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June 2018

Top News Links: Friday, June 29


Unipres planning $40 million expansion in Steele

An auto supply plant says it's undergoing a $40 million expansion that will create 70 jobs at its production facility in the Alabama town of Steele. The St. Clair County Economic Development Council and the Alabama Department of Commerce announced Unipres' move Thursday. The factory will add a hot stamping process in a 150, 000-square-foot building to allow manufacturing of parts for Nissan's luxury mid-size vehicle. – AP/USN&WR

Sotheby’s expands real estate connections with Huntsville firm

Sotheby's International Realty Affiliates LLC today announced that Amanda Howard Real Estate in Huntsville is the newest member of its global network and will now operate as Amanda Howard Sotheby's International Realty. The firm, established in 2009, serves the residential real estate markets in North Alabama, including Greater Huntsville/Madison County and Lake Guntersville. – Market Insider

Mini space plane may be landing in Huntsville by 2022

A mini space plane could return from space and land at the Huntsville International Airport as soon as 2022, the Alabama Space Authority was told this week. “When the space shuttle landed, thousands of people would come out. It was a huge event, ” John Roth, vice president of business relations for Sierra Nevada Corp., said in Huntsville. “We haven't had a landing like that in a long time. We think that first landing is going to be a giant landing, and we'd like it to be here.” – AL.com

Two state companies combine for Broadwest in Nashville

Huntsville's Propst Development and Birmingham-based Hoar Construction are working together on a two tower high-rise project for downtown Nashville. The Tennessean is reporting that Propst plans on building two towers with offices, a hotel and apartments where Broadway and West End split at 16th Avenue South. The development will be known as Broadwest. – AL.com

AEgis wins $210M simulation software contract

AEgis Technologies has won the U.S. Army’s Synthetic Environment Core (SE Core) contract award as a subcontractor to Leidos. This five-year, $210 million program enables an interoperable Synthetic Environment (SE) for simulation and training programs. The SE Core program focuses on delivering software linking current and future training devices and simulations, to enable the Army to execute combined arms and joint training across complex terrain, as well as mission planning and rehearsals at both home station and deployed locations. – MS&T

House approves three more Littoral Combat Ships

Congress took a substantial step Thursday toward funding construction of three more Littoral Combat Ships in its 2019 budget cycle, which potentially is good news for Mobile-based Austal USA. However, Congress hasn't settled on a definitive number of LCS contracts. It's also unknown how many of those contracts would go to Austal, which is one of two LCS builders. – AL.com

Bell Media acquires Zeekee Interactive in Birmingham

Bell Media, a digital marketing agency with clients throughout the Southeast, has acquired Zeekee Interactive, a website design and development firm in Birmingham. Zeekee, a leading web design and development firm in Alabama, designed and supported over 4, 000 websites during its 15-year tenure.  They are known for serving multiple industries, primarily in the healthcare, legal, professional services, and the restaurant/bar space. – News release

Dave Helms

Keeping it All Together

ABOVE Company officials, David Spurlock, vice president; Billy Duren, president, and Jerrad Douberly, vice president commercial sales. Photos by Brad McPherson

Few among us consider the bindings of bridges, electrical towers, or virtually every machine with moving parts. We are unaware of the nuts, bolts and screws transforming pieces into structures. And then there’s Threaded Fasteners Inc., the authority on the nuts and bolts of the nuts and bolts business.

Based in Mobile, TFI puts it all together — literally. Administrative offices and a central warehouse oversee nine locations in five states with bolts, nuts, screws, fasteners of every norm and nomenclature. They are bolts of note: anchor bolts, transmission bolts, custom-built bolts.  Some are diminutive, connecting two small parts as one. Others are massive for massive jobs, like keeping a bridge suspended, a Ferris wheel turning or a tower upright.

TFI’s customer base includes commercial marine, utility companies, chemical plants, the Department of Transportation and metal building manufacturers. Some buyers want picked and packed kits, perhaps for installation in factory equipment. Thousands of fasteners are crated ready for delivery.

Other projects include offshore drilling platforms, highway signs and bridges. “We can sell one bolt or one million, ” says company President Billy Duren. A unique point about Threaded Fasteners is that a customer can order 20, 000 structural fasteners for skyscraper beams or one washer, to replace a missing one in a ceiling fan.

ABOVE Joe Walther (top left) heads an anchor bolt, while all around him workers craft fasteners from red hot metals.

Duren notes, “We’ve had cases where David (David Spurlock, company vice president) will be on the phone with a million-dollar account. The next call will be a guy working on a lawn mower.”  But the company president adds, “We help the lawnmower man, too. You never know who might be a company CEO.”

Competition is significant in the $77 billion fast and furious fastener business. Yet TFI bolts to the top. From Mobile, and distribution centers in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma, the company does business in all 50 states. Duren credits company success to customer service and employees who know the business, not just order takers, thumbing through pictures in a parts catalogue.

“We have great people, ” Duren adds, pointing at a conference room wall display depicting a tree with the names of employees and years of service, many over two decades. “They not only have the knowledge but do everything they can to help customers benefit from it.”

“You learn this business hands-on, ” adds Jerrad Douberly, vice president commercial sales.  “There is a lot of on-the-job training. It’s not something you learn in a classroom or from books.”

