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March 2019

Movers & Shakers in Coffee, Dale & Geneva Counties

Mike Baergen

Mike Baergen
Baergen is general manager of the Ozark Assembly Operations for Bell Flight, working to increase production while maintaining safety and quality standards. Baergen, who took the position in January 2017, began his career with Bell in 1990 and served in several capacities with the company in other states. In 2014, he was selected as value stream manager, where he led initiatives to decrease direct labor changing while increasing output, as well as exploring process improvement projects to reduce defects and rework. He brought his experience in repair and overhaul to Ozark, as well as process improvement. Baergen holds associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Terry Barnes
Barnes, a graduate of Auburn University, is a registered professional engineer in the state of Alabama and joined Southeast Gas in 2011 as the director of operations-Central Division. As director, he oversees system operations including new pipeline expansions, installation, maintenance and customer service for Brundidge, Daleville, Enterprise, Fort Rucker, Ozark, Troy and surrounding communities. Barnes serves as a board member for the Wiregrass Economic Development Corp. and the Enterprise Chamber of Commerce, in addition to serving in a support role on behalf of Southeast Gas to the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corp. and similar entities in neighboring counties. Barnes began his professional career with CDG Engineers as a project engineer/project manager where he was also a shareholder.

William Cooper Photo by Scott Morgan Photography

William Cooper
Cooper is mayor of Enterprise. He was the first African American elected to the Enterprise City Council and had served 28 years before assuming mayoral duties after former Mayor Kenneth Boswell took a state appointment in 2017. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Alabama State University and an AA Education Specialist degree in administration and supervision. He is a retired band director who served at what’s now Coppinville Junior High School and also at Enterprise High School. He directs the Salem-Enterprise Baptist Association Male Chorus.

Julie Davis

Julie Davis
Davis, a Wiregrass native, is the business office supervisor for Alabama Power in Ozark. She attended Enterprise State Community College and earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia Southern University. She serves on the board of the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corp. and as secretary for Ozark Rotary. She also serves on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Southeast Alabama and the Dale County Youth Leadership Program. Davis is a volunteer for Southeast WOW and served as the founding committee’s logistics chairman for the two-day event open to 6,000 students across 16 counties in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Davis also is a founding member of the Power of Youth-Wiregrass Leadership Forum, a five-county youth leadership event. She has served more than a decade as producer/director of the HBCE television production team. She is an active member of the Alabama Power Service Organization and serves on the Wiregrass United Way Funds Distribution Committee.

Felicia Sanders
Sanders is the plant manager of the Michelin North America tire manufacturing factory in Dothan. A native of Baltimore, Sanders earned an undergraduate engineering degree from the University of Maryland and an MBA from Columbia University in New York. Her work experience includes manufacturing, strategic planning, supply chain management and marketing in the chemical, pulp and paper and rubber industries. Sanders serves as a mentor to young professionals and has been an active member of United Way Women in Science, United Way AALG and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

Jayme Stayton

Jayme Stayton
Stayton is serving his first term as mayor of Daleville. He attended Enterprise High School. He moved to Daleville when he was 18 years old and has lived there for the last 22 years. After high school, Stayton went into the construction business and later went to work for the city of Daleville, gaining experience and understanding of local government. Stayton has volunteered with the Daleville Fire and Rescue and was a Daleville Police Department Reserve officer. Stayton also served as a coach for a local tee ball team and as a basketball coach. In addition, Stayton served as a member of the Keep the Faith organization that feeds the homeless. 

Mike Wentworth
Wentworth is president of Sysco Gulf Coast Inc., a position he has held since January 2018. Before coming to Sysco Gulf Coast, he held several management positions with Sysco Jacksonville Inc., including vice president of sales, district sales manager and regional director. He holds an associate’s degree from the University of New Hampshire and has completed coursework toward a business degree. He is active with the Cub Scouts/Boy Scouts of America, and is a member of the board for the North Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

Suzanne Woods

Suzanne Woods
Woods is CEO of Medical Center Enterprise. Prior to coming to the hospital in May 2017, she served as CEO, COO, vice president of professional services, medical staff coordinator and administrative resident for Flowers Hospital in Dothan. She has a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and a master’s from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She chairs the Wallace Community College Foundation board and serves on the boards of the Alabama Hospital Association, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama and the Wiregrass Economic Development Corp. She serves on the Statewide Health Coordinating Council and the Alabama Hospital Services and Reimbursement Panel, both governor-appointed. She also serves on the board of trustees of Houston Academy.

