Quality connections

When Lee Muns has a headache, he reaches for his welder's mask instead of a bottle of painkiller.


It demands complete concentration, taking his mind off any ills.

The 47-year-old business owner has been welding since the early 1980s. He went into business for himself in 1989, starting Muns Welding and Mechanical at his Columbia County home.

The office is in Beech Island now and is a conglomerate of other businesses: C&M Equipment Leasing, Muns Mechanical and TIGON Group, a construction-management firm owned by his vice president, who is a woman.

Employment at his businesses swells and shrinks based on the workload. Currently, Muns Welding has about 15 employees, but it had 10 more in the summer while completing a project for a contractor at Savannah River Site.

Several areas of SRS have Mr. Muns' fingerprints on them, from retrofitting parts of the reactors in the 1980s to parts of the MOX project today. He also worked on Plant Vogtle's nuclear reactors.

He sees expansions in both places as potential work for his industrial welding company.

Lorrie Gambrell, Muns Group vice president and TIGON Group owner, said Mr. Muns has had so much experience with contracts that he could be a lawyer.

Mr. Muns wants his employees to know business trends and to "chase the money," she said.

"He stays cognizant of industry trends. He is constantly e-mailing us articles," Ms. Gambrell said. "He knows the codes. In detail, he can quote the codes to me. ... As an engineer, I was impressed with that. Engineers are expected to know. I didn't know contractors pay attention."

She said that knowledge stems from Mr. Muns' experience at SRS, where it is required that a contractor "know your stuff or they'll put you out of business.

"My impression of him before working here was that he was a tough cookie. If he was on your project team, you didn't want to go into meetings with him. If you didn't know your stuff, he was going to call you on it, and you would be embarrassed."

With his need for plumbers and pipefitters, Mr. Muns runs a union shop. He cites the advantages of unions' training programs.

"We deal with some expensive stuff," he said. "We've had pipe in here that's $485 a foot. I do not want a guy messing up dimensions. Either I got to buy another piece of pipe or I'm going to have to make another weld. The customer's not going to like me putting another weld in there."

Math skills are crucial, he said, and that was why he got involved in schools, serving one term on the Columbia County school board.

He generously supports education, Ms. Gambrell said.

"He goes to high schools. ... Hephzibah called to invite him to talk to (welding students) and bring some stuff. He called around to all our vendors, 'Whatever you can send, I'll take over with me.' He took over a whole truckload of stuff to their welding technical school," she said.

Mr. Muns also served on the apprenticeship committee for the Augusta plumbers and pipefitters local chapter.

A top union welder makes more than $24 per hour, plus $11 per hour in benefits.

"You can make a good living at it. I made a good living at it," Mr. Muns said.

Welder by choice

Mr. Muns was born in Augusta in 1962, raised by Ruth and Richard Muns in the National Hills area. His parents were in education, but he did not follow that course.

While in high school, he worked for an automotive electric company.

"I never minded hands-on work, getting dirty," he said.

He also worked for a gas station. In both instances, his bosses taught him bits and pieces of running a business.

He chose to enter the apprenticeship program with the plumbers and steamfitters union and immediately had the opportunity to work at Savannah River Site.

"I was making $5.25 an hour here in town. I went out there making $5.05 an hour," he said.

It was 1982, and he was already married with one child.

"My grandfather was a plumber by trade, so I knew about construction," he said.

Mr. Muns got an office job six months into his stint at SRS, working with a mentor who taught him how to manage construction plans.

"It was while they were rebuilding the L Reactor out there. They were taking all the valves out of the building and rebuilding them," he said. "I had to keep up with what had come out and what had been rebuilt."

He was also taking his apprenticeship classes two nights a week.

There was such a demand for welders that his company, BF Shaw, was able to get clearance for apprentice welders to begin working on the materials. Mr. Muns went into the fabrication shop.

"I just loved the welding. It came as natural as walking," he said.

When he was six months shy of finishing his four-year apprenticeship, he was asked to assist in running the weld test facility.

"OK, wow, where did this come from? The welders were asking who was going to get this crème de la crème job in the welding world. I got the job. A lot of people got upset about it because I had not finished my apprenticeship and I was going to test welders," Mr. Muns said.

He was required to learn computerized welding machines so that he could test new welders who were seeking to work at SRS.

But there was a change coming. Bechtol was coming in to replace BF Shaw. Eight months into the assignment, now with three children, there came a call from the union hall for welders to work on construction of the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant.