Making a hex nut is one thing. Knowing its application, where it fits and why, is another. “We travel a lot, ” notes Spurlock. “We visit the customer’s site or project, take their design requirements, make our suggestions.” One size does not fit all.

“Not only must we know our industry, we have to know theirs, ” adds Douberly. “They have a lot of questions like ‘Who are you, what are your stocking capabilities and what are your products?’  Each industry is different, and we have to know them all.”

Then it’s time for homework. “We research and from our knowledge and resources make suggestions to the best of our abilities, ” adds Spurlock. From client specifications a bolt is born.

Fasteners are manufactured in house, based on customer specs, supplied from current stock, or ordered from suppliers.

Attention to detail and knowledge of product and services dates back to the company’s start-up 39 years ago by brothers-in-law Frank Martin and Steve Sholtis. Both are retired but their presence is felt.

“I asked new salespeople to work in the warehouse before making calls, ” recalls co-founder Frank Martin, who retired in 2007. “I wanted every employee to feel the product. If you don’t hold it, if you don’t touch it, you don’t know it.”

Through the years, employee expertise grew and so did the company — from humble beginnings.

TFI began in Mobile in 1979 with three employees, a borrowed warehouse and a pipe-threading machine. Shortly after start-up, it went underwater — literally — flooded by Hurricane Frederic. “We had weeks without power, ” recalls Martin, “Business was transacted from phone booths.”

Co-founder Steve Sholtis adds, “Back then, everybody I knew gave the same advice regarding starting a business — ‘Don’t do it.’” But the Frank and Steve duo never doubted the future. Sholtis adds, “We were so small and began with such limited resources, we had to make it. But people buy from friends, and we made friends out of customers.”

The hurricane diminished, waters receded, and the fledgling enterprise grew and out grew.

From its original Eslava Street location, the company relocated in 1983, 1990 and 2014 to Mobile’s Conception Street, St. Louis Street and Crichton Street respectively. During main office moves, TFI stretched its arms out of state. Branches opened in Florida: Pensacola in 1992, Panama City in 2012, and Tampa in 2013.

Gulfport, Mississippi was added to the family in 2006 and Chattanooga, Tennessee came onboard in 2016. In addition, there were acquisitions turned into new business — Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2011; Rossville, Georgia, 2017, and an additional location in Tampa in January 2018, merging with the earlier Tampa location to create a larger presence.

TFI began with $28, 000 in the bank, a $600 truck and a dream. Today the employee-owned company maintains a $4.6 million inventory across six distribution warehouses. Approximately 163 workers accommodate a combined 232, 000 square feet of warehouse space containing more than 42 million parts.

ABOVE Company Co-Founder Frank Martin (right) and Vice President Jerrad Douberly.

The Mobile-based company is one of the largest fastener manufacturers and steel bolt distributors in the Southeast. More is on the way.

“You guys should take some pictures of this, ” Douberly says, leading an impromptu tour of a work in progress, the Quality Galvanizing construction site. The venture, which broke ground in Semmes in March 2017, will galvanize TFI products, protecting them from weather and corrosion. “Actually, it’s more than a coating, ” adds Billy Duren. “The process actually allows zinc to penetrate steel in a bonding process.”

Structures can stand in the weather for 50 years with little rusting, if galvanized. Without it, bolts can corrode within a week, especially in the South. “This is a new venture for us, ” Duren notes. “We are excited about it.”

Quality Galvanizing is set to open in mid-2018. Next door is TFI’s manufacturing facility. Since 2009, the sprawling complex houses products in various stages of completion. Raw materials of steel and iron bars are stacked and waiting. From raw stock, craftsmen weld, thread, mold and cut bolts. Finished products range from shirt-pocket accessible, with heads from less than an inch in diameter, to saucer size.

As for competition (and beating it), the company president says, “We always stay focused. We try to always keep our eye on the ball.” Company leaders point out that TFI never considers its products as little or insignificant. For without nuts and bolts, bridges collapse, buildings tumble and giants fall.

The can-do message on their company business card reads “Solutions from the Ground Up.” Chances are, Threaded Fasteners Inc. has the products and know-how for whatever you plan to build. Some assembly required.

Emmett Burnett and Brad McPherson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and McPherson in Mobile.

At the Intersection of Trains, Trucks, Planes and Ships

ABOVE Containers in transit at the Port of Mobile.

Photo by Mike Kittrell 

Nil, or close to it.

Those were the chances the Mobile area had for landing Walmart’s new mega distribution center without the intermodal transportation facilities at APM Terminals Mobile at the Port of Mobile.

APM Terminals Mobile, a business unit of Denmark-based A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, has the infrastructure to unload numerous intermodal containers from ships and place them directly onto trucks taking the merchandise to Walmart’s vast facility in nearby Theodore. That capability was a major reason why Walmart’s facility — and more than 500 jobs that go with it — landed near Mobile.

Intermodal typically refers to transporting cargo among different modes — ship-to-rail or ship-to-truck or air-to-truck, for example. Alabama has three major intermodal transportation facilities, and they touch a healthy chunk of more than $45 billion the feds calculate that Alabama does annually in exports ($21.7 billion) and imports ($23.6 billion).

In addition to APM Terminals Mobile, a massive Norfolk Southern intermodal facility in McCalla, near Birmingham, focuses on rail cargo. Huntsville’s International Intermodal Center, adjacent to the city’s airport, is the largest air cargo facility in the state and among the nation’s largest for international air cargo. Services provided at the state’s intermodal facilities aren’t new, but they are increasingly important and in greater demand.

