OKC pipe company founder reaches 100 years of age
Editor’s note: Alfred H. Karchmer turns 100 on Monday. In honor of that event, The Oklahoman is republishing this story (with minor updates) about the Oklahoma City native and business leader.
Alfred H. Karchmer has worked his way as a businessman through both the highs and lows of Oklahoma’s economy over the years.
But Karchmer, an Oklahoma City native who will be 100 on Monday, still works daily using the same business practices he started with more than four decades ago when he began to build International Pipe & Supply from a small, one-yard operation into a national brand that operates yards throughout much of the United States.
“I think what pulled me through completely was that I had a strong desire, which runs in my family, to have your own business and to make your own decisions,” Karchmer said a year ago, after turning 99. “You have to have that to not get discouraged, and keep going. One of the big things, particularly with a small business, is building relationships. You have to get out and keep in contact with people. I’ve got a few clients I still deal with who haven’t decided to leave.”
Karchmer keeps a coffee cup on his desk that proclaims he really is just a 21-year-old who has nearly eight decades of shipping and handling experience.
He joked he is running away from the business while his son, Don Karchmer (the company’s CEO and chief financial officer) is running to it.
“It has had its good times and bad, like all businesses,” he said. “I never had a year where we didn’t make any money, but some were much better than others.”
And Karchmer said his unwavering commitment to make it work has helped the business grow.
Karchmer started International Pipe & Supply in Oklahoma City in 1978, right around the time one of Oklahoma’s most prolific oil and gas boom periods was peaking.
But he started the business to sell steel used to build things — not drilling pipe.
Turns out, that’s no surprise given that his father, Louis Karchmer, and uncle Nate Karchmer had co-founded and operated Karchmer Iron & Metal Co. at the corner of Grand (now Sheridan) and Western Avenues as Al grew up in Oklahoma City.
The business took in scrap and sold it to mills.
“There were not too many metal businesses in that area,” he said. “That area wasn’t very developed, at the time.”
Al initially aimed to be a professional violinist, ultimately heading to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music.
But after the start of World War II, he returned to Oklahoma City to join the Army and served in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star along the way.
After the war, he returned to Oklahoma to earn a business degree from the University of Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles.
When he returned to his home state in the 1970s, he opened International Pipe & Supply on a single acre of rented land with one yard hand, a part-time office worker and himself.
Over time, he developed the company into one that in 2019 operates a 35-acre pipe yard and shop in Oklahoma City and also sells steel products through three other sister companies: Bison Pipe & Supply, which has a 25-acre yard in Jerome, Idaho, Bigfoot Pipe & Piling, which has an 8-acre yard in Seattle, and K2 Pipe & Steel, which operates out of a 34-acre yard in Wagoner.
The four companies also have pipe yards in Texas, California, Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The companies, which employed about 50 workers a year ago, sell pipe ranging from a half-inch to 10 feet in diameter that is used to build water and gas lines installed both underground and inside of buildings and to support other types of utility services.
The companies also sell pipe that is used as bases for outdoor advertising billboards and other signs, used by contractors to bore under roads and highways and used for water wells, hydro-electric power and similar applications.
Plus, they sell steel pilings and various types of products that are manufactured using steel pipe like fencing and gates for farms, ranches and other commercial clients, arena panels and other customized applications.
Beyond just selling steel and steel products, International Pipe & Supply also provides various services to buyers that include cutting pipe to custom lengths as well as fabrication work that includes welding, coatings, linings and finishes involving priming, painting, testing, threading, wrapping, cleaning and straightening services.
No doubt, the business has had its share of highs and lows, particularly during the past couple of years.
Karchmer said tariffs implemented by President Donald Trump to stop China from dumping steel in the U.S. market worked, initially pushing the value of domestic inventories significantly higher.
Since then, however, a general slowdown within the broader economy has softened the market for International Pipe & Supply and similar companies.
Nevertheless, Karchmer said he expects there will always be a place in the market for companies like his, and he intends to keep working as long as he can.
“It means something,” he said, noting it helps keep him young. “As long as you stay committed, you’ll get there — you’ll make it.”