Americans invented the solar cell, wind turbine and lithium battery. Not a bad start in the highly competitive, alternative energy marketplace. While the U.S. earns points for genius, our impact on society has been tepid at best. For example: solar power. It is a free, renewable, clean and seemingly inexhaustible resource. Why isn’t the sun America’s primary source of power?
The poet T.S. Eliot knew the answer. “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act,” he said, “there falls a shadow.”
An enormous portion of the solar shadow is cost. A few years ago real estate agent Binnie Orrell investigated running his Charlotte home entirely on solar power. He received an estimate of $25,000 to install a single photovoltaic (PV) solar panel on the roof. “It was absurd,” comments Orrell.
“Prices for photovoltaic systems that generate electricity have dropped dramatically in the past few years,” says solar energy engineer Tommy Cleveland of the North Carolina Solar Center. “A quote today would be half of what it was three to four years ago.”
Part of the reason for the price reduction is the Chinese government. When they decided to subsidize solar panel production, other manufacturers like Bosch Solar in Mooresville, quickly dropped their prices.
Tommy Cleveland adds another solar fact of life: “It costs more to retrofit a house for solar than new construction.”
Making Solar Work
But it’s more than cost that deters homeowners and businesses from taking advantage of free energy. There are many other factors to consider before Americans will demand a house that transforms solar potential into solar power.
In fact, the Department of Energy has defined them as the ability to deliver on a set of 10 criteria: Architecture, Market Appeal, Engineering, Communications, Affordability, Comfort Zone, Hot Water, Appliances, Home Entertainment, Energy Balance.
That challenge to meet those criteria is the impetus behind their biennial Solar Decathlon competition, to design, build and operate the smartest solar home on the planet.
For the past 10 years teams from colleges and universities from the United States, Canada, Spain, Puerto Rico, Belgium, China, Germany and New Zealand have vied for trophies—one for each solar criteria—plus the mega trophy for the overall best-of-show house. Similar to their counterparts in the Olympics, these engineering, architecture and business students refer to themselves as “decathletes.”
This is the second time the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has been selected to compete in the Solar Decathlon. Their first solar house was built for the 2002 competition where the Charlotte decathletes finished 13th out of 14 teams.
“We made rookie errors,” says Benjamin Futrell, project manager for the 2013 Solar Decathlon. “We expect to do much better this time.”
The only other North Carolina team that has ever participated was Appalachian State University in 2011. They accumulated 832 points out of 1,000 and came in 11th out of 20 teams.
Solar Decathlon Director Richard King visited UNC Charlotte for the symbolic groundbreaking for Urban Eden, the school’s entry in the 2013 competition. King, who works in Washington, D.C., has great affection for UNC Charlotte. He views the 49ers as pioneers, joining the Solar Decathlon in its inaugural year at a time when King wondered if any university would accept his challenging and expensive invitation.
Of the 20 teams in the 2013 Solar Decathlon competition, six are repeat players including UNC Charlotte. With five appearances, Missouri University of Science and Technology from Rolla has the most Solar Decathlon experience. But the Rolla team has never finished in the top three. The toughest competitors are expected to come from four California schools. Santa Clara University has taken third place twice in its three appearances. The Broncos are itching for first in 2013.
The team of Southern California Institute of Architecture (known as Sci-ARC) and California Institute of Technology have been to two competitions and never finished in the top three, but they head Futrell’s list of teams to beat. Rounding out the West Coast roster are Stanford University and the University of Southern California, both rookies.
The California schools come to the competition from a solar friendly culture. California is the nation’s largest solar energy market by far and has effective state initiatives that promote the industry.
Solar Decathlon homes use state-of-the-art photovoltaic panels or modules to generate their own electricity. The panels coupled with energy-saving construction materials are enough to power lights, stove, entertainment system, heating and air conditioning, as well as a washer and dryer.
The goal is for each home to generate all the energy it needs during the 10-day competition. Solar engineers call this net metering and it garners points for the Energy Balance criteria.
The homes also use passive solar systems, typically for winter space-heating. They include collectors, absorbers, a thermal mass to store heat, ducts to move the heat, and controllers such as a roof overhang to reduce heat. Passive solar shuns all active features; there are no blowers or fans to circulate the air.
In between these two extremes are solar systems used only for heating hot water. This is a far more limited use of solar power than PV or passive. Chinamay be the world’s leader in solar water heaters, producing the most efficient, inexpensive and widely-adopted units.
Contrary to earlier competitions, the 2013 Solar Decathlon homes are not stand-alone solar systems. They are designed to be connected to the Village Grid, a mini-electrical system paid for by the Department of Energy and set up just for the decathlon.
That was not the case in the first three decathlons. For 2002, 2005 and 2007, the homes included battery packs to store electricity for nighttime use. These homes were independent of the utility company and truly “off the grid.”
That arrangement changed for 2009 and thereafter because, says King, “Ninety-nine percent of solar homes built today are tied to the grid.”
Grid-tied homes have become popular. Even with state-of-the-art photovoltaic panels and a save-the-environment outlook, solar enthusiasts want the grid as a nighttime backup. The grid also helps when the home creates more energy than it needs. Equipped with a bidirectional meter, consumers get credit for electricity they put on the grid, i.e. when the meter runs backwards. Like the rest of us, when the meter runs forward, they pay for the energy they take off the grid.
In a perfect world and with a smart-sized house, the result would be net metering. This perfect state is what earns decathletes 100 points for Energy Balance.
All homes in the decathlon have something else in common: a target audience. Each team identifies a group in its locale that could most benefit from a solar house. Choosing the target audience helps frame and focus the design.
For the Czech team, its inhabitants are a 50+ years older couple looking for a weekend escape to the country. Team Texas designed its home for the modern desert dweller. Team Alberta envisioned modular housing for mining teams in remote areas of Canada. The schools from the District of Columbia are designing a home for returning disabled veterans.
UNC Charlotte’s team has two Charlotte couples in mind: “empty nesters” and a two-income professional couple with no children or DINKS, double income—no kids. They imagine Urban Eden as an infill house on one of Charlotte’s vacant lots, in older neighborhoods or in redevelopment areas. That’s the urban part. A peaceful outdoor garden that connects to the indoor space serves as its Eden.
The Secret Weapon
A few teams have what they tout as a secret weapon—a design component that raises the bar, advances the field and wins points. For Santa Clara, it’s bamboo. The entire structure of their Radiant House will be made from this sustainable plant. The UNC Charlotte house has a double-barreled secret weapon built right into its walls.
“This is likely going to be the first geopolymer cement concrete house ever constructed,” boasts Dr. Brett Tempest of UNC Charlotte’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. This alternative form of concrete is made with fly ash, a waste product created when coal is burned. When hardened it has a similar mechanical characteristics to the widely used Portland cement, an ingredient in concrete.
“Manufacturing Portland cement accounts for approximately 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” says Tempest. “Geopolymer completely replaces the need for Portland cement in the concrete for the house and that decreases the carbon associated with traditional concrete manufacturing by 90 percent. This new material has uniformity, consistency and durability.”
Additionally it repurposes fly ash, a byproduct of coal power production. If fly ash were not used as a new building material, this residue would end up in a landfill.
“Replacing Portland cement with geopolymers is really just a plug-and-play thing. It’s not like you have to do any major conceptual or technical changes to the way you implement the concerete. We just solved a major problem in the world by implementing this one thing,” says Clark Snell, the student project manager for Urban Eden.
The second part of Urban Eden’s one-two punch is derived from a network of capillary tubes embedded into the fly ash concrete. “This blue plastic mesh allows us to control the heat that is built up in the walls of the house,” explains Futrell. Using a pump, the heated water is transported from the walls to the roof where it is dissipated into the night air.
In a traditional passive solar system, a thermal mass, such as water or bricks, cools on its own at night. The combination of tubing, water pump and roof membrane is the real secret weapon. “It revolutionizes passive solar heating and cooling,” says Snell.
Making It Possible
Although it is only one of the 10 Solar Decathlon criteria, student builders work hard to keep the total construction cost of their homes at or under $250,000. That is the magic number for the affordability criteria and it’s a new upper limit for the 2013 competition. This year, teams lose points by going over $250,000.
“If the house costs over $600,000, no points are awarded for affordability,” says King, adding, “It is easier to be innovative, but harder to be cost effective.”
Affordability is a juried competition. Construction experts estimate the cost of each component as well as total construction expense.
UNC Charlotte expects that the entire project from focus groups and student stipends to building, transporting and reassembling the home in Irvine, Calif., will be in the neighborhood of $1.2 million. The Department of Energy gave each 2013 team $100,000 and UNC Charlotte contributed another $375,000. That leaves a sizable chunk for the team’s sponsors.
Ingersoll Rand, Bosch Solar, Electrolux, Edifice, Intus Windows and SteelFab made up the shortfall with cash and in-kind donations. Electrolux will be supplying the washer and dryer while the refrigerator comes from Blomberg, a German manufacturer with multiple minimum energy consumption awards. For Urban Eden’s sliding roof, Bosch Solar will donate a complete array of 255-watt photovoltaic monocrystalline solar panels. Each of the 36 German-manufactured panels retails for $300.
Construction of Urban Eden began in mid-February inside the massive EPIC Building at the Charlotte Research Institute. As the weather warms and Urban Eden expands, it will be brought outside. When complete it will be disassembled and shipped to Orange County Great Park, where it will be reassembled as part of the Solar Decathlon village.
The California site is another first for the 2013 Decathlon. In previous years the village was constructed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol. This year it’s halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego on the site of the former El Toro Air Station. As the original 49ers said, “California, here we come!”
The competition runs from October 3 to 13 and is open to the public for eight of its 10 days. The overall winner is announced during closing ceremonies.
The Solar Decathlon serves to bring the best of education and industry together for the common goal of sustainability, inspiring innovation and efficiency and well as engendering camaraderie and health competition. Its byproducts spur scientists, production specialists, grid engineers, municipal planners, and countless others to focus on using nature’s free energy inexpensively and efficiently.
Together, academia and business acumen combine to bring new discoveries and innovation to the commercial marketplace. It is precisely this type of synergy that creates wealth and opportunity, including job creation, helping us to compete in the global marketplace.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Urban Eden will occur after it returns to the UNC Charlotte campus for public viewing. Perhaps a couple of empty nesters or DINKS will see it and decide to replicate it on a Charlotte vacant lot. If they invest $250,000 in their new home, in the course of the next 30 years they’ll save an average of $72,000 in utility bills. Some of that time, their electrical meter will run forward and they will pay for electricity. But on sunny days, their meter will run backwards to the future.
When North Carolina lost most of its furniture and textiles production to Mexico and Asia, it looked as though all our manufacturing was dying. Like a tsunami, factory closures sent tidal waves across a vast supply chain of producers. As the disaster deepened, many envisioned a future without manufacturing. They predicted that cleaner, greener and safer service sector jobs would emerge to dominate the North Carolina economy.
During the 1980s and ’90s, North Carolina lost not only its factories, but also its confidence in manufacturing.
“Manufacturing became a dirty word,” remarks Dr. John Ziegert, heading up the UNC Charlotte initiative for advanced manufacturing. “It was dumb, dark, dirty and disappearing.”
It took a while before the state put the loss of its furniture industry in perspective. Wooden case goods were the economic equivalent of silk-screened tee shirts. This was an industry ripe for export and vulnerable to duplication by low-wage, low-technology operations across the pond.