ABOVE Two new ZPMC Super Post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes arrived at the Port of Mobile in summer of 2017, further boosting the port’s intermodal capabilities.

Photo by Brad McPherson

Port of Mobile

APM Terminals Mobile is the largest of Alabama’s intermodal facilities in terms of investment, backed by about $550 million since it opened in 2008. The facility has an annual throughput capacity of 500, 000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, a standard shipping volume unit that refers to a 20-foot intermodal container.

The marine terminal at APM Terminals Mobile is currently undergoing a $50 million expansion that will bring annual throughput to 650, 000 TEUs when completed in late 2019, says Judith Adams, vice president of marketing at the Alabama State Port Authority.

“The current capacity is sufficient to serve our current shippers and the new Walmart 2.5 million-square-foot international distribution center set to open this summer, ” Adams says.  “Additional phases are planned, with a 1.5 million TEU capacity at full buildout.”

Complementing the shipping function, APM Terminals Mobile includes a container rail terminal that provides import, export and domestic rail service via Canadian National Railway along a route that includes Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; Decatur and Chicago, Illinois, and Canadian markets. The rail terminal is accessible to the remaining four Class I railroads — CSX, Norfolk Southern, Kansas City Southern and BNSF — at the Port of Mobile.

Export and import traffic is roughly 50-50 in Mobile, with slightly more imports. Overall, volume increased 20 percent last year at APM Terminals Mobile, and that can be attributed to several factors, according to Adams.

For starters, the economy and trade are doing better, so normal market increases have occurred.

Also, more container carrier services have been added, and agreements between carriers to carry each other’s cargo when feasible have increased volume. And ships are getting larger, which has increased capacity and potential for business.

Says Adams: “That capacity has been needed to serve growth within existing shipper business lines, like an automotive plant expansion or more saw mills coming online to export lumber, and added capacity on vessels helps us serve new businesses like Airbus, Walmart, new automotive suppliers, new distribution centers, new chemical plants that import and export ISO-containerized products, etc. The larger ships have provided relief.”

APM Terminals Mobile is Post-Panamax ready, able to handle the larger 8, 000-TEU ships built to navigate a wider Panama Canal. The terminal has a 45-foot draft with two Post-Panamax and two super Post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes. The “super” cranes are the largest in the world.

The Port of Mobile is currently the nation’s 10th largest seaport in the United States by volume. Its largest industries served include Alabama automotive, agribusiness, metals and retail/distribution. Volume is expected to increase by at least 10 percent in the wake of Walmart’s new distribution center, port officials have said.

Birmingham Regional Intermodal Facility

In North Central Alabama, Norfolk Southern’s $97.5 million Birmingham Regional Intermodal Facility is a major part of the company’s Crescent Corridor, a $2.5 billion investment aimed at developing a high-capacity intermodal freight route between the Gulf Coast and the Northeast.

In operation since 2012, the Birmingham facility sits on 316 acres and includes more than 13 miles of tracks. Norfolk Southern foresees its Crescent Corridor eventually generating enough new business to take more than 1.3 million trucks off the nation’s highways after its completion in 2020.

“Intermodal business has been the fastest growing sector of the rail industry for a number of years, and that trend does not show signs of slowing, ” according to Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay.  “This includes both the domestic (freight moving within North America) and the international (containerized freight delivered to ports by ship) segments of the market.

“The largest driver of this growth is the rising cost of over-the-road trucking due to increasing demand, driver shortages, productivity declines, rising fuel costs and highway congestion. Freight by rail is more environmentally sustainable, and that is an important factor in choosing a transportation mode for a growing number of companies.”

ABOVE Panalpina keeps commerce aloft at Huntsville’s International Intermodal Center.

International Intermodal Center, Huntsville

In Huntsville, volume is on the rise at the International Intermodal Center (IIC), which is part of the Port of Huntsville, along with Huntsville International Airport and Jetplex Industrial Park. Huntsville ranks 17th nationally in international air cargo tonnage, says Jim Hutcheson, business development manager at the Port of Huntsville.

Air cargo tonnage, virtually all of it international, was 205 million tons last year, up from 180 million tons in 2015. That volume is divided roughly 50-50 between imports and exports, with slightly more in imports, Hutcheson says.

Most of Huntsville’s air cargo is automotive parts, pharmaceuticals, electronics and fashion or apparel items. More than $170 million has been spent since 1992 on airport improvements in Huntsville, much of which has gone to enhance air cargo, which is essentially driven by Panalpina, a Swiss company specializing in air and ocean shipments.

Hutcheson notes that Huntsville’s IIC is about more than air cargo. It also has Norfolk Southern intermodal container rail service, and that business has seen a definite uptick, too. The auto industry had a lot to do with that.

“Prior to the Huntsville Toyota engine plant opening in 2003, automotive parts were probably less than 2 percent of our container volume, ” says Hutcheson. “Today, with the growth of Toyota, their tier suppliers, plus tier suppliers in this area for Honda and Mercedes, automotive parts account for nearly 15 percent of our container volume. We anticipate our percentage of automotive-related volume to grow even more, with the coming Mazda/Toyota project and their supporting tier suppliers.”

The Huntsville IIC has direct intermodal rail service between the ports of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, with connecting intermodal service, via Memphis, between West Coast ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington. Huntsville does not have an intermodal rail connection with Mobile.