The offer was a lot of guaranteed work -- 12 hours a day, seven days a week for the next 18 months -- and a lot of pay.

Uneasy about the coming change of contractors at SRS, Mr. Muns followed his instincts and left the prestigious SRS position for the nuclear power plant in Burke County .

Mr. Muns' welding career also took him on jobs in Washington, D.C., refurbishing steam lines under streets, and to a nuclear power plant in Maryland.

"I used to tell people that I could walk from the White House to near the Capitol and nobody would know it," he said. "We went to work at a manhole at the Washington Monument and would be underground all day long."

The drives home to see his family got shorter when he got a job at a power plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A job at SRS prompted Mr. Muns to start his own company in Augusta. He used the settlement from a car crash his wife was in to buy equipment. Muns Welding was born in the closet of his home 20 years ago.

Beech Island move

After the initial project at SRS, Mr. Muns had to hire himself out by the hour to keep the business going. He also worked for other contractors for a year before his company had steady business.

"Eventually, my wife made me move my office out of the house," he said. The first office was on Flowing Wells Road.

Mr. Muns said he wanted the business to grow larger than him and a few other welders.

The office moved one more time before landing in its current spot on Cary Drive in Beech Island in 1999.

The dilemma he faced in setting up the office was in picking the company to build it, a potential minefield since so many general contractors had been giving him work.

"Somebody's not going to be happy," he said.

He handled the delicate decision by letting them bid on building the Muns office and shop. That's the way he wins bids on their subcontracting work.

"We were growing every year," he said.

Then he got into politics, and that was time-consuming.

In 1996, he ran for the Columbia County school board and lost. In 2000, he won.

"As I look back, in retrospect, I wish I had lost again so that I would have stayed focused on business," Mr. Muns said. "Between 2000 and 2008, my business survived, and it did OK."

He wanted to make his community better, which was why he served on the school board, but it took a toll on business.

"When you're in a business like mine when there is a lot of stiff competition out there, you've got to stay on your game," Mr. Muns said.

In 2006, Muns was a $6 million company.

"That dropped down to a couple million dollar-company in '03 and '05," he said.

He was the president of the Republican Party in Columbia County and served on other commissions.

He lost in a runoff in his re-election.

"I was elated to the fact I got beat. Everybody thought I was gonna cry my eyeballs out. They didn't realize I was smiling," he said. "You're not going to see me run for political offices anytime soon."

Business has gotten better since, he said, and sales volumes have been going up.

"Even in the down economy, we've been gradually gaining back ground," he said.

One of the reasons that is happening, he said, is fabrication work. Before, Muns did its own fabrication and then installed the pipe in the field. Now his workers are assembling pipe for other contractors. One job last year supplied parts for a pharmaceutical plant in Taiwan.

"Now we're doing some fabrications for a (BP) refinery add-on in Texas," he said.

In any given year, there is only so much work available in the metro area, and a lot of contractors will be bidding on that work. Mr. Muns thinks there will be more growth opportunities outside the Augusta area. Jobs in other areas already make up half of the company's work.

An educated club

Mr. Muns said the only civic work that takes up his time now is the Georgia leadership council of the National Federal of Independent Businesses.

He is also a Gideon and distributes Bibles with the group.

Mr. Muns plays golf but says he is a hacker compared to his son, Chad, who played in high school, and his daughter, Heather, who competed for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

He continues to volunteer during the Masters Tournament as a leaderboard supervisor. His father, Richard, also had that job.

Mr. Muns is a member of Big Buckhead Hunting Club, which has a hunting lodge near Millen, Ga. He has been a member for 28 years. It was once almost the exclusive preserve of educators in Richmond County, including his parents.

He said he enjoys the social aspects of the club more than the hunting.

"I got a tractor. I do a lot of the plowing of the food plots," he said.

Mr. Muns missed the first days of deer season this year. He was playing with his 18-month-old grandson.

"Any time I can play with him, the deer get a reprieve," he said. "There will be a time that he will come with me and they won't get that same reprieve."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.


BORN: Jan. 15, 1962, Augusta

EDUCATION: Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 150 Apprenticeship School

INVOLVEMENT: Georgia Leadership Council for National Federation of Independent Business; member of Gideons International, District 5; member of the Columbia County school board in 2000-04, Columbia County Republican Party chairman 2003-06; former commissioner on the Georgia Professional Standards Commission; former board member for the Boys and Girls Club of Augusta and the Augusta Character City Coalition

FAMILY: Wife, Kim; children, Heather, Amber and Chad

HOBBIES: Hunting, mowing



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