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When Carole McLeod’s husband of 29 years, Mans, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer in July 2011, her world stopped revolving. She had just left a leadership position with a major waste services company 45 days earlier and was in final-stage negotiations to purchase a small waste hauling business of her own.
“The deal was going to close by the end of July,” she recalls. “And when my husband’s diagnosis came out, I had to call and say, ‘Guys, I can’t do this right now.’”
Successes and Trials
McLeod, a native Carolinian, grew up in Greensboro, the daughter of a highway patrolman. He saw plenty of totaled cars in his tenure as a cop, so when he retired, he started a vehicle wrecking company. Over time, he expanded the company and added a profitable salvage yard into the mix.
“Garbage is in my blood,” laughs McLeod. “I inherited his common sense,” McLeod says. “I learned to see an opportunity and grab it.”
Upon graduation from Appalachian State University with a degree in business, McLeod started out in sales. “I knew what I liked and what I was good at,” she says. She sold everything from accounting systems to postage meters.
Then, after eight years with a major solid waste removal company and a brief stint at a chemical company, McLeod partnered with an old business associate to start her own waste disposal company, New South Waste, in 1997.
“You knock on doors,” Weller told her. “I’ll drive.”
The timing—and leadership—were right, and the company grew quickly, doing $1.3 million in business its first year. As a matter of fact, she tripled her business plan during the second year of operation.
In June 2001, NAWBO recognized McLeod as its “Rising Star of the Year” for growing her business from one truck and one driver to 15 trucks and 20 employees in just four years. Crediting much of their success to “real quick” service and competitive pricing, it was not surprising that every major waste company in the area was vying to purchase McLeod’s business, and in 2005, she sold it for a tidy profit.
McLeod took a five-year hiatus to honor her non-compete agreement, and spent it enjoying a well-earned break.
But she wasn’t done with the industry. She came back for a brief stint at another southeast regional waste company in 2010. As their new district manager, she was responsible for everything related to the Charlotte market, from reviewing bidding procedures and managing accounts, to selecting an operations site and getting the right people and equipment on board.
“We did it, we entered the market successfully and created a lot of opportunity,” says McLeod. But McLeod’s entrepreneurial blood wouldn’t let her settle. Working for someone else was simply not what she was cut out for.
So in June 2011, she announced her resignation and set out to purchase a waste disposal business of her own. And that’s when Mans’ devastating diagnosis was announced.
The next few months were a blur for the McLeod’s as they sought treatment from Carolinas Medical and then Duke University, and their young adult children—Will and Anna—dealt with the implications of his prognosis.
McLeod took a few months to regroup, but she didn’t let her personal tragedy keep her down for long. She called on the family’s heritage for an old Scottish saying that kept her going: “Hold fast.”
“This means so many things,” she says. “It’s about being patient, holding on to the present moment, and to me, it’s holding fast to the people you really care about.”
So she held fast, and once treatments had begun for her husband and they’d settled into a routine, it occurred to her that his hiatus from working at Wells Fargo might be a blessing in disguise.
“We decided we were going to start this company,” she recalls. “We were going to work together while he went through treatment.”
So McLeod called up the little company she wanted to buy, MacLeod Construction (the similarity in name is a coincidence), and asked if their offer to sell still stood. It did.
“Everybody kept saying that we needed to think about retiring,” she says. “But we didn’t want to do that. We had obligations, and we weren’t going to just stop and retire.”
McLeod got in touch with a former employee, Eric Voner, from her first company and asked if he was interested in driving for her new company, Advantage Waste Recycling & Disposal, Inc. They met over dinner to talk business and discovered they had another significant thing in common: Voner’s wife was fighting a serious diagnosis of breast cancer.
“We just looked at each other,” McLeod says. “Who would have thought?”
With a common mission and a common battle, the two went full force into the business of taking care of waste—and each other. “He’s my right-hand man,” says McLeod. “He has done everything in this business, run it when I couldn’t, and been the best helper I could have hoped for.”