Container traffic through Huntsville’s IIC is divided roughly half and half between businesses in Alabama and Tennessee, with slightly more in Alabama. A higher percentage of the air cargo involves businesses in other states within a 600-mile radius, Hutcheson says.

Having intermodal transportation capabilities isn’t always mandatory in industrial recruiting, Hutcheson says, but then again, there are times when it’s a must.

“It depends on the company, ” Hutcheson says. “If you have a business that imports or exports to any degree, they’re going to want to be within a certain radius of an intermodal facility. The Mazda/Toyota people have been in touch with us, and they’re doing their due diligence on how we might support them.”

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

Text by Charlie Ingram

Chef Missy Mercer

Chef Missy Mercer with her signature breads. Photos by Art Meripol

As a college student, Missy Mercer watched, enthralled, as French chefs diced and sautéed their way to superb fare with flair on PBS television’s Great Chefs of France, a fascinating diversion for someone whose studies were all about finance. Mercer’s pre-occupation with the art of gourmet was no passing fancy. It was a recipe for success.

Mercer has proven herself a skilled chef with a head for business and the determination to follow her passion for food from Auburn University’s campus to the West Coast and eventually back home to roost in Montgomery.

In 2004, the chef-turned-entrepreneur and her husband, Browne, purchased Tomatino’s and Café Louisa, then located in the Fairview area, not with a sense of complacency, but with a desire to see the sister restaurants grow.

Mercer has succeeded masterfully, as evidenced by the satisfied customers who regularly return for the hand-tossed pies or the baked goods and barista-made coffee drinks and smoothies. Cast an eye over the menu, and it’s clear this is not your average sandwich shop. An Italian club includes ingredients like capicola ham and mortadella, and you can choose a Chai Bella for dessert — that’s vanilla gelato with chai and honey. These are the flavors of a sophisticated palette influenced by a soupçon of Italian heritage and a dollop of French training.

“My junior year at Auburn, I told my mother I wanted to go to culinary school, ” Mercer says. “I toured California Culinary Academy in downtown San Francisco, and once I got out there and saw it, I immediately knew what I wanted to do.”

Mercer began the two-year culinary school program on the heels of her undergraduate work. She immersed herself in the experience, from the farmers’ market to fine dining.

“These fresh foods are grown in California, ” Mercer says. “They’ve always known farm to table, and that’s how it should be. All of these chefs are cultivating vegetables and cooking seasonally.”

Mercer’s moniker as chef is not one to be taken lightly. She trained in the art of cordon bleu in San Francisco, a city with the highest number of restaurants per capita in the nation, before going to work for one of the most exacting stewards of flavor and finery, Spago, a standout entry on her impressive resume.

While at culinary school, she was mentored by Peter Reinhart, a master of all things bread, who won the James Beard award for sourdough and has written numerous books. Mercer worked on developing products with him after class and collaborated on creating an organic pizza dough recipe for wholesome brand Amy’s Kitchen, based in California.

Mercer spent a stint working in fine restaurants in Telluride, Colorado, after culinary school and found her love of the art of baking rising with the tenacity of leavened bread.

“I can do pretty much anything in the kitchen, but baking is more challenging, ” Mercer says. “You’re working with much more volatile ingredients. If you learn how to cook a steak medium rare, you can cook it that way every time. Baking, especially bread, is much more challenging.”

It was that quest for challenge that took Mercer from Colorado back to the San Francisco area, where she worked in the pressure cooker environment of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. As chef to the glitterati, Puck’s reputation for excellence and demanding standards is legendary.

“People tell you after you work in his restaurant, you’ll never want to go to work for anyone else, ” says Mercer, who spent two years at the establishment. “He’s so organized and meticulous.”

In a world dominated by male chefs, particularly when she was in California in the ’90s, Mercer found herself breaking barriers to prove herself at Spago.

“Wolfgang Puck has executive chefs who run his restaurants, ” she says. “When a woman walks through the door of the kitchen, they want to put you on pastry or on the salad. They don’t want to put you on sauté. I would come in an hour early or two hours early off the clock and worked hard.”

She earned her spot, proving her capability and tenacious spirit. When her mother’s best friend decided to open a fine-dining restaurant in Montgomery, Mercer agreed to be head chef, but again found herself craving the complexity that comes with baking.


It wasn’t long after her return to Montgomery that Mercer was approached about buying Tomatino’s, a popular pizza restaurant established in 1995. Not one to do things by halves, in 2004, Mercer got married and bought the business, two life-changing events in one year. The nine-month business sale negotiation process was an ordeal, and Mercer changed her mind about the purchase more than once before the final terms were negotiated.

“My goal was to keep Tomatino’s the same, ” Mercer says. “I wanted to polish up the quality and consistency. The café was a bonus. I bought the two with the café in mind to play with, and that became my baby. From when I purchased it in 2004 to 2006, we tripled in sales.”

Mercer opened a full bakery in conjunction with the café to serve the local need for cakes and baked goods, expanding the square footage and serving cookies, brownies, muffins and an array of treats.

When she had twins, her work schedule of 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. was not sustainable.

“I thought ‘There’s got to be a better way, ’” Mercer says. “After seven years, I infused the bakery back into the café, which was the best thing I’ve done personally and professionally.”

