re just as important as the next person.”

While Knapp has seen many changes throughout his years at L.B. Foster, the one major change looming – retirement – isn’t in the works just yet. Outside of work, Knapp remarried six years ago after his first wife passed away. His family and children live back in New Jersey and it’s clear he misses being close to them. However, there is one thing that helps him pass the time. 

“I enjoy coming to work. I have great respect for all the people at my facility and everyone at L.B. Foster. I just like how they’ve guided me through the years. Sure, work that used to take me no time at all now takes me three times as long. But I’m still outperforming some of the younger people so that’s okay,” he laughed. “I’ve seen many people come and go but I’m hearing them say there’s life after L.B. Foster – you gotta love it!”

Enjoying one’s work is something many could benefit from in a culture that grows and changes at breakneck speed. So, before shrugging off the values of yesterday – loyalty, commitment, respect, longevity – it’s worth considering we should all be so lucky to end up in a career that’s 50 years strong.
 

Orginally Published in PileDriver Magazine 

lbfosterus en 08 July 2019 news/details/2019-07-08-50-years-strong