In less than a year of business, Advantage Waste Recycling grew to seven employees and over a million dollars in revenue, and was turning a profit by January 2013. McLeod credits the people around her for her success.
“My husband never doubted that I would be successful,” she says. “He believed in me.” And so did everyone she asked to come work for her. Kailie Alvas, now office manager for Advantage Waste Recycling, happily left a position at a more established company because she wanted to be a part of what McLeod was building. The company’s outside sales representative Marcy Nichol also worked with McLeod at another company and knew right away she wanted to join the new company.
“Everybody wants to be a part of something that grows,” says McLeod. “Our country and especially our industry have just been through a horrible period with layoffs and downsizing. People want to be a part of something positive, to have an opportunity to excel, to do more than they’ve ever been given to do before. To make a difference.”
More Tribulation and More Blessings
That’s also why Casey Simonds, owner of Simonds Sanitation, decided he wanted to sell his little company to McLeod at the end of 2012. His had father died a few years earlier, and he had built the little Gaston County company from nothing and was proud of what he had accomplished. Most of the large waste service companies wanted to purchase his business, but he didn’t want to do that. He chose McLeod instead.
McLeod eagerly began negotiations to acquire Simonds Sanitation by the end of November 2012.
And that’s when tragedy struck another devastating blow.
In October, Mans’ health took a sudden and devastating turn for the worse. For a second time, McLeod had to call up the company she wanted to purchase and ask for more time. Once again, time was granted.
For two months, McLeod and her family held fast to each other, as Mans began his final journey. Their 21-year-old son came home from college mid-semester to be with them. McLeod handed Will the reins of the company and said, “Here, do this.”
And he did. Voner, Alvas, Nichol, and the rest of the crew kept the wheels turning and the customers satisfied at Advantage Waste Recycling as the McLeod family stood vigil. In December 2012, Mans passed away.
Though her loss is still devastatingly fresh for her, McLeod is determined that her journey will not be one of sadness alone, or of defeat.
“I’ve got six employees who stood by me when I had to be out,” she says. “I’m going to make sure this company succeeds for them, because they took that leap of faith to come work for me. I’m doing it for them.”
In February 2013, knowing that her husband wanted it for her, she moved forward and completed the purchase of Simonds Sanitation, ensuring a strong foothold for the company in Gaston County. She considers herself lucky.
“People look at me funny when I say I’ve been blessed,” she admits. “But my husband would say I’ve been blessed, too. I’ve been blessed with people helping and promoting the business, and blessed with everything that’s happened around me.”
“Doing It for Them”
McLeod is determined to give as much as she has received. “Doing it for them” is one of her secrets to success. She has always taken an interest in mentoring young entrepreneurs. Her alma mater Appalachian State has benefited from her commitment via an endowment that helps aspiring entrepreneurs prepare for their careers.
In honor of Voner’s wife, who is still fighting breast cancer, Advantage Waste Recycling includes pink dumpsters among their offerings. The website prominently displays the Susan G. Komen logo and the company supports several cancer foundations.
In fact, the very structure of the business is based on giving back. It’s about maintaining a clean environment, both for the businesses and communities that they serve, and for the people who live in those environments.
McLeod says she’s pleased to see the entire industry moving toward cleaner, more sustainable ways of managing waste. She points to several major brands—Target and Walmart among them—as leaders in the environmentally friendly waste management fight, who began insisting to vendors that they recycle their waste. That demand moved the entire waste management industry strongly into recycling.
It’s been a tough transition for some companies, who have traditionally relied heavily on high profit margins from landfills to keep their business going. But for McLeod, it’s exciting. Advantage Waste Recycling already provides recycling pick-up and delivery to area recycling centers. By the end of 2013, McLeod expects to be providing the actual recycling service as well for some customers.