The same drive that led her to become the only female on the hot line in Spago keeps both restaurants on the front burner. She’s not only baking and managing, she’s washing dishes, running food and writing menus.

“I feel very lucky to have a lot of people who have worked here over 10 years, ” she says. “I can’t do it without them. They are definitely the backbone of the business.”

The move to a new location, in the heart of historic Cloverdale, allowed Mercer to consolidate the locations and manage the quality and constancy from pizza dough to gelato. The move also increased sales volume 40 percent in three months in the nearly 5, 000-square-foot space.

“The volume of desserts was astronomical, ” Mercer says. “We have not changed our menu at all, except to add an extra sandwich of the day. Our desserts are the same, but with more visibility, the sales are amazing. The move was the best.”

Deciding to move the business from Fairview was another tough decision Mercer took on while simultaneously moving her family, with twin girls, to a new home.

“I was trying to make a good business decision for me, my family, the employees, ” Mercer says. “I was making all these decisions, and I needed to factor in the neighborhood I loved so much. The landlord here wanted us really badly. He made it very appealing to come to this spot. People over on this side of town tell me all the time how happy they are we are here. The Fairview people have come over here. It was a lot of worry and a huge risk. I had a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of chefs can’t be married and have families, but I’m very lucky with my supportive husband and my go-with-the-flow kids.”

Mercer has proven her versatility as a chef and business owner. When she worked at Spago, where hundreds of food products were moved through an immaculately organized refrigeration system to cooktop to delighted diners, Mercer was in her element. Puck, with a food empire to manage, would visit all of his establishments, spoon in his pocket to taste test at random. And the quality had to be spot on each time.

“I loved it and thrived on it, ” Mercer says. “Everything had to be perfect. Wouldn’t you want to know the people preparing your food are taking the care with raw ingredients? It was phenomenal. I know how to perfectly sear a scallop or cook foie gras perfectly, but that’s not what I do.”

What she does is serve food with passion, and she has that same quality control ethic she admired in Puck, confessing, “I’m a freak about my ingredients.”

Despite higher costs, Mercer believes an investment in top-shelf ingredients pays off in flavor dividends. She won’t substitute such fine products as Plugra butter, Valhrona cocoa, Callebaut chocolate, Grande cheeses and Stanislaus tomato products. Maintaining those high standards in the eclectically styled pizzeria and in her charm-laden café are the things that keep patrons clamoring for more, which is at the heart of Mercer’s boundless enthusiasm as a cook.

“The most rewarding part of cooking is hearing customers say they enjoy something that you put your hard work into creating, ” Mercer says. “That is what drives most chefs to grind it out on a daily basis.”

Cara Clark and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Shaw Industries Finishing $184 Million Alabama Upgrade

The sky’s the limit in the flooring industry, though manufacturers have to stay in step with constantly changing demands in consumer tastes and preferences for what’s underfoot.

Shaw Industries Group’s flooring plant in Andalusia, which makes fiber used in carpet, has been in the midst of a yearlong upgrade worth $184 million. While the mill continues its operation, construction workers have done targeted demolition and built new and expanded work spaces, as well as installing new manufacturing equipment. Along with improving production, the changes will improve ergonomics and safety for the plant’s more than 1, 000 employees. The first of Plant 65’s new equipment is set to be in place and operational by the middle of this year with additional equipment installation and construction continuing through 2020.

Shaw’s operations are increasingly complex, meaning that everyone from designers and data scientists to machinists and managers needs a higher skill level than in the past. Company officials have praised Covington County’s well-trained associate base in the process of growing the plant. Shaw is Covington County’s largest employer. More than 22, 000 people work for the company, which is based in Dalton, Georgia.

Meanwhile, Shaw was ranked last month on Forbes Magazine’s 2018 list of America’s Best Employers. “Even as Shaw continues to invest in new and upgraded manufacturing facilities, we know that our most important asset is our people, ” said CEO and Chairman Vance Bell.

Auburn a Magnet for International Precision

Berghoff Precision Machining USA in Auburn makes parts so complex and so large that a single piece may take more than 100 hours of machining time, says President Martin Niggemeier. Photos by Robert Fouts

When Matthew Hard neared graduation from Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, he thought he’d end up somewhere like Atlanta, Charlotte or Nashville.

“Like many of my classmates, I thought I would leave Auburn, ” says Hard, who graduated in 2017. “I just didn’t think there was much of a possibility of something here in my career path. But Berghoff came, and it was a natural progression.”

Hard is now project manager for Berghoff Precision Machining USA, part of the Germany-based Berghoff Group.

Berghoff announced in 2016 that Auburn would be the site of its first U.S. plant, promising a $30 million investment and 100 jobs over the first five years. “It was a great success to get them, ” says Arndt Siepmann, director of industrial development for the City of Auburn.

That success is borne out not necessarily by numbers — Berghoff has relatively few employees and much less mass output than the auto industry or other big manufacturers — but by quality of work and, consequently, its workforce.

“It is a very high-tech CNC (computer numerical control) machining company with very complex parts, ” Siepmann says. “The high-tech complexity of the parts results in a required skill set that results in a higher pay than other manufacturers. You have to find people who have skill sets to work there, and, at the same time, their pay would be way ahead of other blue-collar salaries.”

That promise of an advanced workforce was key to Berghoff choosing Auburn, says Martin Niggemeier, president of Berghoff Precision Machining USA.