City Trees Are These Artisans’ Niche

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Photos by Cary Norton

“We get really interesting trees,” says Leigh Spencer, one of three partners in Alabama Sawyer LLC.

The company, as its name indicates, is lodged somewhere in the midst of the Alabama wood stream — 23 million acres that make up the third largest commercial forestland in the nation.

What allows Spencer to see singular trees rather than that forest vastness is her company’s niche within Alabama’s largest city.

“A tree in the urban environment is not part of a farmed monoculture,” explains Leigh. “It can be a walnut tree next to a hickory tree, reflecting the environment in color and in difference in grain. And the more unique, the more problematic. They can have wires and nails in them, which is one of the reasons they are not put into a big saw mill.”

Leigh and Cliff Spencer, the married partners in Alabama Sawyer, are shown here in the drying shed off campus from their workshop at MAKEbhm, where they and six full-time employees craft custom furniture and home furnishings from urban lumber.

Housed in MAKEbhm, a shared DIY/Maker workplace in Birmingham, Sawyer is both a miller of wood and a maker of wood products — expertly designed and crafted products milled from superbly quirky stock.

“Alabama has the second largest urban forest in the country, the collection of trees within a city,” says Cliff Spencer, Leigh’s husband and business partner. “The urban forest creates the pallet of the town — the canopy of these great, beautiful trees.”

Cliff runs the production side of the company, from procurement of the logs to milling and then crafting the wood into products — furniture, plus smaller items that are mostly for the kitchen. There are 13 pieces of furniture on the website (alasaw.com) and 15 kitchen and home accessories, such as a cutting board, ice bucket and mini wine rack. Furniture, says Leigh, accounts for 80 percent of gross sales.

Garden & Gun and other lifestyle and trade magazines regularly feature Alabama Sawyer’s portfolio, after only two years of operation.

Alabama Sawyer set up shop in MAKEbhm in 2016, after the Spencers moved from Venice, California, where they had been running a custom cabinet shop for eight years.

“My skill set is to make it and help others make it and try to figure out good things to make,” says Cliff. “I run the wood shop and work with Leigh and Bruce on the design.”

Birmingham architect Bruce Lanier, the founder of MAKEbhm, is the third partner in Alabama Sawyer. “I’m more of a strategic partner and help with the design side,” he says. “I just try to act as a sounding board in their husband-and-wife partnership.”

Lanier crossed paths with Cliff Spencer at Design Week Birmingham beginning in 2014. Even before completing the move to Birmingham, where Cliff grew up, he was pitching his ideas on the urban forest.

Soon after setting up shop at MAKEbhm, the company won a $100,000 award in the 2016 Launchpad competition, the state’s leading awards program for startups.

“Getting a $100,000 investment took us through 2017 in a healthy way,” says Leigh. “We used it to hire people, to get ahead on production and also for marketing. We didn’t need to tool up. We already had our tools. But it was definitely good for getting our footing.”

Leigh leads the business side of things, including the marketing. Most of the sales are online.

“We work with a few great e-commerce partners with our small product. Since 2014 we have been working with Food52, and they are a great partner in sales and marketing.

“We were featured in Garden & Gun last fall, which sparked a lot of interest. PR has been amazing. We’re rebuilding our website, and we’re on Instagram and trying to reach out to people more directly. The trade folks are great. Interior designers have pages of things they need to fill up, and we can give them something unique, which benefits them in their relationship with their customers.”

At the other end of the business, Cliff’s work begins with procuring the raw material, those interesting trees.

“We work with contacts as far away as Florence, and, if we can make it work, the logs are delivered. But most of the material is within 50 miles of the Birmingham area,” says Cliff.

“We’ll work directly with the tree services. ‘Are you cutting any pecan logs?’ or ‘We like these seven species.’ Some of the tree services operate their own landfills. Irondale has tree graveyards, basically, and if you are allowed, we go out and mark logs and have them brought to us. We encourage clients to work with tree services and, instead of dumping it, to take it to Alasaw. Lastly, we just secured a contract with the city of Mountain Brook, an agreement to work with the public works department to select logs from their debris pile, and we’ll send a truck to pick them up.