Most of Advantage Waste Recycling’s customers are contractors and commercial businesses that rent their dumpsters and contract for waste removal. So far, in their first 10 months of operation, the company’s revenue is approximately $1 million. This year, McLeod intends to also go after municipal contracts in some of Charlotte’s surrounding areas such as Gastonia and Belmont, and to expand gradually.
“It’s not about being the biggest,” she says. “It’s about growing a company that takes care of its employees and its community. It’s just a nice group of people that have come together to say, ‘We can do this.’”
She points out that when you have good employees and you take care of them, they take care of the customers and vendors. She says her team members are always getting just a little bit extra done, and making sure everything gets done right, even when it’s difficult. They’re able to provide faster, more reliable service than many others thanks to this.
McLeod’s quick to add that she has no interest in promoting herself to the world. “I don’t have to do this anymore. I could retire. But maybe my story will help somebody,” she says. Then, for the first time in the conversation, she tears up.
“Life is tough out there. Things are tough. Maybe my story will help somebody start something, do something. It’s hard, but they can do it.”
People tell McLeod that she is an inspiration. But she says she never set out to be that.
“I’m just trying to help these people who have committed to me; to help them get where they want to go,” she says. “All I’ve ever done is just take one step at a time, and hold fast.”
Regarded not only as the finest modern architect but also a master builder, Frank Lloyd Wright was known to design everything that would be used in a building down to the lighting fixtures and the plates on the dinner table.
While the professionals at Clark Nexsen tend to leave the tableware decisions to the building owners, they are committed to the master builder philosophy through holistic, integrated design. This is reflected in the firm’s diverse staff which includes architects, engineers, interior designers and planners.
“This is my greatest sense of accomplishment; that we work with the whole building, the whole project. I see us as master builders,” says Peter Aranyi, managing principal of the Charlotte office.
Founded in 1920 in Lynchburg, Va., Clark Nexsen has become a full-service, integrated design firm headquartered in Norfolk, Va., with offices in Richmond and Roanoke, Va.; Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; Washington, DC; Atlanta, Macon and Brunswick, Ga.
Clark Nexsen has worked on projects in 46 states and 42 countries. It is recognized as one of the top 50 architectural firms in the nation.
One Big Family
While each of Clark Nexsen’s offices has its own culture, none is a separate profit center; the company runs as a whole.
“We’ve grown up together as one big family,” says Aranyi. “One reason this works so well is that the company is employee-owned. There are close to 100 stockholders in the company, which is run by a board of directors.” Aranyi sits on the board.
“We needed to have a broad base of stockholders to sustain the business over time,” he explains. The firm attributes its success to personalized service and diversity.
Charlotte is one of the largest offices and was started in 1994 with a merger between Clark Nexsen and Charlotte-based Gunn-Hardaway. Aranyi, who previously worked in the Norfolk office, came to Charlotte to head up the office 12 years ago. He also oversees the Roanoke office.
The overall firm specializes in higher education, commercial, offices, government, recreational, manufacturing, health care, and land planning projects. The Charlotte office’s primary focus is higher education projects, especially student life buildings such as housing, dining, academic buildings and student success centers.
Clark Nexsen operates out of 15,000 square feet of space in uptown Charlotte; its third location since opening here. “We previously had offices on Church Street and Morehead Street, and finally now on Elizabeth Avenue. We designed and upfitted our office space to promote staff collaboration,” says Aranyi. “Our Elizabeth office has become home.”
Company-wide, Clark Nexsen has over 500 employees; 54 of them are in Charlotte which includes 21 architects and 25 engineers.
Clark Nexsen’s clients and projects in Charlotte are equally diverse. Higher education projects are active at UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem State University, Duke University, Clemson, University of Virginia and Penn State.
“UNC at Charlotte has been a wonderful client,” says Aranyi. In Chapel Hill, the firm is designing a major student housing project that will replace Odom Village, built during WWII for returning soldiers. The firm has just recently developed a 10-year master plan for the redesign of 26 residence halls at Penn State University.