Despite a generalized loss of faith in manufacturing, North Carolina remains the most productive manufacturing state in the Southeast and third in the nation. Over 400,000 North Carolinians work in the state’s 9,300 manufacturing companies, with Mecklenburg County the state’s manufacturing leader. Even with the Great Recession, North Carolina’s manufacturing output has grown over the last decade.
Looking at the larger picture, the United States today produces 21 percent of the world’s manufactured goods and manufacturing employs one in six American workers. That leaves plenty of room for improvement. During the 1970s, approximately 25 percent of American workers were employed in manufacturing.
Globalization experts are coming to the understanding that manufacturing plays a vital and essential role in our economy. “We can’t have a vibrant economy without a world-class manufacturing sector,” says Ziegert. “Without it, money only leaves the country.”
Due in large part to the vision of then-Chancellor Jim Woodward, UNC Charlotte has never lost its emphasis on manufacturing.
“During the past two decades when most universities were running away from manufacturing, UNC Charlotte identified advanced manufacturing as something we’d be good at,” asserts Ziegert, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering science at UNC Charlotte. “The school continued to build its strength in manufacturing when others like Purdue and the University of Illinois were downsizing and letting professors working in manufacturing retire without replacement.”
Ziegert’s area of expertise is not just mechanical engineering, but advanced manufacturing. This is the type of manufacturing that business leaders do not want to export. It holds the key to manufacturing’s long awaited American Renaissance, a revival that could even extend to the now-crippled furniture industry. With all the problems of high transportation costs, poor quality and long lead times associated with furniture produced overseas, it may be time to think about “advanced” manufacturing of furniture in North Carolina.
What is “Advanced Manufacturing”?
”Advanced manufacturing” has been defined in numerous ways. In fact, there have been entire government studies devoted to developing the concept, part of which involves defining the concept.
In the November 2012 issue of Industry Week, Editor-in-Chief Patricia Panchak tackled advanced manufacturing’s untidy definition:
- Is advanced manufacturing just “newer” manufacturing, like aerospace compared to auto production?
- Are its products designed with CAD, CAE, CAM, modeled by high performance computing, simulation and analysis, and produced by advanced robotics, additive manufacturing and other intelligent systems?
- Should leadership systems like lean management, lean production, Six Sigma, supply chain integration, and advanced planning and scheduling be part of the definition?
- Does advanced manufacturing have to be born in university science and engineering departments and then transferred into manufactured products?
These are not just academic concerns, argues Panchak. “How we define advanced manufacturing determines the metrics we’ll use to evaluate success and shapes public policy and business strategy,” she stresses.
Panchak found an acceptable definition in the June 2011 Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST): “Advanced manufacturing…involves both new ways to manufacture existing products and the manufacture of new products emerging from new advanced technologies.”
To some extent, the definition is a moving target. Ziegert has his own take on the subject: “Advanced manufacturing is that segment of manufacturing where you gain a competitive advantage by the application of specialized knowledge and technology as opposed to low labor rates.”
Universal in any definition is a dynamic element. “What is considered advanced manufacturing today may be commonplace in 20 years,” says Ziegert. The smartphone is an all-too-obvious example. While it is undeniably high-tech, assembling it is not.”
Examples of advanced manufacturing range from the microscopic to the majestic. Ziegert points out one that is large and dramatic: aircraft manufacturing. Thirty years ago airplanes were made of sheet metal and metal component parts were folded and riveted together.
In work pioneered by Dr. Scott Smith of UNC Charlotte, that has all changed. Smith and others learned how to take a solid piece of aluminum and machine it into complex shapes with sheet metal thickness. That research, combined with high speed milling techniques that Smith also helped to develop, led to what is referred to today as monolithic construction.
“As a result,” Ziegert says, “the structural components of virtually all United States military aircraft are no longer built by folding sheet metal.” The technique has revolutionized aircraft construction and Boeing has estimated that implementing it has saved as much as $500 million on the F-18 program alone.
As a result of PCAST report in 2011, President Obama appointed Mike Molnar, a manufacturing executive from Cummins, chief manufacturing officer of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and director of the interagency National Program Office for Advanced Manufacturing whose mission it is to foster industry-led partnerships and to form a “whole of government” approach to strengthen competitiveness and innovation in U.S. manufacturing.
Molnar is a self-described “manufacturing guy from industry” and is seen by Fred Wetzel, executive vice president for the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM), as an effective “inside guy.”
In July 2012, Molnar’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) announced a $1 billion proposal to create 15 public/private manufacturing innovation institutes around the country. The Charlotte Research Institute at UNC Charlotte is bidding to become one of the centers.
Innovation Institute at UNC Charlotte
The job of shepherding UNC Charlotte’s application for an Innovation Institute was a star attraction in John Ziegert’s move to the University two years ago. Currently in the University’s William States Lee College of Engineering and a researcher in the Center for Precision Metrology, his background is steeped in smart manufacturing.
Before Charlotte, the University of Rhode Island Ph.D. was at Clemson University as Timken Chair in Automotive Design for the International Center for Automotive Research. Prior to Clemson, Ziegert spent 17 years at the University of Florida, progressing from assistant professor to the Newton C. Ebaugh Chair and director of the Machine Tool Research Center.
The Carolinas Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CM2I) that Ziegert envisions will concentrate on large-scale, high-precision manufacturing.
“The United States exports far more than we import in aircraft, industrial engines, excavators and railway and mining equipment,” he says. And with the experts Ziegert intends to bring to CM2I, he is determined to keep that trade imbalance tilted in favor of the U.S.A.
“A key to success in high-precision manufacturing is integrative precision manufacturing,” Ziegert says. “One result of this type of production is a rapid and automated correction of production errors before they spread through the system. That’s a vast improvement over what’s been cynically called ‘inspecting quality into manufactured goods.’”
Ziegert was attracted to UNC Charlotte for a rather straightforward reason. “This department has the largest, strongest, most respected and best equipped advanced manufacturing group in academia in the United States,” he says unequivocally.
That assessment is not hyperbole. The International Academy for Production Engineering (CIRP, French) is the world’s leading professional organization in production engineering research. It is at the forefront of design, optimization, control and management of industrial processes, machines and systems.
Researchers are invited to join CIRP and each industrialized country is limited to 20 Fellow members. In the delegation from the United States, five of the Fellows are from UNC Charlotte.
“M.I.T. has two members. No other U.S. university has more than one member. That was an easy sell to get me here,” says Ziegert, nodding.
The five CIRP Fellows from UNC Charlotte are Scott Smith, Robert Hocken, Chris Evans, Gert Goch, and Matt Davies. All are Ph.D. professors in the department of mechanical engineering and engineering sciences.
Dave Barton, co-founder of BlueSwarf, agrees wholeheartedly with Ziegert’s assessment, and, he’s willing to take bets on UNC Charlotte’s chances of success with funding for CM2I. Barton’s company, a developer of software for the machining industry, is now located at Penn State University’s Innovation Park, but would move to UNC Charlotte in that event.
“Chances are good that UNC Charlotte will get one of the 15 spots,” says Barton. “UNC Charlotte is one of the primary machining facilities in the world. In manufacturing research and machining, Georgia Tech and MIT pale in comparison to UNC Charlotte.”
What It Will Take…
NACFAM’s Wentzel is skeptical about funding the new Institutes: “Nothing will happen until the money is available.” Acknowledging that that depends on the administration and Congress getting together on spending, he says in light of recent history, “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Ziegert is more optimistic. Based on conversations with people in the government’s National Program Office for Advanced Manufacturing, he feels confident that there will be calls for proposals in the spring with awards for the first institutes by the end of fiscal year 2014.
If successful, CM2I will be an independent, not-for-profit research and training institute run by a board of directors composed largely of representatives of its member companies. The new institute would rely on NNMI dollars only for its start-up phase. Once it matures and attracts industrial partners, it will survive on dues, fee-for-service activities, competitive federal research contracts and license fees.
One part of CM2I involves a partnership with area community colleges such as Central Piedmont. Ziegert says their cooperation is necessary in the vital area of work force development. He is looking to train entry level shop-floor machine operators, technicians and mid-career engineers for positions in digital manufacturing and manufacturing analytics.
To get there, he has fashioned a training laundry list that includes apprenticeships, short courses, flexible degree programs, internships and certificate programs.
There is another reason Ziegert purposefully chose to come to Charlotte: He is also point man for the partnership between the University and Siemens Energy centered on creating the Siemens Large Manufacturing Solutions Laboratory, a place where Siemens engineers and UNC Charlotte grad students can engage in short-range applied research to make Siemens more profitable and competitive.
Ziegert is still looking for a permanent home for the lab, but that hasn’t stopped Siemens engineer Michael Jones and his student researchers from tackling some practical manufacturing-related problems.
Jones is generator manufacturing development manager for Siemens Energy in Charlotte. He winnowed dozens of suggestions from other Siemens engineers into five practical student-centered problems. “What better way to educate students than to investigate real life projects?” says Jones. “It is a perfect setup. What an opportunity for UNC Charlotte students!”
Since May 2012, the students, working with UNC Charlotte faculty and Siemens engineers, have tested high-strength alloys for gas turbine parts, developed new methods to accurately measure a round spinning shaft, compared the effectiveness of side-entry milling and broaching, automated the measurement of large, high volume valves, and tried to solve vibration problems associated with deep hole drilling. All are practical problems that Siemens would like solved.
“This is neither fundamental research nor is it research that will revolutionize the way gas turbines or electrical generators are manufactured,” says Ziegert. “But the challenge is to see beyond the immediate practical problem to what is fundamental beneath it; to invent something new that will not only solve this problem, but will also solve related problems or help prevent them altogether.”
Ziegert’s hopes for the success of the Siemens lab and Innovation Institute are intimately related to his hopes for reinvigorating the manufacturing sector of the American economy. His field of advanced manufacturing is one of the reasons companies are “reshoring”—returning manufacturing operations from Asia to the United States.
Economic factors such as transportation expenses across the Pacific, custom duties, communications difficulties, product quality, labor unrest and rising wages are also energizing the trend. A 2012 M.I.T. survey of 108 American firms with Asian production found that 14 percent have already brought some manufacturing home and another 33 percent are actively considering it.
“The experiment of going to China didn’t work out for many companies,” confirms Ziegert. Perhaps experiments in the labs at UNC Charlotte coupled with an American work force more willing to work for lower wages will help reshore—and restore—the American economy.
MBAJ Architecture’s favorite projects are the ones their clients love. Judging by the stellar reputation of the firm and the repeat business it enjoys, that means that pretty much all of them.
From its inception in 1981 as a sole proprietorship in Shelby, N.C., the architectural firm has experienced impressive growth, opening the Charlotte office in 1988 and the Raleigh office in 1996.
MBAJ Architecture has six principals practicing out of four offices in North and South Carolina. The ownership of the firm is shared by 17 employee shareholders including the principals. In what Rob Johnson calls “a really good culture,” the firm focuses on leadership, serving projects which support their client’s mission and cultivating new opportunities.
“What we don’t emphasize are hierarchy and seniority,” says Johnson. “Over the last decade, we have strategically aligned ourselves,” and Johnson lists the principals with their complementary emphasis: Stan Anthony, finance and business; Rick Brown, firm development and technology; John Thomas, project management and quality assurance; and Angie Crawford Easterday in Raleigh and James Golightly in Charlotte, the principals in charge day-to-day.
Johnson, himself, has an emphasis on marketing, external relations and new business development. Each principal is a registered architect, actively engaged in projects, focused on client satisfaction and active in their community.