“We can have that with other cities, like the city of Birmingham. We describe that as an untapped opportunity, a real opportunity for job creation.”

Expansion is on the minds of all three Alabama Sawyer partners, and the next step will likely be facilitated by strategic partner Lanier, who is one of the developers working on a second phase of MAKEbhm, called M2.

“M2 is about ‘What do you do when you grow up?’,” says Lanier. “It’s a question that’s faced by Alabama Launchpad, Innovation Depot and other innovation environments. You reach the level where you understand the process and what are the paying points, and you are ready to sign a more conventional lease but don’t want to abandon the idea of working around like-minded people and have to flee to an industrial park.”

“I want to get into this new space and grow sales and profit and to be able to have more people working for us in jobs they can grow in and depend on working with their hands,” says Leigh. The company currently has six full-time employees and one part-time.

“We want to continue to do this work as a larger company that can grow and make an impact,” agrees Cliff. “If we can do this for 20 or 30 more years and see new companies like ours that do similar work, we can affect the associated industries that we work with. If we can effect some change like that, then, when we are done, it can be an understood, normal process that whenever a tree comes down, there is automatically a use for it.”

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama. Cary Norton is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor.

Alabama Builders Advance New Technologies

Drones can trim days off survey projects. Photo courtesy of Drone Deploy, provided by Brasfield & Gorrie

There essentially has been construction work for as long as there have been people. Creating shelters is one of the basic necessities of life, even if for centuries those projects involved little more than cutting trees and moving rocks.

While the world has moved on, in many ways the foundation of construction work has remained rooted in the past. The industry often operates like it’s the mid-20th century, which might as well be the Middle Ages, considering how rapidly technology has advanced in recent decades.

This lack of innovation in the industry is evident in the bottom line. According to an October 2018 article in Fortune magazine, construction projects regularly lose up to a third of their value due to inefficiency and waste. As a result, the industry has averaged only 1 percent annual growth over the past 20 years, compared to 2.8 percent for the global economy as a whole. The Fortune article states that if construction could increase its productivity to the level of most other sectors, the industry would experience $1.6 trillion in cost savings.

“There is a need for more technology in construction, because construction has a lot of lost efficiency that can be improved,” says Dane Pemberton, project manager at Birmingham-based BL Harbert International. “So you’re starting to see a huge movement in the tech world to push technology into construction, because they think this is a market with the most growth potential. Every year lately it feels like we make a big leap forward.”

Indeed, an industry built on brick and mortar has started to embrace programs and applications. According to a 2018 Construction Technology Trends report conducted by Software Connect, more than 80 percent of construction officials surveyed said their company was increasing the amount of money spent on technology, with double-digit percent increases on such areas as virtual design, drones, cloud-hosting software and 3D printing.

“For a long time we had technology that looked good on paper, but when you put it in the field it actually made their jobs harder,” says Eric Cleveland, IT manager for jobsite services at Birmingham’s Brasfield & Gorrie. “They’d just give data to somebody to report somewhere, and really all it did was create more work for the people on the ground.

“Now we’re finding technology that actually improves the job. These are things built for construction with the people on the ground in mind, and not just designed for the decision-makers.”

Here are some examples.

Tablets instead of paper

iPads make construction jobs go more smoothly, with instant access to updated plans. Here Volkert workers check plans for the I-59/I-20 interchange work in Birmingham. Photo courtesy of Volkert

One of construction’s most common images is of several people in hardhats gathered together and looking at blueprints spread out over a barrel or box. This image is about to fade into cyberspace, as tablets and other portable electronic devices replace these paper plans.

“You’re seeing a big move away from paper,” says Adam Patterson, project manager at Mobile-based Volkert Inc. “Tablets enable you to store all your contract plans and documents on a single device onsite that is searchable and accessible and can be easily shared with everybody on your staff.”

This change will save companies both money (a single set of plans can cost nearly $1,000 to print, and multiple copies are needed) and time, since there no longer will be delays because somebody picked up the wrong set of plans or didn’t receive the updated version.

“It won’t be long before paper drawings are no longer a thing in construction,” Cleveland says.