Since 2002, the firm has designed space for 20,000 beds for higher education housing; an average of 2,000 per year. Over the years, Clark Nexsen has designed many schools for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as well.
The firm also enjoys significant military work, a consequence attributed to the company’s founders—two military men—one a captain, the other an admiral. Both NATO and the U.S. Navy have been clients, along with dozens of other Department of Defense agencies such as the U.S. Army, Air Force and Coast Guard.
The Charlotte office designed two dining facilities for the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in California which are just wrapping up construction. These facilities are designed to achieve LEED Gold and have received a design award from the local Charlotte AIA chapter. The firm is also under contract with the U.S. Navy on a worldwide energy contract, looking at ways to conserve energy across the country.
Private business clients include Family Dollar Stores and Duke Energy. “One of our interesting niches is indoor firing ranges,” says Aranyi. “We are working on new firing ranges for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department up in Asheville and are also doing a master plan for Union County.”
Sustaining the Community
Clark Nexsen’s success has driven it to give back, especially in mentoring students in the field. The Charlotte office is currently working with students at UNC Charlotte on the Solar Decathlon competition. Sponsored by the Department of Energy, this national program invites college campuses to compete in the design, build and operation of a solar-powered, smart home.
Its goal is to train the next generation of leaders in sustainable architecture, engineering and business by having them deliver innovative technologies using environmentally conscious, energy-efficient and marketable methods.
“We provide support to the students, giving them advice so they can do a better job,” says Aranyi. “We do it to contribute to the field,” he says, adding, “Students become great employees.”
Work began on the design of the home in October 2011 and construction started in February of this year. The competition will take place in California in October. The Norfolk office is similarly engaged this year with students at Old Dominion University, and previously worked with students at Virginia Tech when they won 5th place in the national completion.
As with any business, there are challenges. “Mine is time,” says Aranyi. “We travel extensively. Our work is diverse and spread out geographically. It’s hard to be in all the places I need to be but I try to get home in the evening to spend time with the family.”
“We’re constantly challenged—in a good way—to keep up with fast-moving technology and advances in the industry,” says Aranyi. “I tell my junior staff that what I see now is the stuff of comic books from the 1960s; we’re there, working in three dimensions and seeing projects as we never could before.”
The firm’s animation programs now use video game engines to model how a building functions with people in it and demonstrate to owners the experience of their projects before they are complete.
The firm is actively engaged in research to stay abreast of developments. “Buildings we design will typically be in place for 50 to 100 years. We are working on flexible design solutions for technologies that are not even in place yet. For instance, in the future, landline phones will be obsolete. Engineering will be required around new systems of communication. We’re making educated guesses about what will be needed for technologies that are not even discovered yet,” says Aranyi.
Committed to Growth
At Clark Nexsen, the junior staff helps the senior staff understand and employ new technology. The senior staff teaches the junior staff the business of integrated design and the communication skills and social graces involved with face-to-face meetings and picking up the phone and talking with a client, according to Aranyi. “Everyone brings value to the table,” says Aranyi.
Aranyi says Clark Nexsen weathered the recession better than most, a fact that he attributes to the foresight in 1994 to diversify.
“When I first came to Clark Nexsen, all of our work was military-related, but the Cold War ended and we saw the writing on the wall. That’s when we got into the higher education market,” explains Aranyi. While a few jobs were lost company-wide, the firm actually added offices during the recent recession years. With an 80 percent repeat business rate, the firm has continued to provide full design services.
Now, uncertainty over military spending is again affecting the firm and is one of Aranyi’s frustrations. He explains that the federal government has not yet disclosed their 2013/2014 projects. Normally, these are communicated a year in advance. “That our elected government cannot work together to keep the country running is demoralizing to companies like ours,” laments Aranyi.
Aranyi is a second generation architect; his father completed his architectural studies at NC State University and opened a business in Virginia Beach, becoming a key player in the solar field and named Energy Man of the Year in 1984 by the Department of Energy. The junior Aranyi worked in his father’s office as a teenager and initially, rejected architecture as a career choice.