The MBAJ Blueprint
MBAJ Architecture provides a broad range of services from pre-funding studies and assessments, programming, and master planning to architectural design, bidding and procurement, construction administration, and digital imaging. Throughout the implementation of these services, the firm is committed to cost control, schedule management, quality assurance and sustainable design.
“Critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration form the foundation of our work,” says Johnson. “We’re really helping people who have needs associated with educational, civic and governmental, religious and commercial facilities to understand and prioritize their needs and desires, so we can then creatively offer alternative ways to accommodate their needs, incorporate their desires and determine the best-fit solution to implement.”
Frequently, MBAJ is called in before clients have obtained their funding for a project and, in today’s economy, clients are trying to decide between refurbishing, new construction or phasing over time.
Typically, MBAJ Architecture is hired by the owners of the building project and often handles the bidding process for contractors. “Once contractors are awarded the commission, we look after it and make sure it’s being built according to the drawings and specifications,” says Johnson. Architects are selected on the basis of qualifications.
“We primarily do public work,” says Johnson. “Consequently, we work mostly with boards of education, county commissioners, community colleges, local governments and state agencies.” The firm also does commercial/private work and has completed a variety of banking, office and church projects.
Examples of the firm’s work include First Ward Elementary School, Myers Park High School, Selwyn Elementary School, Bailey Middle School, South Pointe High School (Rock Hill), Highland School of Technology (Gastonia), Mitchell Community College Advanced Technology Center, Surry County Judicial Center, Iredell County Department of Social Services, Yadkin Valley Bank, Holy Angels Group Home (Belmont), Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, and Stuart W. Cramer High School (Cramerton).
“We’ve been fortunate to work on a wide variety of new buildings and also many challenging additions and renovations,” says Johnson. The firm is also responsible for the architectural work at Central Piedmont Community College’s first satellite campus—the North Campus.
The firm’s design teams are carefully compiled, according to Johnson; contracting and consulting with multidiscipline engineers and specialized consultants. MBAJ also assembles a project team that identifies key client participants.
Johnson’s inspiration to become an architect arrived at the age of 10. Living in his hometown of Wilmington in the mid-’60s, he experienced his parents building a new house. They sketched the plans and hired a local architect who refined the plans, drew sections and elevations, and on numerous occasions came to their home.
“They let me sit in on the meetings with the architect and later the contractor and by my doing so, along with watching our house being built, I knew from that time that this was what I wanted to do. I’ve never wavered,” says Johnson.
The second piece of direction came from his high school guidance counselor who told him about UNC Charlotte developing a new school of architecture. There he met fellow student, Stan Anthony III, who agrees, “We both feel that we received a fabulous education.”
Johnson went on to earn his master’s in Architecture from the University of Illinois and Anthony did the same from Georgia Tech. He joined MBAJ in 1988. The other principals are similarly educated. Golightly and Thomas are also graduates of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as is Brown, who additionally is a Virginia Tech grad; and Crawford Easterday graduated from Texas A&M and North Carolina State University. Anthony also serves as the mayor of Shelby, his home town.
Johnson touts the academic rigors demanded of architectural students: “We receive a well-rounded education. As an architect, you are a generalist; you have to know a little about a lot of stuff.”
Johnson likes to point out that the 1980s musical group Talking Heads was made up of architecture students, as was the late songwriter, Dan Fogleberg. “It speaks well of our profession,” he chuckles. “We’re flexible and can blend into a lot of different professions.”
More seriously, Johnson speaks of the need to migrate on your feet: “The difference between building airplanes and cars is that they are built inside. Buildings are built in the weather; coming out of the ground. There are a lot of decisions that happen in the field; it makes for an exciting way to earn a living.”
A New Era
Advances in technology have made huge inroads in architectural design and analysis, providing many opportunities for creativity and problem solving. First, there were two-dimension drawings, then some three-dimension tools. Now, all the components are ‘smart’ and work together.
AutoCAD came along in the 1990s allowing drawings to be done by computer. Next came Building Information Modeling (BIM), which allows architectural, engineering and construction components to be observed and manipulated in relation to each other.
“It’s incredible the power of the computer,” says Johnson. “What we’re seeing now will seem like child’s play in the future, but right now we’re greatly benefited by being able to create and visualize designs. It is a great communication tool for our clients and us. BIM can also run conflict resolution between the components to determine if that light and that beam and duct work are all in the same three-dimensional space.”
As with any discipline or firm, there are challenges. “The main one is the reduced level of funding going into building facilities since the downturn,” says Johnson. “We also have a reduced number of architectural graduates continuing on to registration, preferring instead—and having the ability—to use their skills within other industries and concerns such as energy or real estate.”
As the recession unfolded, 2010 and 2011 were wrought with challenges for the firm. “K-12 school projects stopped in their tracks,” says Johnson. “We were accustomed to a handful of large projects at any given time; however, the shift in the marketplace caused us to seek several handfuls of smaller projects.
One of the main things that kept the firm going in the downturn were existing clients who used the downturn to assess their needs, conduct feasibility studies and complete very economical small additions and renovations. “Also, in that it can take a year to design larger projects and a couple of years to build, the cash flow income from these larger projects were a big factor in sustaining the tough times.”
Johnson describes breaking even as the recession eases as ‘the new normal.’ “Although we’re still in the curve coming out, it is incrementally upward and our peace of mind is much better than a few years ago,” says Johnson.
Johnson actually cites positive impact from the financial difficulty: “We’ve used the downturn in the economy as an opportunity to turn things around to fully utilizing BIM.” Plus, he sees a different, more responsible climate.
“Now building is being done a lot more thoughtfully. People appreciate energy more. Before, the goal was to build it fast and inexpensively without much regard to sustainability,” Johnson says.
He also detects a new attitude towards architects: “The downturn has actually helped in terms of people realizing what an architect can do for them. As a field, we are more appreciated. As we work to design buildings with much fewer resources, we’re back to being problem solvers. This means being involved from the beginning of a project and helping to determine the best use of space.
“There’s a lot more pre-design—analysis and feasibility studies. It used to be people figured out what they wanted and then called in an architect to draw up blueprints—just slide them under the door. Now, they call in an architect to figure out what they need and desire. The profession is a lot more challenging but fun because expectations have gone up. It’s a new day and forever different; it’s exciting.”
A Families Affair
“The firm is made up of not just principals and employees, but 25 families,” says Johnson. “We know one another. We work hard and we play hard.” The firm values opportunities where employees and their families can spend time together away from the office: “We’ve had deaths and been faced with cancer—we rally around each other.”
“Our culture is an outgrowth of our shared kindred spirit,” says Johnson. “We all believe that our personal lives are just as important as our professional lives. It’s all about the people you meet along your path. In the end, you probably won’t worry about your sketches or technical aspects but you will be comforted by the fond memories of the many people you have met thorough our firm and the profession.”
For the last eight years, the principals of MBAJ Architecture have been involved with UNC Charlotte’s architectural professional practice classes. “They ask us to come in and talk about all aspects of being a mid-size firm and our marketing, human resources, technology—things that make a firm work.”
They also sit on the Central Piedmont Community College Architectural Technology Program Professional Advisory Board. Johnson attests, “Mentors were important to me and I want to mentor in turn.”
“We seek to make a positive difference in the communities we serve,” says Johnson.
“It’s good to be proud of the things you’ve been a part of but better, still, is the ongoing lineage,” he continues. “For an architectural firm to sustain multiple generations is a real accomplishment.
“We want clients to describe us as genuinely good people—trustworthy people who greatly support and advance their mission—a firm they would like to work with again.”
Every time the New York Mets hit a home run at Citi Field, a 16-foot tall apple adorned with LED lights and weighing over two tons rises out of a housing in center field. While the apple itself is a well-known icon at the new stadium, most people don’t know that underneath the exterior façade is a little piece of Charlotte.
Charlotte’s own P.T. International Corp., a leading manufacturer of industrial power transmission products, supplied many of the bearings and other components that make the mechanism in the apple rise after each big homer.
Bearings, Gears, and Rails
While Citi Field’s big apple may be their most visible project, P.T. International’s core business is supplying components for things like conveyor systems, textile machinery, and a wide variety of industrial manufacturing applications. Their industrial power transmission products can be found in the mechanisms of Carowinds rides, in commercial rooftop air conditioning systems, and in airport baggage conveyor systems—just about anywhere power needs to be transferred from a motor to a mechanism.
“Many of our products are tucked underneath working mechanisms within machines and are not very visible,” says company co-founder and President Tom Haffner. “We help transfer the power from the machine’s motor using products like bearings, gears, couplings, drive components, rails, and linear systems.”
Located off Westinghouse Boulevard in south Charlotte, P.T. International is somewhat unique because, unlike most other American companies in this industry, they focus on industrial power transmission products that conform to European standard metric dimensions rather than American inch-based standards.
While the company doesn’t actually manufacture these products in their Charlotte facility, they are ISO certified as a manufacturer and do their own design and quality control work. Most products bear the P.T. International name, but the actual fabrication and manufacturing is contracted out to shops in places like Europe, Brazil or Taiwan because metric manufacturing is still a very small slice of the U.S. market.
“The shops we use can produce metric at a much lower cost than we can do it here in the United States because we just don’t have the volume here yet,” explains Haffner. “Those shops have the right kinds of cutting tools and grinding fixtures to manufacture metric parts cost effectively in volume because that’s all they use over there.”
The contract shops machine the parts to P.T. International specifications and then ship the completed components to Charlotte where they are warehoused in the Westinghouse Boulevard facility. The company sells to leading industrial and power transmission distributors and also direct to certain large OEMs which use the supplied components in the manufacture and integration of various types of machinery.
They do not sell to the end users who employ the mechanisms on their assembly lines or in other facilities. The distributor network and the OEMs handle those relationships.
Many of P.T. International’s products find their way into very high technology robotic assembly equipment used on automated manufacturing lines. While the bearings and housings themselves haven’t changed much over time, the ways they are used are constantly changing as automated technology continues to find its way into more and more of the manufacturing process.
Making the Move to Metric
With an undergraduate engineering degree from Purdue and a master’s degree in Engineering from Notre Dame, Tom Haffner began his career in the power transmission products business with Dodge-Reliance Electric, a company that now operates as part of the huge ABB Group of Switzerland.
Like most other American companies in the industry, Dodge had concentrated their product lines on American standard products based around inch-based specifications. But Haffner began to see that to compete on the world market, American manufacturing would have to begin to embrace metrics.
“If you want to ship something to a country outside of the U.S., you know they are going to want metric,” explains Haffner. “That has been a problem for U.S. manufacturing. Not many countries will want what the U.S. makes until it becomes metric. They don’t want a one-inch bearing in Germany or Brazil. More and more, U.S.-owned manufacturing companies are recognizing that they better look global to grow manufacturing and industrial exports. To do that, they must go metric.”
So in 1994, after 18 years with Dodge-Reliance, Haffner ventured out on his own. He and partner Hartmut Kossack started P.T. International and decided to focus the new company on European standard metric product lines instead of the American standards most others in the industry are focused on. They saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the long-term trend toward metrics in American manufacturing.
Today, P.T. International has grown to 30 employees. Kossack remains involved as a director. Recently, Tonka Bay Equity Partners of Minnetonka, Minn., completed a major capital investment in the company to help facilitate future growth.
“I think we have a good focus on the market and what is going on,” says Haffner. “Metric is still not the largest market here in the U.S., but we sell both nationally and internationally, to all the main national distributors, and to some large, well-recognized OEMs. If you ask most of our customers, they would truly recognize us for our broad metric offerings.”