Photo courtesy of Brasfield & Gorrie

Reality Capture

One of the most challenging aspects of construction has been taking a two-dimensional plan and turning it into a three-dimensional structure. That will no longer be an issue with the increased use of Reality Capture, which can create a 3D model out of photographs or laser scans.

“Just because it looks good in 2D doesn’t mean that all the parts and pieces will fit together in 3D, especially with things like HVAC, plumbing and electrical,” says Mike Dean, director of virtual design and construction for Caddell Construction Co. in Montgomery. “But you don’t know for sure until you get out in the field. Then if there’s a problem, you have people and material and equipment sitting around as you try to solve the puzzle.

“That’s the old way. The industry has shifted and gotten better about utilizing the computer model and implementing it in the field. Now we uncover problem areas before we get to the construction phase. We’re getting closer to being able to build exactly what we design and plan without constantly revamping it.”

360 Cameras

Many hotel websites offer the ability to take a 360-degree view of one of the rooms, as well as the surrounding property. That same technology is being used in construction, enabling designers and project officials to analyze progress remotely.

“It’s Google street view for construction,” says Shawn Mancill, regional VDC manager at Brasfield & Gorrie. “It allows us to do a virtual walk-through and take care of issues that the architect or owner might have. We’ve been paying companies thousands of dollars to do progress photos. Now we can do it ourselves with a $500 camera and the software.”

Safety

The use of data analytics is enabling construction companies to better analyze what takes place onsite each day and how it might correlate with any safety issues that occur. Pemberton says Harbert recently implemented a computer program called Controlling Activity Risk and Exposure (CARE) that accumulates data through daily reports, then identifies risk areas.

“Our people in the field do safety observations, then we put the data on a chart and use the analytics to foresee possible upcoming safety hazards,” Pemberton says. “If we see a trend of people not wearing the proper safety equipment at the right times or something like that, we’ll focus our training on that area. It’s using technology to improve safety.”

Drones

According to the survey by Software Connect, more than a quarter of the industry will be using drones on a regular basis by next year to do aerial surveys of construction sites. Goldman Sachs predicts the industry will lead all commercial sectors in drone adoption, spending nearly $11 billion on the technology.

“The growth in drones has exploded,” says Mancill, who noted that Brasfield & Gorrie now has 33 licensed drone pilots. “We can fly a drone and capture the entirety of a 500-acre site in a single day. That would take three weeks for a (land) survey.”

Onsite internet access

All these technological additions won’t do the industry much good if they cannot be accessed on the construction site. And even in urban areas, it can be difficult to access the internet off anything except cellular connections, which can be spotty and often are not powerful enough.

The solution is appearing in microwave technology and point-to-point wireless Ethernet. This allows companies to take the existing internet connection in a building and wirelessly transmit the signal to a nearby construction site.

“We’ve really seen a lot of growth in that in just the last two years,” Cleveland says. “Our jobs have made such a move toward technology that so much of what we do now is dependent on the internet. The vast majority of files are stored online and shared with multiple people. They’re using project-management systems to collaborate. So getting them a good internet connection is a big deal.”

Cary Estes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.

Transforming Old Wood into New Business

Kim Turner at the Riverbottom Pine showroom displaying some of the many ways he can bring wood into a home project. Photos by Art Meripol

During his early days in the construction industry, Kim Turner, owner of Birmingham-based Riverbottom Pine, served as a carpenter for his father, a contractor who renovated homes in Mountain Brook and Homewood.

Turner’s father had the challenge of matching the historic styles of the homes’ original molding and other woodwork. He approached his son to help him find a solution to perfectly recreate the old millwork’s stately patterns in a more affordable way. “Modern millwork just didn’t look the same, and, of course, the homeowners wouldn’t have been happy with mismatched molding,” Turner says. “Reproduction woodwork was available from a large supply company my father used, but the prices were hefty and had to be passed on to the customer.”

Turner’s father first asked him to create a reproduction of an old oak trim piece for a historic home renovation, which Turner did in his basement at home. He then started producing molding and other woodwork for his father’s house projects.