“It was a kind of rebellion; I threatened to join the Air Force,” remembers Aranyi. But he found that he was intrigued and went on to study architecture at Hampton University in Virginia. He became a registered architect in record time because he worked during school and earned credit towards the three-year internship requirement. Aranyi lives in Charlotte with his wife, who is an artist, and twin sons. His daughter is enrolled at NC State University in graphic design.
Committed to professional learning and personal growth, Aranyi applied to and was accepted in the 20th class of the Leadership North Carolina program.
“I’m learning a great deal about North Carolina. I had been so focused on my career and the industry, I failed to realize the impact of social issues in our state—economic, health care and education issues,” says Aranyi. “Now my interests are much broader and I understand that as a leader in North Carolina, I have to be involved in these things. There’s a lot at stake right now.”
Active in the community, Clark Nexsen is involved with several charitable and educational organizations including Hands On Charlotte, Habitat for Humanity, the Dove’s Nest and Classroom Central.
They are once again participating in the American Institute of Architect’s program “Canstruction” in which participants build sculpture structures out of food cans, then donate the food to the Second Harvest Food Bank. The firm has also been active in the ACE Mentor program, working with area students who have interest in the architecture and engineering fields, and has just kicked off an Explorer program for architecture.
The firm will continue expanding its business, according to Aranyi. “We’re not comfortable sitting back and saying ‘We did it, we’re done.’ We will probably open an office on the west coast and continue looking west of the Mississippi.”
A remarkable trait of the firm is its workplace culture. It’s a friendly environment, a pleasant atmosphere where even the most junior staffers are encouraged to share their ideas.
“I value everyone’s opinion,” says Aranyi. “Any success that I have is because of all the people who work here.” The firm encourages the exchange of ideas “around the coffee maker.”
The firm also encourages staff and their families to get together at monthly events such as hockey or baseball games, outdoor cookouts or poker nights. “We have a Fun Committee to make sure we have some down time,” asserts Aranyi.
Aranyi holds several titles within the firm—senior vice president, operations director, managing principal, and board member. His current business card simply reads “Principal.”
“I’m waiting for the box to be empty,” he says with a smile. “I didn’t want to spend money for a title. When people ask what I do, I say, ‘I’m an architect.’”
When Electrolux relocated its North American headquarters to Charlotte in July 2010, it was the largest corporate relocation to the city in the last 25 years. With more than 40 million products sold in markets in more than 150 countries each year, Electrolux is a global leader in the design and manufacture of appliances for both consumer and professional use. Electrolux develops, designs and manufactures both major and small appliances including refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, stoves, air conditioners and vacuums.
The company’s North American business accounts for more than one third of Electrolux’s total global sales. The relocation of its North American headquarters brought Charlotte not only the prestige of being the regional home of a global company with household name recognition but also a commitment from Electrolux of new jobs for the area.
Jack Truong, president and CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering and holds 11 U.S. patents and several international patents for innovation in his field, joined Electrolux in 2011.
“The community here in Charlotte has welcomed us with open arms,” Truong says. “We love being here and we look forward to working with everyone here to make this a growing part of the company for our global group.”
In our backyard
Since its relocation, Electrolux has proven to be a strong contributor to the Charlotte community. The company’s original commitment of adding 738 jobs to the area within five years was met and surpassed in two years, and the company currently has 80 openings at its headquarters on David Taylor Drive including positions in engineering, IT, sales, marketing and supply chain functions.
They also expect to add 80 more jobs in engineering, product testing and design when the research and development facility they opened just north of uptown, expands to include R&D for their washer and dryer business. The facility already houses R&D functions for vacuum products globally, electronic systems of all major appliances built in North America, and product design for all major and small appliances built in North America.