“Our customers have very, very high requirements, ” he says. “That also means that we want to work with the best in our workforce. We have high requirements of the people we bring here, so the proximity of the technical schools here, as well as Auburn University, was very appealing to us. We need that proximity for growing our business in the future.”

Another plus? Being able to build a new facility at Auburn Industrial Park West.

“It was a big advantage for us to be able to build a place to our specifications, ” Niggemeier says. “We need some features in this facility that a lot of the other industrial companies maybe don’t need, and it helped us a lot that the City of Auburn, especially, and the Industrial Development Board were very helpful in getting those features in the building and making sure we had that available to us.”

Berghoff’s Auburn plant opened in March 2017, and Niggemeier says the company is still in its launch phase. The company is taking blocks of aluminum, titanium and other materials, and machining parts that will go into other machines that will help create the computers of tomorrow.

“The main production right now is for the semiconductor industry, ” he says. “Our parts end up in the newest generation of computer chip manufacturing machines. The first machines are on the market, and most of the chips have not even made it yet into the computers and cell phones and so on, but they’re coming. These components for these machines are right now our main business, but we’re also machining relatively simple parts for other manufacturers.”

The Auburn plant’s main customer right now is the Dutch company ASML, which provides computer chips for Intel, Samsung, Apple and others, Niggemeier says.

As of April of this year, Berghoff Precision Machining USA employed eight people. Its manufacturing floor features two five-axis CNC machines and one that is much larger, capable of machining a 9-by-8-by-5-foot part. A precision measuring machine is also in the building, and all are hooked up to technology that allows Berghoff employees in Germany to see exactly what is being done in the United States.

A five-year plan projects 50 employees by December and another 100 each of the following two years, at which point a second manufacturing facility would be added.

It’s the five-axis machining that helps separate Berghoff from its competitors. Others have the capability, but they are not necessarily available to companies who need them.

“There are large, five-axis CNC machines and large measurement machines in the region, but to have a facility that has the capacity to measure parts this large and a fully enclosed five-axis CNC system with a pallet changer this large in this region is very, very uncommon, ” Hard says. “That allows us to not only produce but to confirm the quality of some highly complex and very large parts that a lot of our competitors can’t. Some others can do it privately, like for government applications and things like that, but they aren’t ‘for hire, ’ per se.”

The complexity of the machining also differentiates Berghoff from other more high-capacity Alabama industries.

“Our parts are so complex that it takes sometimes six or seven weeks to finish just one part, ” Niggemeier says. “It’s completely different from high-volume manufacturers. One part may have 130 hours of machining time.”

Berghoff, a 30-year-old family-owned business with 180 employees in Germany and Switzerland, has core customers — in the semiconductor, aerospace and equipment manufacturing industries — that were appealing to Auburn, Siepmann says.

“They are servicing industries that we do not do a great deal with right now, so it’s furthering our diversification goal of having a portfolio of industries that is not so vulnerable to a down-trend in a specific industry, ” he says. “If I have a variety of divergent customers with different products, I’m not so dependent upon any one of them.”

And Berghoff’s bright, modern and squeaky-clean facility “will change people’s idea of what manufacturing is, ” according to Siepmann. “This is a great win for that reason alone. You’re creating great and well paying jobs, but also likeable jobs. People will want to work there.”

Berghoff’s decision to come to Auburn was announced on a worldwide stage at the Hanover Fair in Germany in 2016. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the fair, and “there was a lot of attention, ” Siepmann says. “That was the right place for them to make the announcement. That gave them a big platform, and it created interest in the company.”

That interest should eventually translate into expansion, and all of that translates into a big win for Auburn, even if it is on a small scale.

“On the employment and economic impact side, it is probably one of the smallest announcements for Auburn so far, ” Siepmann says. “Next door and on the hill is GE Aviation, and in every characteristic, people would argue it’s a bigger deal for Auburn — it’s GE Aviation, 200 jobs, a huge win for Auburn four years ago.

“But I think if you look at it as far as the quality per job, like the quality per square-foot operation, I think they’d at the very least be even, ” Siepmann adds. “Berghoff is a really big deal for Auburn.”

Alec Harvey and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Fouts in Montgomery.

Forest Giant Recapitalized

ABOVE Jeff Joyce, manager of Georgia-Pacific’s Brewton mill, where the company has just completed more than $400 million in upgrades. Photos by Mike Kittrell

Georgia-Pacific describes the Alabama forest products recovery as “slow and steady.” But after five years and $1.2 billion in investments and acquisitions, slow and steady is fast and ready. For in Alabama, the Atlanta-based wood products giant can see the forest for the trees.

It wasn’t easy. Enduring an economic collapse fueled by a housing bubble burst never is easy. But Georgia-Pacific refused to shelter in place.

“We had a downturn, ” recalls Rod Chandler, plant manager of Georgia-Pacific’s Composite Panel site in Monroe-ville. “We make industrial particle board products for kitchen cabinets, offices, shelving, bathrooms and other uses. But when building construction slowed down, we did too, running at reduced schedules and making hard decisions. But we made it through and learned to be more frugal with money, resources.”

Yet 35 miles away, Georgia-Pacific Pulp and Paper Mill of Brewton, saw little change. “Brewton has a diverse line of paper products, not directly affected by housing construction, ” says Mill General Manager Jeff Joyce. The site produces solid bleached sulfate (SBS), containerboard, premium brand folding carton grades and carded packaging ranging from pizza boxes to Dixie cups. Joyce adds, “We saw some effects but nothing like the lumber business side.”