Not long after, in 1996, Turner had the opportunity to install salvaged river bottom-recovered pine in a home in the upscale Greystone residential development in Hoover. Wood at the bottom of rivers and other bodies of water does not rot and can last for hundreds of years. “The Greystone project was my first big side job and led to my naming my new company Riverbottom Pine,” Turner says. “Today river bottom wood isn’t easily available, and what’s out there tends to be prohibitively expensive, so these days we primarily work with reclaimed wood and storm-fallen trees. But the legacy of our original name continues.”

Reclaimed wood adds unique touches on wall and ceiling. Photo courtesy of Riverbottom Pine

Riverbottom Pine recovers, mills, installs and finishes wood, providing customers a full-service process for flooring, wall treatments, ceilings, stairs, mantels, countertops, barn doors and tables in styles ranging from rustic to formal. Its products are being used in such diverse locations as stylish downtown Birmingham lofts to renovated historic Potomac River locks under the auspices of the National Park Service.

“You won’t find too many businesses that do everything from the harvesting to installing the finished product,” Turner says.

The growing company also now sells wholesale to other reclaimed wood vendors. An internet search shows an abundance of companies that supply or install reclaimed wood, proof of its growing popularity.

“You could say we supply some of our competitors,” Turner says.

His company ships raw reclaimed logs, which can help builders win Forest Stewardship Council certification or credits toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Even if they opt not to seek certification, they can demonstrate that they’ve followed guidelines.

“Using reclaimed wood gives you bragging rights,” Turner says.

Riverbottom Pine is particularly known for its wide-plank flooring, but can mill flooring of any width and length. According to the company website, which features a variety of striking photographs depicting the wide range of its work, “We mill, install and finish more wide-plank floors than anyone in the Southeast.”

Striking grain patterns from reclaimed wood allow these barn doors to make a bold statement. Photo courtesy of Riverbottom Pine

In recent years, sliding barn doors for residential and commercial use have become especially popular for both their look and versatility. Demand for barn doors manufactured by Riverbottom Pine has increased so much that it has made them one of the company’s top categories.

“Our mix has varied over time, but these days about 50 percent of our business is flooring, 40 percent wall skins and 10 percent barn doors,” Turner says. “We are structured for flexibility, so that we shift our mix as demands change.”

For the past decade, Riverbottom Pine has participated in the Birmingham Inspiration Home, a luxury show home organized annually by Birmingham Home & Garden Magazine. This past year, Turner’s company supplied the reclaimed oak seen in the home, which is located in Homewood. “Our products have been a popular part of the Inspiration homes,” Turner says. “Reclaimed wood has a singular look that sets it apart and creates an ambience like nothing else can.”

Although his company, which does business across the country, has some large accounts, no job is too small, Turner says. The company is periodically employed to transform a storm-fallen tree from a family’s property into wood paneling, a table or other use. “People who feel a nostalgic tie to their trees, maybe even from childhood memories, come to us so that we can provide them with something from it that will last the test of time,” he says.

Turner says he’s proud Riverbottom Pine, which employs approximately 20 workers on a 12-acre mill site, is part of the growing green movement to recycle and reuse. His team, many of whom are skilled craftsmen, get a lot of satisfaction seeing old wood being given a new life. “We are going to keep riding this green wave, because it’s only going to build,” Turner says. “Using reclaimed materials will likely be mandated in some cases at some point in the future.”

Reclaimed wood started becoming popular as early as the 1960s, as homeowners and designers began seeing its potential to add something special to interiors, while being environmentally friendly, Turner says. The colors, textures and grain patterns of old wood batches are unusual and striking. When reclaimed wood comes from old-growth trees, as it often does, the quality of the wood — including hardness — can be superior to wood harvested from young forests.

Being able to tell a background story of where a room’s wood came from adds to the perceived value and interest of old wood. Reclaimed wood with notable histories may come from old pallets, shipping crates, barns, mills, boatyards and salvage yards, among other sources.

“Interest in the wood just kept growing steadily from the ’60s,” he says. “Then beginning in 2000, you began to see a real upsurge in the popularity of reclaimed materials. That’s only going to grow.”

One misconception about reclaimed wood, Turner sometimes hears, is the belief that it is less expensive than newly milled virgin wood product. Unfortunately, because of the cost to find, gather and process the old wood, sometimes available only in small batches, the prices to produce and buy reclaimed wood are higher.

“Even so, the demand continues to increase, because it’s a highly desirable product that cannot easily be reproduced,” Turner says.

Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.