Metrics still make up less than 10 percent of all U.S. manufacturing by Haffner’s estimate, but he says things are slowly starting to change. American manufacturing companies are gradually beginning to see that the equipment they design will have to begin to move beyond the legacy American standards, particularly if they want to expand globally. But for now, many American equipment manufacturers are forced to incur the added expense of maintaining dual product lines—inch-based for the U.S. market and metric for export.
One of the first American industries to make a complete move to metric is the automotive business. Over the past 20 years, all American automotive manufacturing has gone fully metric. In addition to the cars themselves, all of the automotive assembly machinery that often comes from Europe, Taiwan, China, India or Brazil is metric.
Some of the companies that make these machines are located in or around Detroit, but many of them are Swiss, Italian or -wned. The designs come out of Europe, and one set of drawings is used both here and in Europe to build the same machines. A piece of equipment could easily be moved out of Detroit and put in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or Mexico City, Mex., if a car production line gets moved or reconfigured.
“If we’re going to compete as a country, we must have designs that are in metric so they will be acceptable and appreciated worldwide,” stresses Haffner. “We make good products here, but the world doesn’t want them because they’re not metric. We’re slowly recognizing this and companies are realizing that we have to switch over.”
“One local customer builds machines that are exported to many corners of the globe,” he continues. “In Germany they have another division, as well as India, Brazil and China. Each of these five manufacturing sites builds machine types for the entire globe, minimizing duplicate production lines. That’s the globalization that we are finally seeing, and that’s why metric will win out in the long run.”
Educating Future Engineers
One of the most critical needs of any technology-oriented business is new engineering talent and a highly skilled work force. That’s also critically important to the Charlotte region as a whole. With major companies in the power generation business operating here—firms like ABB, Areva, Duke Energy, Fluor, Mitsubishi, Shaw Power Group and Siemens—Charlotte is establishing itself as one of the major centers of expertise in the energy business.
With engineering in his blood, Haffner is doing his part to help create this next generation of engineers. In addition to his role as CEO of P.T. International, he serves on advisory boards for UNC Charlotte’s School of Engineering and Engineering Sciences, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Academies of Engineering program.
“UNC Charlotte is in the right place at the right time,” says Haffner. “Because of energy, Charlotte is ready to become a huge engineering center. The engineering school at UNC Charlotte has really wrapped their arms around the energy mantra and there is a technically diverse skilled work force need growing here.”
The relationship with UNC Charlotte is a perfect example of how business can partner with academia for each other’s mutual benefit. The University has state-of-the-art testing labs and facilities, so Haffner has hired the University for several projects such as stress analyses modeling on bearing housings and metallurgy analysis of components.
“I don’t have enough daily need for that testing equipment, so it’s easier to source that out to the University when we need it,” explains Haffner. “It also helps the University professors and students by connecting them to industry and real world applications.”
Taking it one step further, Haffner has also been instrumental in helping to build an engineering foundation in CMS with the Academy of Engineering program. These schools within a school feature a four-year specialized high school curriculum focused on mid-tier and at-risk high schools to help students understand future careers and increase graduation rates.
The programs are sponsored by the National Academy Foundation out of New York, which receives funding from such organizations as Motorola, Verizon, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
By the fall of 2013, CMS will have seven engineering academies located at Hopewell, Vance, Mallard Creek, Philip O. Berry, Olympic, East Mecklenburg, and South Mecklenburg high schools. Haffner says this gives Charlotte the largest concentration of engineering academies in the nation.
Haffner serves on the advisory board at Hopewell, which will graduate their first class from the academy program this year. He also serves on an advisory board for the National Academy Foundation as well as a regional board for the program.
The engineering academy program offers a healthy dose of math and science, but also features specialized introductory engineering courses that expose the students to the major disciplines within engineering—such as mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, and more. During the summer between their junior and senior year, the students are placed in a company internship so they can start to get an idea of what an engineer really does.
“To me it all fits,” concludes Haffner. “The good jobs of the future will be technology driven, so education is one of the most important focus points that we can do for the next generation as industry mentors for students. It’s all about what we can leave behind and share with our kids and our neighbors’ kids.
“Industry involvement and support for these focused Academy programs in education have exceptional success and graduation statistics. Each Academy has an industry-chaired Advisory Board to support and mentor students and teachers.
“Industry is stepping forward as they recognize that planning is important for an earlier grasp of a skilled work force. We still have one of the best education systems (including technology) in the world and industry support is making a difference.”
Manufacturing is important to North Carolina, the country, and even the world because manufacturing makes the things that we depend upon in our daily life. From our computers to our automobiles, everything we use and rely on is manufactured somewhere. However, the products being made in North Carolina have changed dramatically in recent years.
Traditional industries such as furniture production and textiles are being replaced by industries which produce the things we need in the construction industry, in the telecommunication industry, and in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, labor-intensive practices are being replaced with innovative technological processes and a highly skilled work force.
Southeastern Metal Products LLC, a major metal fabrication company based in Charlotte, is in one of the industries shaping this new manufacturing world.
Southeastern specializes in high quality sheet metal stamping and fabrication for commercial and industrial needs. It operates more than 20 punch presses with a broad range of tonnage and supplies a wide range of machined and fabricated parts for a variety of industries. Southeastern Metal Products bends, stamps, laser cuts and welds various type of metal into parts used by the heavy truck and construction industries, health and safety companies, and the data communication industries.
“We pride ourselves in the ability to use our manufacturing and engineering expertise to manage any type of project, ranging from ‘build to print’ to assisting our customers in product design for manufacturability,” says company President Richard Wright. “In addition, we are constantly working to develop new products, exploring new markets, and learning to make our operations more efficient and sustainable.”
Southeastern Metal Products has been serving customers since 1952 and has established a reputation for high quality workmanship, dependable delivery and first-rate customer service. With 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space and a skilled workforce, it is prepared to handle any metal project, big or small, from start-to-finish or anywhere in between.
Fabricating a Business
Southeastern Metal Products grew out of a friendship between two tool and die makers during the 1940s. Don Cumberworth and Hayes Risk first met at Super Metal Products in Auburn Heights, Mich., and continued their relationship while working as tool and die makers at Chrysler and other plants in the Detroit area.
In 1952, with funding of $8,000, they incorporated Southeastern Tool & Die Co., Inc., and started operations at 226 Cedar Street in Charlotte, hiring grinders and craftsman and making high quality tools for other manufacturing companies.
By 1960, when the company had grown to 15 employees, it moved to a new 10,000-square-foot facility at 1420 Metals Drives. As the business continued to grow, so did the space it occupied. In the ’60s and ’70s, additions brought the building size to 67,000 square feet.
In 1966, the partners decided on a change in the nature of the business itself. They entered the metal fabrication business. “That was the true birth of Southeastern Metal Products,” says Wright, “although the name change didn’t come until 1979.”
Don Cumberworth died in 1979 and that is when the company’s name was changed from Southeastern Tool & Die Co. to Southeastern Metal Products LLC.
Then, in 2006 the company was acquired by Juno Investments LLC, a New York-based private equity firm specializing in the acquisition and consolidation of both privately and publicly held middle and lower middle market companies.
Today, Southeastern Metal Products occupies over 100,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space and employs a skilled workforce of over 100 that include engineers, designers, quality technicians and factory workers.
Wright, who took the position of president at Southeastern Metal Products in 2010, is responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the company, as well as business development, strategic planning and customer relationships.
Although only 41, he has a rich and varied resume, which makes him an excellent choice to lead the company. During a career, which spans 17 years, he has been successful in supervising all stages of an organization’s life cycle, from business start-up to turning around under-performing companies, as well as improving upon already profitable entities.
Wright holds a bachelor’s degree in business from West Virginia University. He began his career in the rail and automotive industries, where he developed a talent for building collaborative business relationships with his clients.
“I was a plant manager at 25,” Wright explains. “I wasn’t ready for it, but I learned a lot and rolled with it. Being thrown in the fire so early, it tempered me.”
Welded to Charlotte
Wright’s experience has equipped him with exceptional leadership and organizational developmental skills, as well as an affinity for controlling profit and loss. He has overseen complex operations for top-tier companies in support of revenue, cost, productivity, delivery, safety and quality goals. He sees his skills and Southeastern’s needs as “a perfect fit.”
“This is the place for me,” he asserts. “Southeastern is a good company that is growth-oriented, but we also believe in taking care of existing customers. The ownership group is committed to long time viability and to growth.”
Juno Investments LLC, which acquired Southeastern Metal Products in 2006, focuses on acquiring and enhancing U.S. based manufacturing companies. It employs strategies that enable portfolio companies to grow to their fullest potential. Wright sees the company as a long-term patient owner. Wright, who has worked with a lot of equity groups over his career, believes Juno is a good partner for Southeastern.
“Juno is a buy and build company,” he says. “They are a sound firm with an interest in growing Southeastern. They have no exit strategy, which is very important to us.”
In 2009, Juno purchased $2 million in assets from a High Point, N.C., structural metal fabrication company that closed its doors due to the downturn in the economy.
“In a down market, Juno afforded us an opportunity to grow by investing $2 million for the future,” explains Wright. “And it worked. Southeastern has experienced a 10 percent growth directly related to the acquisition of those assets.”
One of the reasons Wright is working at Southeastern Metal Products is its location in Charlotte. He and his family wanted to relocate from the north and he had worked in Charlotte for five years in the early 2000s. He believes it is a good place to raise a family and provides a business community in which a manufacturing company can thrive.
“In one sense, Charlotte is a small, close-knit community,” says Wright, “but it has the desire to be something bigger. It is starting to be looked at as more than a banking town.”
Although he admits that Charlotte hasn’t been a beacon for the manufacturing industry in the past, he feels that the diversity of the population is a big plus. As is the fact that it is a transportation hub with decent-sized airports and ports within reasonable distances.
Wright also believes that changing global economic conditions, rising wages in developing nations and increased transportation costs will continue to make the manufacturing of metal products in the Charlotte area more attractive.
“Our customer base is primarily regional,” he reports. “Ninety percent of our customers are within a four-hour drive, but we do supply products as far away as Texas and Mexico. Metal parts can be big and bulky and that makes transporting them potentially expensive—especially from overseas. In addition, rising wages and security risks abroad are causing a lot of companies to rethink their strategies.”
In addition, growing automation is reducing the cost of producing products in the U.S. If local companies can provide products at close to the same overall cost, Wright believes many companies will opt for local, rather than foreign, production.
While traditional manufacturing relied on labor-intensive production, modern manufacturing builds on technology. New machines, increased automation and smarter logistics define the future for companies like Southeastern Metal Products.
“We see technology as an opportunity,” asserts Wright. “We are looking to grow through automation. Always though, we have to consider cost versus benefit.”
Automation can reduce mistakes that cost money and upset customers—mistakes Wright refers to as “scrap and rejects.” Automation can also reduce the time involved in producing a product. And automation can make a positive impact on factory safety.
“We have to have a plan and understand our objectives and how to achieve them,” Wright explains. “Our goal is to deliver a good quality product on time. We have to work out all the nuances of automation before we decide to proceed that way.”
Still, robots are not about to replace a human work force any time soon. As technological change accelerates, so must the skill of the work force that engages with it. Instead of seeing the new opportunities in manufacturing, many potential workers continue to tie manufacturing to an outdated image of the industry, one which requires few skills and offers low wages.
“As we grow, we need more skilled, trained employees,” says Wright. “They can be hard to find. There are few trade schools producing press brake operators, welders, or punch press operators. The ideal is to hire someone who has been there, done that, but with the experienced work force getting harder to find, we need to create our own apprenticeships.”