In 2006, 2.2 million new houses were being built nationally. By 2009, the number was less than 500, 000. The housing market collapsed and the lumber business splintered.

“People just stopped building, ” recalls Jeff Koeppel, senior vice president of operations. “It had a ripple effect. No construction meant no sales.” Koeppel adds, “If you are not building houses you don’t need lumber and you don’t need wallboard.”

But Koeppel notes that Georgia-Pacific faced the downturn with heads up. “The industry restructured quite a bit, ” he recalls. “Some businesses shut down, waiting until the economy recovered, but we continued to invest. It made our sites more efficient. Now that the market is back, we are a lot more competitive.”

Georgia-Pacific provides 2, 300 jobs in seven facilities spanning Alabama from top to bottom. An additional 100 employees will be hired for a new lumber mill in Talladega set for completion later this year. Currently the Atlanta-based giant adds $216 million to the state in direct employee payroll and benefits.

Represented in 30 states, Georgia-Pacific’s Alabama entries rank in the company’s top five for employment. Everything the company makes, from paper pulp to paper plates, is made in Alabama from one or more of the company’s Alabama facilities.

ABOVE Brewton’s recently completed $388 million recovery boiler tower.

Bleach board, container board – Brewton

Standing about 13 stories above Brewton, Georgia-Pacific’s recovery boiler system, “Power Island” is a sight to behold. It self-generates energy using natural gas and biofuel residuals from the papermaking process. In addition to the modernized equipment, the mill’s new turbine provides Brewton with the capacity to grow its production capabilities. At any single moment, operating at full capacity, the turbine can produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of 60, 000 homes.

“It was a big investment — $388 million, ” notes Jeff Joyce, Brewton Mill manager, acknowledging one of the tallest structures in Escambia County. “We were disadvantaged in our energy cost structure. Without a major investment we would not be competitive.”

Brewton’s plant also brought online a $50 million paperboard project. “We rebuilt our Number 2 paper machine, brought it online, and had sellable product the day after startup, ” notes Joyce.

ABOVE Construction in progress at the Talladega site where G-P is investing $100 million on a new lumber production facility.

Photo courtesy of Georgia-Pacific

Lumber Mill – Talladega

“I am amazed at the progress made at this site, ” says Fritz Mason, vice president and general manager of Georgia-Pacific Lumber, about the company’s latest investment upstate. In September 2017, the company announced a $100 million lumber production facility, the site of a former plywood mill. Target startup date is third quarter 2018.

“Talladega is a great location for us, ” Mason adds. “It offers good proximity to customers, an excellent local workforce and a good raw material supply of logs.”

Startup plans forecast approximately 150 incoming log trucks a day, producing 230 million board feet annually. At capacity production, the plant is expected to produce some 300 million board feet annually.

Alabama River Cellulose – Monroeville

In 2015, Georgia-Pacific announced plans for a $100 million upgrade to its Alabama River Cellulose (ARC) mill. The project affected two wood yards, replacing one and upgrading the other. ARC also added a major renovation to one of the mill’s pulp producing machines. The plant employs about 440 people and manufactures products for several arenas, including the wood pulp/fluff pulp market’s demand for baby diapers.

Other Monroeville area sites include the Composite Panels site and Rocky Creek Lumber mill, acquired in 2015.

ABOVE G-P employee Jimmy McKinley takes a new roll of paper off the paper machine.

Naheola Paper – Pennington

Another investment, $120 million for Georgia-Pacific’s Naheola mill in Pennington (near Demopolis), was announced in September 2017. The upgrade introduces new technology to the mill’s tissue converting lines, where bulk tissue paper is transformed into consumer-sized rolls and prepared for shipment. In addition, Naheola makes the base stock for paper cups and plates.

Corrugated plant – Huntsville

G-P’s Huntsville plant manufactures corrugated boxes for customers, including internal ones like Brewton’s mill.

Sawmill – Belk

The Georgia-Pacific Sawmill in Belk, near Fayette, makes dimensional lumber for the housing market.

But investing in an improving economy is more than money, greater than innovations, and stronger than machinery. People make it happen. Their skills are an investment.

“Changes are coming to the world, and it is taking place in our operations, too, ” notes Koeppel. “We continue automating with digital technology, and we need to develop skillsets for a workforce to do work differently — less manual labor and more technology. We are investing in that and the workforce to handle it.”

Just as people rely on cellphones, sawmills rely on the internet and broadband. Koeppel believes more investment is needed in broadband for rural areas, where wood and paper mills typically operate.

But humans run the computers. Employees push the buttons. The industry is adapting buzz saws to iPads.

Fritz Mason notes that today’s mill work, which used to require heavy lifting and manual cutting, is done by workers interfacing with electronic notebooks, entering commands on a computer that are implemented on a southern pine.

Technology is changing the business, the way it is run and the people needed. Koeppel adds, “We need to work with community colleges, vocational and tech schools, and universities to make sure employees are ready for that technology.”

But despite economic downturns, raw materials never wavered. Trees still grow. According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, the state has the second largest timberland base in the U.S., with nearly 23 million acres.

Emmett Burnett and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

Peco Foods Plans $40M Mississippi Plant

Destinations to which Peco Foods exports its chicken include Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Iraq.