Dothan Chef Named Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’

Photo by Mark Stewart

Dothan was the center of the culinary world Thursday night as Kelsey Barnard Clark earned the title of Bravo Network’s “Top Chef.”

Clark stayed true to her Southern culinary roots as she competed against 14 other chefs from big and small cities across the nation to claim the title “Top Chef.” Going into the final episode, Clark was Dothan’s favorite daughter and it really didn’t matter whether she won or not.

One thing for sure was the Wiregrass had an appetite to celebrate Clark’s success on the show. North Foster Street was blocked off around Clark’s downtown Dothan restaurant, KBC, as thousands of Wiregrass residents gathered Thursday night to watch the season 16 final episode. Food vendors lined the street as the night air was filled with music from a local band. A sold out after party in the Grand on Foster Street right after the final episode ended with proceeds going to support the local animal rescue shelter, which is dear to Clark’s heart.

“Doing the show was not an easy decision,” Clark said to the crowd gathered in downtown. “What kept me going was I wanted to make my family, my city, my state and my friends proud.”

Clark said she was excited and humbled by all the people coming Downtown to support her.

Photo by Todd Douglas

While she was doing publicity in New York this week, her fellow finalists were amazed that she was on billboards and a block party had been organized in her honor.

“That is why I love Dothan and Alabama,” Clark said.

And Dothan, Houston County and Alabama showed their love for Clark by proclaiming Thursday, March 14 Kelsey Barnard Clark Day. She received proclamations from Gov. Kay Ivey, Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate, Dothan mayor Mark Saliba and Houston County Commission Chairman Mark Culver. A peanut honoring Clark was unveiled by Visit Dothan Executive Director Aaron McCreight.

“Dothan is very proud to have you,” state Rep. Paul Lee, Dothan, said. “We are proud to see Dothan be successful because of you.”

Clark hopes the exposure she received on the show will result in her opening more businesses. “I hope it will help continue grow downtown (Dothan) and it will explode with business.”

Clark, who was born and raised in Dothan, has a passion for cooking Southern favorites with a French twist. She began cooking when she was in middle school and she catered her first wedding at 15 years old. Clark studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She also worked under Gavin Kaysen at Café Boulud and at John Fraser’s Dovetail, both in New York City. Clark was featured in a Business Alabama cover story in July 2016.

In addition to earning the title of “Top Chef” Clark received $125,000 in prize money furnished by S.Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water. In addition, Clark will be featured in Food & Wine magazine and she will appear at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado. She will also receive a $50,000 prizing package from Williams Sonoma and a headlining slot on the Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage at BottleRock in Napa Valley.

Southern Sky Aviation Takes Flight

A pilot for many years, Bo Andrews still enjoys the feel of a jet easing from the runway and into flight. The Citation CJ3 seats eight and flies 1,200 or more miles. Photos by Cary Norton

Bo Andrews has been flying since he was a teenager, and he says the experience never gets old. Especially the takeoff, when the rumbling noise generated by the wheels accelerating along the runway suddenly stops and the plane begins that graceful rise toward the sky.

“It’s an amazing feeling, one that still carries with me today,” Andrews says. “When that jet leaves the runway and I feel it going up like an elevator, I still get a rush off it.”

Andrews currently is in the midst of another takeoff, though his seat for this one is primarily in an office instead of a cockpit. Andrews is the CEO of Southern Sky Aviation, a new company based at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport that offers charter flights and a range of aircraft services not easy to find in Alabama.

What began in 2017 as simply a small charter outfit has quickly grown in both size and scope. Southern Sky provides aircraft management and maintenance, sells and repairs navigation and communication equipment, as well as interiors, helps broker the purchase of airplanes, provides hangar storage and offers flight training.

Along the way, Southern Sky has expanded from five employees in early 2017 to 64 (as of late 2018), and gross revenue quadrupled from 2017 to 2018, hitting $4 million by September, 2018.

“This last year has been great,” Andrews says. “Once we realized the opportunities that were out there, we said, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s really make this thing move.’ We didn’t set any limitations. We decided we’d do whatever it takes, and things just really ramped up.”

Bo Andrews, CEO of Birmingham-based Southern Sky Aviation, and the Citation CJ3 he uses to provide charter service. Since it began service in 2017, Southern Sky has expanded its services and its locations.