“All of our appliances that are built in North America are designed right here in Charlotte,” explains Eloise Hale of Electrolux North America’s corporate communications and media relations. “This addition not only signals our commitment to product innovation in our washer and dryer business but also builds on the design and testing capabilities that we have here in the city.”
Last August the company opened a 43,000-square-foot research and development lab at its refrigerator products manufacturing plant in Anderson, S.C. This Cold Technology Center and their other numerous R&D efforts demonstrate the importance of innovation to the company; an importance that dates back to its beginnings as the Frigidaire Company.
“Who invented the first refrigerator?” Truong asks. “Frigidaire.”
“Your mom or your grandmother probably said, ‘Please go get milk from the fridge,’” Truong continues. “That reference came from the Frigidaire brand. Frigidaire invented the first refrigerator in 1918. Who invented the first home freezer?”
Truong lists off other appliances: the first home air conditioner, the first refrigerator ice maker, the first washer and dryer combination unit for apartments, and the first stainless steel appliances for home use.
“The answer to each is ‘Frigidaire.’ All of these are the legendary innovations our company has brought to American consumers since 1918,” Truong says.
Frigidaire’s product innovation continues now through Electrolux, a Swedish appliance company, which bought Frigidaire in 1986.
“The combination of Electrolux, which is really about design and European aesthetics,” explains Truong, “with Frigidaire’s functionalities and cutting-edge technology, merges form and function to produce beautiful, innovative products for the consumer’s home.”
The Frigidaire name remains a popular mass brand of the company which has four different levels of residential products, three under the Frigidaire brand as well as one under their premium Electrolux line. The company also offers a line of kitchen and laundry products for commercial use.
Innovation for the home
“What we are doing in Charlotte and North America,” says Truong, “is understanding changing consumer behavior and designing and developing products for every type of family through the various stages of their social and economic cycles.
“Starting out in your career in your 20s, you begin with the Frigidaire mass products,” Truong explains. “As families grow, they move on to Frigidaire Gallery, a step up. This is typically what many Americans would have in their kitchens. The step up from that within the Frigidaire brand is called Frigidaire Professional. And when the family gets to the point where they can afford great products with the luxury of beautiful design to complement their kitchen, they choose the high-end Electrolux kitchen.
“The purpose of our company is about designing and developing cutting edge products, but it’s also about families. It’s about friends and families coming together in the kitchen. It’s about cooking healthy food for your family. We’ve found that, particularly in the U.S., more than 70 percent of households prefer to have great meals cooked at home. The kitchen has become the center of the house.
“The design of homes has changed too, so as we develop new appliances we make sure they change to take that into account. The kitchen of today is often open to a family room, so the dishwasher must be extremely quiet. Our latest innovation in the Frigidaire Gallery line is a dishwasher with what we call ‘orbital cleaning.’ A proprietary hydraulic system allows four times more water coverage to provide the best cleaning and the best drying but yet it’s still extremely quiet. You can’t hear it as you entertain friends and family.
“Right now, time is everything to the consumer. Rather than using gas or radiant energy, our new induction cooktop uses electromagnetic induction technology to boil water in only 90 seconds. We’ve put computer logic into our ovens. If you want to cook a turkey, the ovens have a special probe. You put it in the turkey, press the ‘perfect turkey” button and that’s all you have to do. A few hours later, when the turkey is ready, the oven rings, you open it up and it’s ready to serve.
“We’ve also developed new technology for our washers and dryers that allows you to wash a load in 15 minutes and then to dry it in 14 minutes. Everything’s done in 29 minutes.
“All of these innovations allow consumers to perform household tasks with high quality and in a shorter period of time so they have time to spend with their friends and family,” Truong sums up.
Electrolux’s continuing emphasis on innovation has yielded big results. Currently, Electrolux is a $17 billion global company—the second largest appliance company in the world with the largest global reach of any appliance company.
“We’re outperforming the industry,” cites Hale. “The industry as a whole is seeing declines, yet we’re seeing growth.”