In fact, Southeastern Metal Products is in the beginning stage of creating an on-site job training program of its own, although Wright reports the program is still probably six months from institution. Meanwhile, the company is relying on other methods to acquire the good quality people it needs. It uses both classified ads and word-of-mouth to attract new workers.
Additionally, the company has a program in place in which current employees can earn up to $500 for bringing in a good quality hire. It also works with CPCC and other local organizations, like Charlotte Works, to find skilled workers. Charlotte Works is a public/private partnership that attempts to link employers and job seekers.
In addition to establishing a job training program to attract good quality people, Southeastern also works hard at retaining its valued employees. Looking for employees who will be on time and dependable and work safely, the company strives to create an environment that such people will enjoy working in. It also rewards success with celebratory lunches and provides excellent earning opportunities.
The future of Southeastern Metal Products is focused on growth. Wright wants the company to grow as quickly as possible, as smartly as possible, while still serving the company’s existing customers. He believes that direct, honest communication is one of the best platforms on which to build a customer base.
“We’re focused on building relationships with a high level of trust,” Wright asserts. “At the end of the day, we need to communicate as much as possible, as accurately as possible, with customers, employees and owners. This is still a people business—robots are not taking orders or talking about issues, people are. People get it done.”
The Charlotte Knights’ baseball season at the new BB&T Ballpark uptown will begin next year. Construction of the state-of-the-art stadium can be viewed in real time via webcam at the team’s official website and soon will show the erection of the steel columns, beams and metal decking for the 10,000-seat facility.
The 1,035 tons of steel needed to build the $54 million stadium will be provided by SteelFab, Inc. But the ballpark is hardly the first high profile project for SteelFab. Within sight of the ballpark, the peaks of several other SteelFab projects carve out the Charlotte skyline.
Duke Energy Tower, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Convention Center, and 1 Bank of America Center were all built with steel fabricated by SteelFab.
Other SteelFab projects nationwide include the Georgia Aquarium, Temple University Fox Business School, UNC Dental Science Building, TRADOC Headquarters, 12 Crate & Barrel stores, as well as paint shops for car manufacturers Kia, Volkswagen, Honda and Nissan. The company has worked on projects in industries as diverse as commercial health care, energy, food processing, heavy industrial and defense.
For the last three years the company’s jobsites have included two naval shipyards where they’ve fabricated the staging and temporary shoring needed for work on nuclear submarines.
Headquartered in Charlotte and with seven divisions spanning the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Texas, SteelFab has become a national leader in the fabrication of structural steel. The company’s success is a source of pride for Chairman and CEO Ronald G. Sherrill, but Sherrill views the success from a broader perspective.
A Steel Core
At its core, SteelFab is a family business, founded in 1955 by Sherrill’s father J. Glenn Sherrill, who grew up on a farm and dropped out of high school after the ninth grade to work in a cotton mill before starting work building handrails for a local steel fabricator. After a tour of duty in the Navy in WWII, Glenn Sherrill returned to Charlotte to work for the same company before starting his own business in a barn off West Boulevard fashioning ornamental handrails for a local house builder.
“I was about seven,” Ron Sherrill recalls, “when I would ride with my dad on the weekends. We’d measure for the handrails and then in the next week, he’d fabricate them and put them up the following Friday or Saturday. I have two brothers and a sister and my brothers and I would work for him during summer breaks and holidays growing up. When I graduated from college in 1970, I knew I wanted to work for my dad.”
At the time Sherrill joined his father in the business, the company had 15 to 20 employees and had branched out into jobs involving smaller structures like one-story office buildings and shopping centers.
Brothers Don and Phillip soon followed Ron into the business, but the brothers quickly realized that something needed to change if the family business were to continue to succeed.
“So,” says Sherrill, “in the late ’70s, we started buying more equipment. We began investing so we could do bigger work. Some contractors and developers we worked for started expanding, and because we did a good job for them, we started growing as well.”
In the early 1980s, the company became involved in more office buildings, manufacturing facilities and several high-rise buildings in Myrtle Beach. Although the brothers continued fabricating handrails, stairs and other miscellaneous type jobs, in 1985 they decided, for efficiency’s sake, to move that work to a different location.
So, in 1985, they opened a new division, CM Steel Inc., continuing the early legacy of SteelFab with those fabrications as well as structural steel in a 70,000-square-foot plant in York, S.C.
The next decade was a time of expansion for the Charlotte-based company. In 1988, SteelFab opened a new structural fabricating facility in Florence, S.C. Named SteelFab of South Carolina; the new facility was followed by SteelFab of Virginia in Emporia in 1990, SteelFab of Alabama in Roanoke in 1996, and SteelFab of Georgia in Dublin in 2000.
Sherrill credits the expansion to the regional growth of their business. Not only is it more cost efficient to fabricate the steel nearer to building sites, but “it’s nice to be closer to your customers,” explains Sherrill. “This really is a relationship business. From the very beginning our philosophy has been to take care of our customers. We realize we’re only as good as our last job.”
With a small marketing staff and no outside advertising, SteelFab is a word-of-mouth, repeat business success. Sherrill says many of their customers are long-term, and notes that they’ve been doing business with several local contractors and developers for more than 35 years.
Clients aren’t the only long-term aspect of the company; when Sherrill’s sons, Stuart and R. Glenn Sherrill Jr. joined the company in the 1990s, it became a third generation family business.
Sherrill admits that being family didn’t make joining the family business any easier. “There’s no training program,” he says. “You get a desk and a computer and you’re expected to learn on the job and set a good example for others.”
When SteelFab of Georgia was having a rocky time, Sherrill’s son Glenn volunteered to save the ailing facility. Within a couple of years, he turned it around, and in 2007 when SteelFab of Georgia merged into SteelFab of Charlotte, Glenn became and today remains president and chief operating officer.
Business milestones were reached in 1999, when SteelFab fabricated and erected the 42-story Hearst Tower, and in 2008, when SteelFab provided 23,500 tons of fabricated steel for the 2.1 million-square-foot NCE project in Fort Belvoir,Va. The year 2008 also was a record production year for the company when, for the first time, they fabricated over 100,000 tons of steel in one year.
But SteelFab isn’t just about big projects. “The first job I ever sold was for $3,000,” remembers Sherrill. “We grew up on very small projects and we’re still very involved in that market. A large percentage of our projects are under $500,000. We also handle $200 jobs.”
Commitment to Quality
Whatever the size of the project, SteelFab has become known for its commitment to quality. “It’s an excellent company,” says Eric Reichard of Rodgers Builders, “very professional and good to work with.”
In his position as COO, Reichard has personally worked with SteelFab for over 20 years on projects ranging from Lowe’s corporate headquarters to the Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation at Queens University. Currently they are teaming up to build the BB&T Ballpark.
“We had a project in the limited space of the city where two cranes were needed simultaneously to pick up one steel beam,” Reichard adds. “They did a great job. Another time, they had to haul large trusses to a jobsite in the middle of the night because that was the only time allowed by the permit. SteelFab sets the bar very high for any other subcontractor.”
And the bar has changed dramatically since Sherrill started with the company. “All the shop drawings used to be done by hand,” says Sherrill. “And the actual fabrication was very labor intensive. Labor’s still a big part of it. Our employees are highly skilled craftsmen. But we’ve also invested in computerized processes and state-of-the-art equipment to help them achieve even greater accuracy and efficiency.”
The role of technology continues to grow in importance. The company began using BIM (building information modeling) technology in 1997. Its initial role of transferring basic information to equipment has expanded to the point where it now enhances the functions of purchasing, production, estimating and 3D modeling. SteelFab provides three-dimensional modeling on all its projects to minimize errors and provide better information to the design team.
SteelFab also uses bar coding technology to track material through production, to assist in shipping, and to provide important information to workers both in the shops and in the field.
Investments in equipment have also helped SteelFab remain competitive and able to handle even the most demanding projects. Each of SteelFab’s fabricating facilities contain several pieces of CNC (computer numerical control) equipment that allows them to saw, drill, punch, shear and burn every type of structural steel. The automated equipment enables them to fabricate up to 2,000 tons of material each week companywide. One of the machines performs in 20 seconds what used to take 30 minutes by hand.
The company has also invested in heavy cranes and forklifts in order to handle large and complex assemblies that can weigh upwards of 120,000 pounds. They have a dedicated shop for these heavier fabrications and specialized truss and frame fabrication areas which allow finished assemblies to be fabricated together to ensure that pieces fit perfectly when erected in the field.
Commitment to People
Given the materials involved and equipment used, Sherrill admits that safety is a big concern but also a source of pride for SteelFab. SteelFab has full-time corporate safety personnel that strive to meet or exceed all local, state and federal guidelines, standards and rules.
Sherrill states that their philosophy behind safety is driven by the company’s belief that “We must be each other’s keeper” and that working safely is a condition of employment.
“Our safety record is one of the things that make me most proud,” Sherrill says, “The Charlotte facility’s last lost time accident occurred more than three years ago and all the SteelFab facilities together total more than 4,000 days without a lost time accident.”
Sherrill is also proud that SteelFab employs 800 people companywide; 250 of them at their 285,000-square-foot facility on Old Dowd Road in Charlotte. Many employees, such as engineers, project managers and estimators, have engineering backgrounds. Production positions include skilled welders, machine operators, material handlers, fitters and quality control personnel.
“We want our people to work here because it’s a good place to work,” Sherrill says. “We want to treat each other, our customers and our vendors by the golden rule. It’s a pretty simple thing to do—treat people the way we want to be treated. We’re proud of our culture here.”
Part of the corporate culture is community involvement. SteelFab donates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, United Way, Teach for America and over a hundred local and national non-profits.
“It’s our way of giving back to our communities and to our customers,” Sherrill says.
SteelFab continues to grow. It opened a Washington, D.C. Mid-Atlantic sales office in 2010, and in 2012 it purchased Alpha Industries, Inc. in Texas. The newly named Alpha SteelFab Inc. expands their project footprint as far west as Colorado. In 2012, SteelFab companies did work in 14 different states.
Sherrill smiles. “It really is amazing,” he says. “When I first started working here I never dreamed we could be where we are today.
“This company was never built on dreams. We came to work each day, we worked hard, we took care of our customers and our people, and our growth was a byproduct of that. It’s a family business and a group success.
“I can’t take the credit. We’ve got 800 people who can take the credit.” Sherrill winks. “I just happen to be the oldest,” he says.
What’s the harm in buying a Gucci, Prada, Fendi, or Dior designer bag knock-off? Who does it hurt? You might save hundreds of dollars and, well, it may look almost the same as the real one. “Plenty” and “Lots of people!” answers Ross Bulla, president of The Treadstone Group, Inc. “Intellectual property infringement, including counterfeit manufacturing, is perceived to be a victimless crime—but it definitely is not,” maintains Bulla. “Companies suffer hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue which, in turn, results in job losses which, in turn, affect the entire economy.” Bulla also cites brand damage for companies whose names are tarnished when counterfeit products fall apart or fail to fulfill their purpose.
Even more serious, some counterfeit products can affect health and safety and even result in death, according to Bulla. “Plus, we do know that counterfeit products have been used to sponsor and fund terrorist activities,” says Bulla. The protection of trademarks and design patents is just one of the areas of security expertise of The Treadstone Group, a 10-year-old company located in Denver, N.C.