Southern Sky originated out of a partnership between Andrews and Bill Gunnells, the founder and CEO of Birmingham-based RxBenefits, a prescription drug card company. Andrews was Gunnells’ chief pilot, and the two struck up a friendship during their many flights across the country.

They began to talk on those occasions about starting their own charter company one day. And when both men left RxBenefits in 2015, they got down to business.

“Bill said, ‘Let’s do this aviation thing we’ve talked about,’” Andrews recalls. “So we bought a jet and decided to start doing charters.”

After that quick decision, it took more than a year for Southern Sky to get off the ground, owing to the increase in government regulations that govern charter operations that go beyond a charter owner who flies his own plane.   

“We spent 13 months working on that, without making any revenue,” Andrews says. “Everything has to be reported and approved. We had to go through every part of our jets and see what had to be changed. Then you have to report it to the FAA with the serial number of the part you’re changing. Then you have to get your pilots approved, with medical backgrounds and insurance requirements and recurring training every six months. It was harder than learning how to fly.”

Finally, in 2017, Southern Sky was ready to take flight. And as workers were hired to service the planes and make repairs, it became clear that maintenance was an area of opportunity. Word filtered out through the aviation community that a new company in Birmingham could service planes, and Andrews began receiving calls from owners throughout the Southeast.

“They had been taking their jets to Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville and Miami (for service), but those cities are more expensive,” Andrews says. “So people began contacting us. We started with one mechanic, and now we have 45. There’s just a general void in the market for this type of work.”

That void extends to charter service in general, at least in Alabama. According to the website aircharterguide.com, Southern Sky is one of only six charter operators in the state, compared to 27 in Georgia and 17 in Tennessee. So as flight demand increased, Southern Sky began hiring more pilots as well.

One of those pilots is Wes Williams, who, as the company’s aviation manager, handles all charter sales and logistics in addition to flying some of the flights. As the former operations manager for the Birmingham Airport Authority, Williams says he was amazed at the large number of corporate aviation customers coming through Birmingham.

“The sheer volume of private aviation that takes place in Birmingham is surprising for a city of this size,” Williams says. “There’s just a lot of corporate aircraft that comes through here.”

Southern Sky is starting to tap into that market for both flights and maintenance, including conducting service and repair work on commercial planes at the Birmingham airport. Williams says the key component for Southern Sky’s growth has been a commitment to quality customer relations.

“Everybody who works here has been an aviation customer at some point, and we know how we liked to be treated,” Williams says. “So we try to do that with our customers, doorstep to doorstep. There’s an attitude of intensive customer service throughout the company.”

Or as Andrews puts it, “It may sound hokey, but I really believe that if you treat people right, you’ll do well.”

Michele Kong, a pediatrician with UAB and Children’s of Alabama, has experienced that service firsthand. Kong is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization KultureCity, which works for greater inclusion and accessibility for individuals with autism and other special needs. In addition to holding the annual KultureBall fundraiser inside Southern Sky’s 67,000 square feet of hangar space in 2018, Kong says Andrews helped coordinate six charter flights to bring in donors from New York and Boston.

“Bo is someone who is very easy to work with,” Kong says. “He made everything really simple and efficient. He’s a personable guy, and it really comes across that he cares for people and is willing to work with you.”

It is an approach that appears to be paying off, based on Southern Sky’s rapid increase in business and services. Andrews says he expects the company to be “twice as big by this time next year.” The firm expanded into Atlanta in February, offering charter and maintenance services there.

Add it all up, and there is only one way for this lifelong pilot to describe his company’s potential: “The sky’s the limit.”

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Extruflex Opens Third Manufacturing Facility

Extruflex, a maker of flexible vinyl products like the heavy clear strips that keep the weather outdoors in an open doorway, opened its third manufacturing facility Monday in Birmingham.

Based in France, the company also has plants there and in China.

The company was founded in 1962 and had expanded across Europe, with sales and distribution in the U.S., China and South America. In 2003, it opened a second manufacturing plant in China to serve the Asia-Pacific region.

Shane Solomon, a Birmingham native, created a joint venture with Extruflex (France), and brought the European product to market here in 2011 — and the North American operation quickly ranked as the company’s fastest growing subsidiary.