The company has also been recognized by third parties for its achievements. The Frigidaire Gallery double oven range won the prestigious 2012 Good Housekeeping Very Innovative Products Top Ten Award. Each full size oven in the range is large enough to cook a 28-pound turkey but separate controls allow independent baking, broiling and roasting.
“A family can cook a ham in the top oven and bake cookies in the bottom oven simultaneously and both can be perfectly ready at mealtime,” says Truong.
Sustainability for the planet
Electrolux has also recently received recognition from three leading ratings organizations for its sustainability efforts. In December of last year, the non-profit organization Climate Counts named Electrolux as one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies in terms of addressing climate change.
For the second year running, the company was named Sector Leader in the RobecoSAM 2013 global sustainability rating and in January, Electrolux was included in the Global 100 ranking of the world’s most sustainable companies.
“We place great emphasis on sustainability,” explains Hale. “Appliances are a major user of energy. The appliance industry as a whole has been aggressive in driving down energy usage. All of our products are energy efficient and many are ‘Energy Star’ rated.” (Products earn “Energy Star” labeling by meeting energy efficiency requirements established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)
The company’s emphasis on eco-efficiency moves out of the manufacturing plant and into the classroom with its participation with UNC Charlotte in their “Urban Eden Initiative.” UNC Charlotte is one of 20 schools chosen to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2013. The worldwide competition, to be held in California in October, challenges academic teams to design and build highly energy-efficient solar-powered homes. Electrolux is an active sponsor of UNC Charlotte’s entry, the “Urban Eden” house.
“We’re donating both money and products,” explains Hale. “We’re also working directly with the students on the design of the kitchen and how best to bring energy efficiency to it.”
Electrolux is collaborating with UNC Charlotte in other ways as well. “We are working on several efforts with UNCC,” Hale says. “We are hiring graduates, offering internships and working with several of their departments on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.
Truong also speaks to the partnership: “I and our team work closely with the UNCC administration to identify our company’s needs and to help write the curriculum so that their graduates can be readily employed within Electrolux. We believe building standards in engineering and technology excellence is a key value we can bring to the Charlotte community.”
Electrolux’s community involvement extends beyond education. In the two years since their relocation they have been active in local non-profits with cash, sponsorships and in-kind donations to organizations such as the United Way of the Central Carolinas, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the Arts and Science Council, and Johnson C. Smith University.
Last July Electrolux provided 940 air conditioners worth $140,000 to Mecklenburg residents in need through a donation to the Crisis Assistance Ministry.
“Community welfare, the arts and STEM education are important focus areas for us,” says Hale. “We are committed to growing here and being a good corporate partner.”
At home in the South
Electrolux’s growth has been especially beneficial to the Southeast. North Carolina and its neighboring states account for a generous percentage of Electrolux’s 14,000 employees in North America.
In addition to the more than 800 employees in Charlotte, their dishwasher production plant in Kinston, N.C., employs 600 and the Asheville national parts distribution center employs another 300.
Electrolux boasts the world’s largest top mount refrigerator production plant in Anderson, S.C., and the company produces one of out of every three stoves sold in United States from its Springfield, Tenn., factory.
To further underscore Electrolux’s commitment to the U.S. and the Southeast, Electrolux will soon move production of its high end ovens from Canada to Memphis,Tenn. The 750,000-square-foot state-of-the-art factory will open in June 2013, and at full capacity will create 1,200 new jobs in Memphis.
Truong points out that the economic impact should be even more beneficial. “For every manufacturing job we create, we typically create three additional jobs that our suppliers need to add to increase their production.”
In July 2012, Electrolux North America celebrated two years in Charlotte with a local campaign of billboards, advertising and sponsorships to thank the city for being such a great place to work and live.
As Electrolux North America headquarters settles into its third year in the Queen City, the company’s innovation, growth and expansion of local jobs as well as its interest, work and involvement in the community continue to be a cause for celebration.
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.