The Treadstone Group is a global security risk mitigation and investigations firm which specializes in investigation and enforcement and acquisition of intellectual property rights; physical security risk assessments; and security consulting and litigation support. Intellectual property is defined as intangible assets that are proprietary to a particular owner; the most common properties are trademarks, patents, copyrights, trade secrets or domain names.
The nature of the work is extremely confidential and so, too, is Treadstone’s customer list which represents many of the largest brand owners in the world—Fortune 500, 100 and 50 companies in a wide range of industries including soft drink manufacturers, retail, automobile, consumer services and pharmaceuticals. “We’re working with every industry I can think of and certainly have customers that are among the top 10 most well known brands.” says Bulla. “We also have smaller companies and start-ups, but many of them are multinationals.” Sixty percent of Treadstone clients are businesses in the United States; 40 percent are abroad. Clients include corporate security departments, law enforcement agencies, event planners, transportation companies, high-profile delegates and speakers, local, state and national candidates and elected officials, contract security vendors and hotel and venue owners and managers.
While most of the firm’s investigation clients come from the private sector, some of its security consulting work is government-related. The company also offers training for law enforcement agencies. “We’ve just instructed a course in dignitary protection for law enforcement through a local community college in preparation for the Democratic National Convention and are providing services to public and private sector clients involved in the DNC,” says Bulla. The Treadstone Group operates with just five full-time investigators but employs a large group of sub-contractors around the world.
“Today, we may have an investigation in Russia; tomorrow, Istanbul; next day, Latin America,” says Bulla. “That’s probably the most challenging thing; coordinating all the subcontractors. On any given day, we will have five to 20 subcontractors at work in 20 different places, somewhere in the world.” Name is Everything Protection of intellectual property rights has become a huge industry with values measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Treadstone investigates how trademarks are used—in what types of services, where they are marketed and the critical question of how long they’ve been used in commerce. “Trademarks exist to prevent customer confusion,” explains Bulla. “If you like a trademark that is used to sell shoes, you might be able to use it to sell tires, but you couldn’t use it to sell socks—too similar a purpose,” explains Bulla. “If both companies are doing the same thing, then it comes down to who was using the trademark first.”
Similar considerations go into a company’s trade dress, or design concept. For instance, most people (where Time magazine is marketed) could identify Time magazine without actually seeing the name on the front of the magazine, so no one else can copy that. The same is true for the TGIF Restaurant chain’s red and white striped awnings and uniforms and the overall image of McDonald’s, according to Bulla. The company also anonymously purchases trademark rights, domain names and patents on behalf of its clients. “We buy domain names for $100,000 from owners that may have paid in the single digits for them,” says Bulla.
“Domain name owners are either the first to buy them or they paid a lot of money for them.” Negotiations aren’t always easy. “When telephone negotiations fail, I literally fly into a town and knock on someone’s door to offer them instant retirement if they will sell their domain name to my client.” Domain names have been sold for as much as $8 million, according to Bulla. Every investigation involves privacy issues. “We always have to be cognizant of whether it is legal to obtain certain types of information,” says Bulla. “We don’t knowingly break any privacy laws.” Treadstone investigators, including Bulla, are private investigators, licensed by the State Department of Justice. Bulla is board-certified in security management and physical security. Continuing education is required to keep abreast of laws.
A Darker Side
Criminals infringing on design patents and engaging in counterfeit manufacturing and diversion activities bring about especially dangerous challenges. Very often, income from these activities is used to fund or supply terrorists. Bulla cites the large anti-terrorist busts in response to an illicit operation to divert counterfeit cigarettes here in North Carolina. An ongoing problem exists with the purchase of large numbers of mobile phone handsets for the purpose of facilitating terrorism. All but the handsets are discarded. The handsets are then used by terrorist cells to make one phone call before being thrown away. Or the handsets are re-flashed or re-programmed to operate on a local carrier. Worse yet, the phones can be used to detonate IED’s in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Bulla, who confirms that some of their investigations have resulted in terrorism charges being brought.
Even when money is the chief motivator for counterfeit manufacturing, the results can be deadly. “Five percent of our medications in the United States are counterfeit,” says Bulla, who says they can be found in major retail stores. “Another problem is the redistribution of drugs that were manufactured according to the lower standards of other countries, back into the United States.” Examples abound. According to Bulla, the American helicopter crash during the Iran hostage crisis was due to counterfeit products on the aircraft. “The counterfeit parts couldn’t withstand the conditions of the desert.” Bulla recounts other cases involving poisonous baby formula, exploding batteries, and teabags filled with sweepings off the factory floor including sawdust and rat droppings.
In certain countries, the problems are exacerbated by governments turning a blind eye. “In China there is a fake Apple store right across the street from the real one. The government makes money from it; there is no way to shut it down,” says Bulla in disgust. Even in America, consumer education is the most difficult challenge. “There are documentary specials and news reports but consumers have short attention spans,” says Bulla, adding that it is also necessary to educate legislators to the loss revenue, job impact, damage to brands and dangers to consumers. As of now, most cases are handled in civil courts.
Building the Case
The Treadstone Group’s security consulting and litigation support division conducts investigations primarily for attorneys who represent clients or are in-house attorneys for corporate clients. To determine facts in civil claims, it interviews and vets witnesses—including field experts—and investigates backgrounds and reconstructs accidents to see if there is anything different from police reports. “We’re looking for anything that would challenge credibility in a legal proceeding,” asserts Bulla.
On the physical side of security, The Treadstone Group provides security risk assessments for facilities around the world to identify vulnerabilities and make recommendations. The company’s team examines a facility’s physical access controls with regard to persons and vehicles and how they screen them. It also looks at how the facility is protected physically and technologically with barriers, barricades, alarms, lighting, intrusion detection devices, guard forces and credentialing systems. “Most of our work comes out of concern for terrorism, but we don’t focus solely on anti-terrorism. We also focus on preventing illicit entry, workplace violence and demonstrators,” says Bulla.
Law Enforcement Dream
“From the time I was four or five years old, I wanted to be a police officer or federal agent,” remembers Bulla, who grew up in Graham, N.C. After high school, he attended UNC Charlotte. His double major in criminal justice and psychology was purposely planned to prepare him to become a behavioral scientist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but inability to meet the vision requirements kept him out of the federal agency. Bulla first went to work as operations manager with the Blockbuster Pavilion, now known as the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, and continued to do security risk assessment and security management work within the private sector.
He was then hired by the Atlanta Olympics and became one of its lead instructors, developing all of the security training programs for the 1996 Olympics. “I fell into intellectual property by accident,” says Bulla. “I was working as a branch manager for a security guard company in Charlotte and a former secret service agent hired me for a company who did intellectual property investigations. I managed the anti-counterfeiting for a major auto parts manufacturer. That was my start.” The company closed in 2001 but Bulla was armed with knowledge, experience and contacts. In 2002, he opened The Treadstone Group.
Fans of author Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity book series and the subsequent film versions will instantly recognize Treadstone as the name of the fictitious, CIA-backed, secret organization which programmed former agents into morally vacuous assassins. “By the time the movie came out, everybody wanted to name their company Treadstone, but I had already registered the trademark rights,” smiles Bulla.
Despite a busy work schedule, Bulla is also committed to the local community. He says he’s aiming at a higher level of service with a run for the North Carolina Senate. Bulla insists that he is not jaded by the job. “I see as many good guys as bad buys,” he says, adding that a lot of infringement is unintentional. “I look forward to coming to work every day; I always have.” “I’m fascinated every day by the reality that a little unassuming building in a small town in Lincoln County and a handful of employees are involved in acquiring trademarks for major companies and investigating the world’s largest brands,” muses Bulla. “I go home and see our work on national television, in magazines and newspapers—every day. The result of our work is visible everywhere.”
The conference room is decked out in Florida Gators gear, and the bulletin board boasts a picture of “Weebee,” the company mascot. In one corner is a giant trophy with their names on it: Bill Crawford, 2008. Scott Crawford, 2012.
They’re the first father-son team ever to have both been awarded the trophy, recognition for receiving the National Vehicle Leasing Association’s Lifetime Achievement (NVLA) Award. Bill is understandably proud of his son.
Scott is a little more reticent. “I’m only 43, so it’s a little premature for me,” he says wryly.
But he was president of the association when the recession hit, and he guided it through the worst possible times for the industry. They froze the board in 2008 due to the recession, and as a result he served two years in a row, keeping the lights on during what was an otherwise grim period for the association.
The Weebee mascot atop the bulletin board represents the Crawford team’s dedication to “Working In Your Best Interest”—WIYBI, or Weebee. It’s that dedication, combined with determination and business acumen, that carried both the NVLA and Wilmar through.
In 1969, Bill had been into and then out of the Navy after graduating from the University of Florida. He was married with two children and a third on the way when he decided to join up with Hill Truck Rentals, a full-service truck leasing company founded four years earlier.
The company was based out of an old Amoco Service station in Orlando. Bill’s office was a 14-foot travel trailer plugged into the lady’s restroom for power, and he was paid $500 a month for his work as a salesman.
He was so successful as a salesman, that the company asked him to move to Charlotte in 1973 to open a new branch. After two years in that role, he moved into finance leasing with Leasing Consultants of Charlotte. Five years later, he decided he could do better on his own, and left the company in 1979.
Bill and his wife Marilyn, who was a Charlotte Country Day School teacher, had just bought a house and had $700 in savings. It wasn’t much, but Bill felt confident he could make it fly.
“Thanks to First Union, anyone could become an independent used car dealer,” he says. “They would back the financing, and you’d just find people who wanted to lease a vehicle.”
So he obtained a dealer’s license, and started working out of his very young daughter’s bedroom, the only room in the house with a phone jack. He named the company for himself and his wife: “Wil” for “William,” “Mar” for “Marilyn.”
Wilmar did well, and before long Bill had moved his office into the Key Man building, and then a small house they purchased for the purpose on Monroe Road.
Meanwhile, those three children were growing up. Both boys attended Bill’s alma mater, the University of Florida. In 1990 the eldest, David, graduated and joined the family business. Scott followed the year behind him. Elizabeth, a University of Georgia graduate was not far behind.
David is still in the business as vice president and salesman, and Elizabeth recently stepped out in order to become a full-time stay-at-home mother. Scott says that initially, he joined the company part-time, “just to keep me busy and make a little money while I decided what I wanted to do with my life.”
What he decided, is that he loved the family business and wanted to run it. He now serves as president.
In 2004, Bill and his children worked with their accountant to structure an ownership transfer in conjunction with re-branding the business. At that time, the legal entity name was Wilmar Leasing, Inc. That year, Scott and his siblings founded Wilmar, Inc and took over the overhead, rent, and employees. As leases expired under Wilmar Leasing, they were taken over by Wilmar. Seven years later, nearly all the leases—some 3,800 of them—are now handled under Wilmar Inc.
Full Menu of Services
The change in name from Wilmar Leasing, to Wilmar, Inc., represents not only a change in leadership, but also a clearer understanding that leasing is only one element of the company’s offerings. From fuel management to acquisition and financing, Wilmar provides customers with a full a la carte menu of services designed to help make the most beneficial fleet decisions for their companies.
Leasing is often at the core of these services. According to the Crawfords, more than 80 percent of U.S. corporations lease some or all of their equipment. Often, leasing makes more sense than buying because it offers financial flexibility, tax advantages, and the ability to leverage new technologies as they emerge.
Still, many companies avail themselves of other Wilmar services regardless of whether leasing is in the picture for them. Services include maintenance plans, administrative services, fuel management, acquisition, disposal, fleet policy, replacement cycling analysis, motor vehicle records, financing, roadside assistance, accident management, and expense control.
