The Founder: Part 1

Though NPL was established in the North, its story begins in the South. NPL’s founder, Noel Coon, was born the fifth of eight children in San Augustine, Texas, in 1942. His family was poor. Noel’s father, who had been shot and blinded in feud, would play guitar on the street while Noel and his siblings held a cup for handouts. Noel’s childhood was characterized by ridicule and instability. By the time he dropped out of school after sixth grade, he had been to 36 different schools. (Above: Noel Coon, 1964.)

The struggles of his childhood served as a powerful motivator for Noel. Early on, he adopted a “By God, I’ll show ’em” attitude that would be a primary contributor to starting NPL. This attitude was tempered by a sense of humility, though. Reflecting on the lesson that having to repeat first grade taught him, Noel said, “That gave me something to be successful. I was never once afraid to hire people smarter than me.” (Left to right: Noel with his parents and older brother Coy. Noel in elementary school. Noel as a teenager with his parents and younger siblings.)

At 13, Noel went to work with his older brother Coy Coon as a welder helper in Houston. He immediately fell in love with the work of a pipeliner. Nearly ten years later in 1964, Noel passed his first welding test during a job for Panama Inc. on the King Ranch in Texas. This was his first big break. Not only did his hourly wage immediately increase from $0.85 to $3.15, but he distinguished himself in an already crowded pool of welders by using MIG welding (Metal Inert Gas, which uses electricity to melt and join metal). Most of the “old hand” welders did not accept this relatively new technique, fearing that it was labor saving and would eliminate jobs. Though Noel’s Hobart Microwire welding rig nearly got him laughed off some job sites, he was not discouraged from thinking ahead. “I was different, and that’s what I wanted to be,” Noel said.

In those years as a welder, the seed for NPL was planted. A pipeliner had approached Noel on a jobsite one day with a brown paper bag containing a copy of Maxwell Maltz’s 1960 book on visioning called Psycho-Cybernetics. Putting some of the book’s ideas into practice, Noel began to form a vision for his future. In it was a successful construction company with rows of red trucks and excavators. (Far left: Noel in 1963 with his Pontiac Grand Prix. Because the small Minnesota towns near the pipeline couldn’t lodge the number of pipeliners working, Noel often slept in the trunk. Left: Noel takes his first welding test.)

In 1964, Noel had just completed the longest job of his career so far, a six-month job in various locations across Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. When the job ended, the contractor hosted a fish fry to pass out final paychecks to the workers, and then all the workers went their separate ways. Noel remembers a poignant feeling of loss for the routine and camaraderie that had developed over the six months. In the following years, Noel would follow pipelining work wherever it was. “In those days, pipeliners were like carnies. We made good money, but you’re moving all the time. You have no roots,” Noel said. In one respect, starting NPL was Noel’s attempt to find stability in an industry that largely regarded as unstable. His original mission was this: “I wanted to do the same thing, with the same people, for the same people, forever.”

Finding stability wasn’t the only motivating factor for starting his own business, though. Noel had grown up in an environment of strong Christian beliefs for treating others well. As he witnessed some of the contractors that he worked for mistreat their employees and cheat their customers, he took serious offense. Offense turned to action when the contractor he worked for during his last job in 1967 shorted his paycheck $2.43. Knowing beyond a doubt that he could treat customers and employees better, Noel quit, and in September of that same year, he went into business for himself as Northern Pipeline.