Tuscaloosa-based chicken processor Peco Foods announced plans in May to open a new $40 million plant in northeast Mississippi to make, store and distribute frozen chicken products.

Peco is acquiring a 185, 000-square-foot warehouse formerly occupied by AmeriCold and strategically located on 37 acres near interstate and major rail corridors. The plant adds needed capacity for Peco to supply customers in the restaurant, grocery and food service distribution sectors. Peco Foods has been family owned for three generations.

Peco, the nation’s eighth-largest poultry company, will hire 300 people over the next four years in West Point.

“The addition of this new cold storage facility is a key component of our growth strategy and is perfectly tailored to meet our current needs as well as future plans, ” Peco Foods CEO Mark Hickman said in a statement.

Peco has more than 6, 000 employees. The company, which also serves international customers, started as a small hatchery and feed mill in Gordo, Alabama in 1937. It now has processing plants throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.

Text by Dave Helms

Top News Links: Tuesday, June 12


Director of Marshall Space Flight Center Retiring

The director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is retiring. Marshall officials say Todd May announced his retirement to employees at the Huntsville facility on Monday. It takes effect July 27. A statement from Rep. Mo Brooks of Huntsville says May is being replaced on an acting basis by Marshall's deputy director, Joan A. “Jody” Singer. — AP

Louisiana firm buys Horizon Shipbuilding

Assets of Horizon Shipbuilding in Bayou la Batre, working under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since last year, have been sold to Metal Shark of Jeanrette, Louisiana. Travis Short, who has headed Horizon for 20 years, will stay on with Metal Shark.  Horizon facilities include 35 waterfront acres, cranes and equipment to build 300-foot steel and aluminum vessels. — Marine Log

Alabama Attorney General testifies about Alabama census lawsuit

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has urged members of Congress to support the state's fight to exclude immigrants living in the country illegally from the U.S. Census counts, used to determine congressional districts. Marshall and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama testified Friday before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee regarding the upcoming U.S. Census. — AP/WTOK


Hawaiian Airlines took delivery of its first US-built A321 Monday. The new orchid-decorated aircraft is also the first of the new engine option (NEO) planes off the lines at the Mobile final assembly line. — FlightGlobal

Samford wins repeat grant for nursing education

Samford University has been granted more than $2.1 million to help make graduate nursing programs more accessible. Samford has received funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Nurse Faculty Loan Program for 16 years. This year, Samford’s grant is the largest in the country. — Samford

Selma ranked 9th poorest city in nation

Analysis of U.S. Census data lists Selma as the 9th poorest city in America, according to 24/7 Wall Street. Rankings are based on household income, home values and educational attainment. — al.com

Mayer unveils new logo

Mayer Electric Supply of Birmingham has introduced a new look and simplified name. “Our industry is changing rapidly, and Mayer continues to evolve in order to become an innovative technology leader that stays ahead of the digital curve – not only in our daily operations, but also in how we tell our brand story and in how our connected team delivers innovative solutions and unrivaled service, ” says company president Wes Smith. — Mayer News Release

compiled by nedra bloom

Company Kudos, June 2018

Wayne J. Griffin Electric Inc. is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Griffin is one of the leading electrical merit shops in the country, most recently ranked 23rd in Engineering News-Record’s 2017 listing of the top 50 national electrical contractors. Part of the company’s strategy for success is its in-house apprenticeship training program (pictured above).

Two Alabama businesses, Alabama Sawyer and Jalapenos, have been named winners of the 2018 American Small Business Championship by SCORE, which honored only 102 small businesses nationwide.

Enlogica Solutions LLC has obtained certification in conformance with the ISO 9001:2015 standard for its quality management system.

Faulkner Law’s trial advocacy program recently ranked 15th among the nation’s 204 ABA approved law schools in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2019 ranking of the nation’s best programs.

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The facility has attracted more than 36 companies to its campus, opened the Smith Family Clinic for Genomic Medicine and generated more than $1.85 billion in economic impact, and its researchers have published 550 research papers.

nLogic has been recognized as Supplier of the Year in the Outstanding Performance category by The Boeing Co., which honored 13 companies.

Progress Bank was named the 64th top performing bank in the U.S. with total assets between $1 billion and $10 billion by SNL/S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Regions Bank has received the 2018 Gallup Great Workplace Award for a fourth consecutive year. Regions also earned the Servicer Total Achievement and Reward Performer recognition given by Fannie Mae for the company’s efforts in assisting homeowners with mortgages.

Southern States Bank has been recognized as one of the Top 200 Healthiest Banks for 2018 by DepositAccounts.com, ranking 123 out of 5, 557 banks.

Torch Technologies, for a third consecutive year, is ranked third among small and medium-sized consulting and professional services firms by Great Place to Work and Fortune.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business was recognized by the Sales Education Foundation as a top university for professional sales education in its 2018 Annual magazine.

UAB Hospital and UAB Highlands  Hospital have earned an A grade on patient safety from Leapfrog Group’s Hospital Safety Grade.

The University of South Alabama Student Health Center was featured on the cover of the Journal of American College Health.

Volkert Inc., an infrastructure engineering firm in Mobile, placed 87th in Engineering News-Record’s top 500 design firms for 2018 listing. The firm also ranked 62nd among the top 100 pure design firms — up five places from 2017.

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