All of which is offered up with an old-fashioned dose of committed customer service. Bill explains: “I grew up in a time when your name meant something. You didn’t do anything to affect the reputation of your name. You didn’t blemish that.”
For Wilmar, this means that they work hard to uphold their company motto: “Working In Your Best Interest”—even when it may not be in their own short-term interest.
For instance, Bill relates a recent incident in which a customer called to ask about leasing a $45,000 truck. The customer had just won a large new contract that would require transporting large quantities of material, and he was excited and eager to enlarge his fleet to accommodate the work. Bill thought he might need to know more.
“I said, let me come out and visit with you,” says Bill. After understanding the situation, Bill told his customer he did not need a $45,000 truck, even though it would have meant a nice profit for Wilmar. Instead, he suggested that the customer buy a $5,000 trailer, and hook it up to the pick-up truck he already had in his fleet.
“You can load it up, drive it where it needs to go, leave it there, and pick it up again in the afternoon,” he explained. “Instead of insurance and maintenance and fuel, and another lease payment, you can tow it with what you already have.” Bill helped the customer purchase the right trailer, even though Wilmar made no money off the deal.
Bill explains that their business approach has always been to take care of the customer so that instead of trying to make a lot of money at once, you can make a little bit of money, every month—forever.
“A retail car salesman works on a commission and he’s trying to make as much money off each sale as he can, because that’s his income,” he says. “Our business is totally different. We don’t care what car you lease, and we don’t care about knocking a home run on every deal. If we help our customers make the right choices and set up the lease correctly, that customer will come back year after year.”
Because Wilmar doesn’t need to lease a particular make, model or year of vehicle, they are able to provide customers with unbiased information necessary to make the very best decision for their company.
When a new customer contacts Wilmar, a salesperson takes the time to understand what their business is like, take a look at what they’re driving, and help them make good selections based on their needs. In addition to cost per mile, they look at company role and the needs of the drivers.
For instance, a highly paid salesperson will require a different sort of vehicle from an entry-level technician. They likewise take the time to understand how much cargo each vehicle may need to carry and choose an appropriately sized vehicle with the right capabilities and options.
Wilmar lives and breathes numbers, using them to help customers make smart choices about their fleet. “We know what a vehicle is worth the day you buy it, what it’s worth every month through its life, what it costs to fuel it, and what it costs to maintain it.”
“It’s about cost per mile,” explains Scott. “That’s the bottom line. You take the lease payment, plus what you paid in fuel, insurance, and maintenance, plus what you lost or gained on the sale at the end, and divide that by the miles driven. That’s the equalizer.”
Wilmar prides itself on providing this kind of information to customers so that they can make intelligent fleet decisions for their companies. It’s this commitment to work in the client’s best interest that helped Wilmar and many of its customers make it through the recession.
Few industries were hit as hard as the auto industry by the recent recession. Scott says that for Wilmar, the downturn began in 2007, and by 2008 the entire business came to a near standstill.
Wilmar had been through three previous recessions, and outlived them all. But this one was something different, and they could see that from the beginning. Previous recessions had driven more owners and managers to seek Wilmar’s cost-saving services. This recession simply drove businesses to a standstill.
“Owners began to drive vehicles into the ground,” says Scott. “They were so afraid to commit to another vehicle. Our revenue dropped 20 percent in ’07 and 45 percent in ’08.”
Times were tough, but some of the revenue drop was a deliberate and conscious choice on the part of Wilmar. “When things started to go south, we saw it wasn’t going to be good,” recalls Bill. “We got all the sales people in here and we said, ‘Go out and visit all your clients and see how they’re doing. Find out how you can help them.’ And they did. They helped a lot of them downsize.”
For instance, an HVAC company that ran 15 vans continuously during boom times found that it could only keep 10 of them busy in 2008. Wilmar met with them to see how they could help, and found a way to take five of the vans and either sell them or lease them to other customers who needed a good used vehicle.
As a result, Wilmar’s total fleet portfolio shrunk by 33 percent during the recession years. Many company leaders would see those numbers as a bad sign, but Bill and Scott knew better. As a result of their aggressive efforts to help their customers, almost none of their customers ever defaulted on a lease. Even during these difficult recent years, with a portfolio of nearly 3,800 vehicles, they have had only two defaults in three years.
Because the company carries no debt except what is tied up in vehicles on lease, it can afford to take a deep cut in revenue and continue to function. And because the business model is based on long-term leases, even if there were no new accounts or eliminated and reduced accounts, the company’s revenue stream never just goes away.
Says Scott, “We have learned to be more efficient and to control costs tightly, but have never had to cut staff or take other drastic measures to continue to stay afloat. Our customers are still in business, and still paying on their leases. And most of them are devoted, lifetime customers. And the trend is turning upward again.”
Wilmar has been serving Charlotte since 1980, and their client list includes many well-known Charlotte brands like Bojangles, Belk, and Lincoln Harris. With revenues of $18 million, and a fleet of nearly 3,800, the company is poised to serve pent-up demand when the economy improves.
While they specialize in fleets of under a hundred vehicles, Scott says size doesn’t matter as much as whether the company has an inside person dedicated to managing its fleet. He points out that in many small businesses, the owner or controller is responsible for managing the vehicles, and usually it’s a job they don’t relish.
For those companies, Wilmar’s team acts like an outsourced fleet management team, allowing executives and operations managers to focus on their core business. With the customer’s best interests at heart, Wilmar acts like a dedicated employee, ensuring the fleet is managed as efficiently and effectively as possible.
If Scott’s NVLA lifetime achievement award was “premature,” it’s only because he’s not done achieving yet. He has every intention of building Wilmar even bigger and stronger, and looks forward to seeing where it can go in the coming years.
Dot Metrics Technologies, a Charlotte-based technology company, in conjunction with the Charlotte Research Institute at UNC Charlotte, has developed a new cutting-edge technology product that can purify water in a compact system using mercury-free ultraviolet LEDs.
The system, trademarked UV-Pearl, can be easily transported and rapidly switched on and off with negligible warm-up time, which could provide advantages for the pharmaceutical and health care industries, and may also have applications for military and consumer use.
“The UV-Pearl is a good example of how a small company like Dot Metrics can use its size and expertise to develop a product utilizing emerging UV-LED technology,” says Rosanna Stokes, president and CEO. “Working with our partner, Aquionics, we were able to produce the world’s first water disinfection system that uses UV-C LED technology.”
From the Wellspring
Rosanna and her husband, UNC Charlotte electrical engineering professor Ed Stokes, co-founded the company in 2003. The couple, both formerly research scientists at GE Global Research in Albany, wanted to return to Charlotte—their hometown—and start a technology company to pursue innovation opportunities.
Rosanna brings research skills, along with new product, global and business development experience to Dot Metrics. Her background includes identifying new product development opportunities and creating strategic partnerships, along with manufacturing and introducing successful new products to the market.
Ed brings his experience from the university and business worlds, resulting in numerous real-world opportunities at the company for his engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate.
Together, the Stokes formed a company savvy enough to produce exciting new innovations and agile enough to pivot through the pits and challenges of new product development. The ability to work in a small research lab and innovate with competent partners, without bureaucratic tedium, has attracted numerous young researchers, including current Dot Metrics director of research Jennifer Pagan, and research leader Paolo Batoni.
Both Pagan and Batoni, former graduate students at UNC Charlotte, were pursued by larger companies but chose to stay with Dot Metrics.
“Companies like Intel, GE and Motorola were making me offers, but I turned them down,” says Batoni. “They asked, ‘What’s wrong? Aren’t we offering you enough money?’ But I wanted to stay in Charlotte and be at a small company.
“We engineers are natural-born control freaks, so it’s nice to be able to work on your own product and have control over it,” he affirms.
“It’s a tough business model for a small technology company like Dot Metrics,” says Rosanna. “The lack of available venture capital money makes the company strategically focus on its partners and ways to use partner channels, such as sales and marketing, to help put its product in the marketplace.”
“We can develop the technology but we have to look for synergy with our partners to make our company’s products successful,” she explains.
The Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) at UNC Charlotte is Dot Metric’s partner for facilities and infrastructure, while Aquionics is its executive partner for sales and marketing of the UV-Pearl. The company is continuing to search for additional executive partners for different products, she says.
“There is about a 10x multiplier advantage in being able to work with CRI,” says Rosanna.
“We’re just a small company, but we’re housed in Grigg Hall, a big, beautiful building. We can use the various conference rooms when we need more space to host guests and we have access to other office amenities. And, we’re right across the hall from Ed, so it’s easy for us to interact with him,” she says with a nod.
“One challenge to the company,” says Ed, “is operating on real time while the rest of the university operates on ‘campus time.’”
“The University operates in terms of months and semesters, while Dot Metrics looks at weeks and hours because that’s how you run a business,” he explains.
Dot Metrics is one of 16 companies located at CRI, according to Gail Keene, financial and administrative operations manager of the CRI Millennial Campus at UNC Charlotte.
Pagan says the company has worked with the CRI team to write grants together, including Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants that provide money to both university and private, innovator partners. Some research money awarded to Dot Metrics also flows back to UNC Charlotte. That money, totaling between $300,000 and $400,000 over the years, is used to help pay for office and lab rentals and graduate student stipends.
“That’s important,” says Pagan, “because the company is a small business and runs lean so funding is always tight.” SBIR grants initially funded R&D at Dot Metrics and are likely to be continuing funding sources, she says.
Another advantage of Dot Metrics being located at the CRI is the access to technology and equipment.
“We can use equipment for our research and development that would otherwise be very expensive for us to buy or lease,” Pagan points out. “It would cost us about $1 million to own the kind of equipment that we need to do our research.”
Private companies like Dot Metrics are encouraged to lease or rent time on advanced technology equipment in the UNC Charlotte Optics User Facilities, says Ed, noting that much of this equipment was purchased using a 2001 congressional earmark intended to encourage regional economic development in optoelectronics through UNC Charlotte and the CRI. Dot Metrics is an example of this development.
Source of Talent
Students are a big factor contributing toward the success of Dot Metrics’ operations.
“We are able to hire exceptional students,” says Batoni. “It’s a win-win situation—it’s convenient for students and it’s great for us to have students interested in research who can work in our labs.
“We rely heavily on guidance from the research and tech people at UNC Charlotte. They augment our ability,” he says. “We can tap into many brains at the University and regularly work with professors to help us solve problems that may be outside our area of expertise.”
Their student interns, says Batoni, leave and go on to pursue Ph.D.s at top research universities or work for top companies like Siemens.
At one point, CRI stepped in to help when a University lab partner of Dot Metrics was having some equipment issues. Batoni says a piece of University equipment necessary to complete some testing—an autoclave—was damaged.
“We tried for a few months to work with the University lab and get the repairs done. It was slow and frustrating,” says Batoni. “Finally, I reached out to Gail Keene, our CRI contact, and told her that the University’s damaged equipment was hurting our customers. She went right to work and got the repair done in one week!”
Keene offers the business an interface to the University that is invaluable to a small company, says Batoni.
“She gives us administrative and marketing help,” he says, “even things like supplying a notary public when we need one. She also helps us solve problems or conflicts with other entities on campus.”
“The University provides research support facilities, equipment and intellectual power,” says Keene. She names other services provided to clients including mail services, parking sticker purchases, data connectivity, local phone service, and networking opportunities, that offer invaluable support to small business partners.
“University-driven research development, outreach and partnership are the foundations to making UNC Charlotte the state’s urban research university,” affirms Keene. “These partnerships both strengthen the University’s campus research platform and drive innovation and economic and job development in the Charlotte region.”
Driven to Innovate
Key to any small business is funding and Rosanna acknowledges that Dot Metrics was fortunate receive funding from SBIR grants to begin operations and their continued funding has helped support the first 10 years of its operations.
“A Phase 1 SBIR grant is usually around $100,000 and a Phase II grant is usually around $500,000 to $750,000. We have received a few Phase I grants and a few Phase II grants,” she says.
The grant program, part of the Small Business Innovation Development Act begun in 1982, encourages high-tech innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to meet specific research and development needs. Dot Metrics, says Pagan, applied for grants that encouraged innovation in the LED field.
“It’s a very competitive process—there’s about a 10 percent win rate for grants in Phase I and a 30 percent win rate for Phase II grants,” explains Pagan.
“We were optimistic that we could focus on one competency—LEDs—and integrate them into a system,” says Rosanna.
The company recently launched its first commercial product, the trademarked UV-Pearl, in association with partner Aquionics, a UV water treatment company. Pagan says its patent is pending and it is “branded for water or other fluids disinfection.” The UV-Pearl is the world’s first water disinfection system to use UV-C LED technology.
“We’ve designed a chemical-free way of effectively disinfecting water, and it’s much safer,” says Pagan. “The system uses solid state light emitting diodes that work like LED light bulbs to emit wavelengths that kill inactive bacteria, viruses and cysts that can make you sick.”
The portable system uses UV LED lamps, which emit waves of light in the deep UV spectral (UV-C) range to destroy microorganisms, explains Rosanna. Another advantage is the portability of the UV-Pearl, allowing it to be configured to meet different needs, including integration into water generators and loops, and medical sterilization.
“By designing the system so it can be rapidly turned on and off without warm-up time, you can realize some energy savings,” adds Batoni. “The UV-Pearl is not sensitive to the temperature of water, making it convenient to use in different environments.”
“When the water is flowing, turn it on; when it’s not, shut it off,” continues Batoni. “The UV-Pearl can work on line voltage power (it can be plugged in) or on batteries, and we are working to allow the system to utilize solar-powered batteries.”
Rosanna sees several application uses for the system, and expects with continued R&D, production costs will decrease, spurring even more consumer applications such as use for emergency water treatment in catastrophe settings such as Hurricane Sandy, or providing humanitarian relief efforts to people who need food and water.
A second product of Dot Metrics is Tetra, a UVA LED array that offers a versatile narrow band transfer source based on the application needed. It includes a variety of configurations, based on how many units are added, and can be used in lab applications. Tetra was launched just a few months after the UV-Pearl, last August.
“We’re looking for some partners to help us bring it to the market,” Batoni says. “We’re working on the sales strategy.”
The company’s future is bright, says Rosanna. “At this point we need to get our products out in the market and make some sales.
“With the combination of an excellent technical staff and our combined business experience, we will drive toward commercial success. It’s all about focus.”
No one can accuse Bob Goulet, president of Saprex, of thinking too small. His vision is to make the Charlotte region the go-to place for the development and manufacturing of advanced materials. Towards this end, he is working to provide solutions to industry risks and problems—one product at a time.
Started in 2009, Saprex seeks to expedite the innovation and development cycle for advanced material and subsequent products. Its customers are manufacturers who are challenged to find and manage solutions to risks involving extreme environments such as fire, high-heat, cut or chemical attack.
Saprex’s Advanced Materials Lab is located in Grigg Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There, in partnership with the University’s Charlotte Research Institute and local area manufacturers, Goulet conducts research on advanced materials and collaborates with business and industry to apply those materials to specific manufacturing needs.
“Our value lies in the fact that we are helping to integrate a lot of traditional textile companies to do innovative things,” says Goulet. “This will strengthen the economy and provide stable jobs.”
As the company’s primary scientist, Goulet has developed a line of products aimed at industrial safety and beneficial to a variety of end-users such as firefighters, electrical workers, welders, industrial bakers, race car drivers, steel mill workers, mechanics, military personnel—and even the NASCAR pit crews.
Saprex Axis, an exhaust insulation system which will aid the complex diesel emission systems to perform optimally in large trucks, has been approved by several large truck makers.
“We’ve developed a system that will easily stretch over the pipe and then become rigid once it’s heated up. It must perform from -50 degrees F. to 1,300 degrees F. That’s a big challenge from a fiber perspective.”
Speaking enthusiastically about recent innovations, Goulet picks up a piece of fire-resistant, aerogel-infused fabric which uses technology coming out of the space program. According to Goulet, it is the lightest insulation known to man, consisting of 97 percent air.
Saprex is currently marketing four product lines and set to launch three more in the first quarter of 2013. Saprex FLEX is an innovative and patent pending composite material based on knit construction that allows it to be easily shaped and molded to an endless variety of parts.
Saprex AXIS is an infinitely customizable, high-temperature insulation system. Saprex REACT a flame resistance material that reacts to high-heat by releasing a flame retardant to extinguish itself. This material can be found in many of the race cars including NASCAR. Saprex ARMOR is a line of cut and puncture resistant materials used in the Mechanix Wear ArmorCore line.
Saprex customers are diverse. Mechanix Wear, for instance, is a well-recognized company always looking for the newest technology and innovation. A sponsor of NASCAR, the company has a product called ArmorCore which has been built into gloves that provide the highest level of cut, puncture and abrasion resistance available.
Lincoln Industries reached out to Saprex when they needed help with high-heat insulation. They are a manufacturer of exhaust system pipe and were looking for an innovative high-heat insulation. Saprex also works with NASA, and the U.S. military.
Saprex is a young company in an evolution. They started with a few development customers. By the end of 2013, 75 percent of revenue will come from material sales, according to Goulet. “This was a breakout year for us,” says Goulet nodding. “Next year looks even better.
“Saprex serves as a fairly unique business model. We are offering rapid research and development along with integration of a global supply base so that we can provide the best solution quickly. In our industry you typically find that good innovators don’t collaborate well. While there are some large firms doing good work, I don’t know of anybody in our space who is offering an innovative, integrated solution with speed,” continues Goulet.
Benefits to partnering with the University’s Charlotte Research Institute, are multifold.
“They have a high level of infrastructure here that we as a small company couldn’t afford but can definitely use,” says Goulet.
The University furnishes Saprex with a wet laboratory in a building permitted for research. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the psychology of knowing that there is help and support around.
“We want to be leaders in innovation and that requires us to be where people are pushing the envelope in all different directions. Plus, the University has a lot of technology available for license. We are always interested in new technology” says Goulet.
The University’s primary concern in partnering with companies to further research, innovation and product development is how the work will contribute to the state economy and job growth and stabilization. “From fiber, yarn and fabric construction, we help maintain and create jobs,” affirms Goulet.
Essential for Goulet’s entrepreneurial research and development to succeed are partnerships with other textile businesses. Saprex has engaged yarn producers and finishing companies in McAdenville, Kings Mountain and Lincolnton, as well as chemical companies in Charlotte.
The partnership Saprex enjoys with Beverly Knits, Inc. is an excellent example of how innovative product development can work with textile manufacturing for mutual benefit and job growth.
Beverly Knits, Inc. was started in 1980 as a contract circular knitter. Built upon a research and development background, the company develops new and unique fabrics for diverse markets including intimate apparel, high tech underwear and outerwear, shoes, furniture, medical, industrial, automotive and mattress and bedding. Owned by Ron and Janet Sytz, Beverly Knits has grown to 190 employees and from eight to over 200 knitting machines.
Customers include Patagonia, NorthFace, the U.S. military, Nissan and Honda. “It’s quite possible that you might have some of our fabric in your car or in a composite used in the compressor for your air conditioner,” says Ron Sytz, president of the company.
Beverly Knits operates out of four buildings in Gastonia totaling 290,000 square feet. Beverly Knits was the first production facility to knit Lycra spandex into fabrics. It has survived the movement of the textile industry to other countries and the downturn in the economy by its continued diversification. The company has more than doubled in size and employees in the last 10 years.
Beverly Knits and Saprex work together to develop products and businesses that will create more jobs. “Bob supplies the product development and the customer; Beverly Knits makes the fabric needed,” explains Sytz.
When large chemical companies such as DuPont and Monsanto moved their textile operations offshore, they took their research and development programs along, according to Sytz. “In order to develop products for different industries and markets, you need a research company like Saprex that will speed up the innovation cycle,” explains Sytz. “Many times manufacturers will go to the universities in an area looking for solutions. Partnerships such as Beverly Knits and Saprex are the future of textiles.”
“What Beverly Knits brings to Saprex is first class manufacturing. I can focus on the product development because I have a knitting partner in Beverly Knits that can handle all our knitting needs,” says Goulet. “What I bring to Beverly Knits is a customer and integrated development. It’s provides a great synergy.”
Speed to Market
Saprex is able to work quickly, an important factor in today’s world. Usually, a product is being researched and developed in response to the identification of a risk. These may or may not be accompanied by demands for greater regulations.
“We live in a highly litigious society,” says Goulet. “If there is a problem, you must fix it—now. There is a socially driven conversation to solve risks. Tolerance for a long development process doesn’t exist.”
Walking around his laboratory, Goulet points to shelves and drawers.
“We are focused on rapid development. We stock a wide range of materials and equipment parts. We can build and test a new product in a matter of hours. From chemically treating, to sewing a prototype, to testing it—we have it all here. If we need a need a new piece of test equipment, we could probably have something up and running tomorrow.”
When asked about challenges, Goulet was quick to respond. “Surviving the fluctuation of an early start-up—the on-and-off-again revenue; choosing the right projects with the right people. When you are young, every decision is a big decision because one really bad decision can close the doors.”
Goulet has been in new product development since graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in chemical engineering 17 years ago. He came south to earn his master’s degree in chemistry from Clemson University. While there he worked with Milliken doing research. After graduation, he stayed with the company for 10 more years, working in product development, research and marketing and earned his MBA from Duke.
He went on to work in companies in Lexington, Ky., and Salt Lake City, Utah, before returning to the South in 2009 to start Saprex and establish partnership with Beverly Knits.
“I moved to Charlotte because of what’s left of the U. S. textile industry is here,” says Goulet. Working out of an incubator office at the Ben Craig Center, Goulet became familiar with the infrastructure of the city and was introduced to UNC at Charlotte. “There’s a lot of support here once you know that it’s here.”
A single father, Goulet spends his time between running the company and raising his son. He is passionate about the outdoors and enjoys backpacking, fishing, hiking and climbing. Always working, he is also passionate about the equipment and gear related to outdoor activity—how to make it more functional.
“I have a drive to build things better; to find the next generation of things,” says Goulet.
Goulet aims to help Charlotte be a global leader in materials. “We need to create a vision and tell our story. We have all the resources for textiles here: a great history in textiles, a good work force, facilities and a number of innovative companies.”
Goulet believes that as business, government and community leaders in the Charlotte region take an appraising look at all of the advanced textiles that are part of our everyday lives and realize that many of the innovations over the next hundred years will involve fibers and fabrics, they will start to wonder, “Is developing a city in the heart of textile country into a world leader in advanced materials that big of a stretch?”
Still, that may not be enough for Goulet. His personal goal is to have an impact as powerful as reaching for the stars.
“I want to be on the first human flight to Mars. No,” he corrects himself. “I want my advanced material to be on that flight; material that breaks the paradigm of what we thought possible.”