“Our team had a specific goal in mind as we worked to grow the company and its customer base: We wanted to manufacture these products here, in Alabama,” says Solomon, a veteran of the extruded vinyl industry.

After creating a manufacturing facility here this year, the firm brought over workers from the French factory to help the Birmingham workers hone their technic. Solomon says his team of 16 workers enjoyed the opportunity to interact with their French colleagues.

Beyond the pleasant cultural interchange, “It’s important that we can transfer the knowledge that our French team has developed so that we can make the same level of quality products,” says Solomon.

Monday, the plant at the Pelham-Hoover border, opened for full production.

It’s not a labor-intensive operation, Solomon said. “One person can make 8,000 pounds of product during a shift.” But he still expects his crew to grow to perhaps 25 workers.

Vinyl strips are used for area separation and environmental control, says Solomon. Often used in refrigerated areas or other industrial and distribution facilities, they save energy while keeping dust, pests and insects out.

Volkert Powers Up Its Energy Domain

Volkert’s systems oversight of natural gas pipelines includes use of integrity programs designed to check the pipelines by using “smart pigs,” devices that run through lines to gather data.

Zachary Colston says he always hopes the natural gas transmission line his crew is going to inspect is “piggable.”

“A lot of these older pipelines are not what is called piggable,” says Colston, a project manager for Volkert Engineering’s energy division, which was recently formed to deal with issues facing the nation’s energy companies.

A piggable pipeline allows a standard inspection tool to negotiate it, which requires basically a more or less constant bore, sufficiently long radius bends and traps to launch and retrieve the pigs.

Colston says a lot of the new industry integrity programs designed to check the pipelines for anomalies, defects and corrosion are examined by sending “a smart pig into the line and it runs through the entire line and it inspects it.

“It is a much more intense way to look at it and is a much less intrusive way to insure reliability,” Colston says. The alternative is to dig up the pipeline to take a look.

Volkert Inc. is an employee-owned infrastructure engineering firm based in Mobile. Founded in 1925, the firm has grown from a regional operation to a national and now global organization, ranking 87 among the top 100 engineering firms in the U.S. Volkert has corporate offices in Mobile and Franklin, Tennessee, as well as field offices across the country and more than a thousand engineers and various specialists.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), total U.S. natural gas consumption averaged an estimated 81.6 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day in 2018, and EIA expects it to increase by 1.1 Bcf per day in 2019 and then increase by a further 0.9 Bcf per day in 2020.

The largest natural gas consuming sector in the United States is the electric power sector. EIA estimates that electric generation consumed an average of 29.0 Bcf per day in 2018, up 14.4 percent from 2017 because of warm summer temperatures in 2018 and the addition of natural gas-fired electric generation capacity. EIA forecasts power sector consumption of natural gas to remain largely unchanged in 2019 and then rise by 3.3 percent in 2020 because of continuing increases in natural gas-fired electric generation capacity.

In addition, a weather forecast calling for some rather cold weather through the end of the winter season in the Midwest and the Northeast has caused an increase in natural gas prices.

“Volkert is a geographically managed company so we decided a couple of years ago to establish what we call the energy division,” explains David M. Young, Volkert senior vice president.

“The purpose behind the energy division is to basically take the success that we are having in the Midwest company-wide,” Young says. “I would say for Volkert, energy is about 10 percent of the company and the remainder of our company is transportation-related.”

Young says the company wants to grow its services in the energy sector.  “We have established this initiative that has three approaches to it,” Young says.

“The first strategy was to offer the core services that Volkert already does, meaning general civil engineering, environmental and right-of-way acquisition services. Those are our services that we do for transportation and energy clients. We do those companywide, across our entire footprint.

“The second thing that we wanted to do was to build an electrical design service. ”

And the third strategy, Young says, is natural gas design work.

Volkert executives believe the energy sector shows considerable promise, especially as the nation’s infrastructure continues to age.

Young says nationwide integrity programs call for gas companies to “harden their facilities” so they can better withstand tornadoes, hurricanes, fires and other natural forces… “Plus, they want to make it more reliable and more efficient,” he says. “There is money in the economy to do that. So, we want to be a part of that.”

According to Young, much of the nation’s infrastructure is getting to the point that it “will pass its life cycle. So with the natural gas, you start seeing leaks.”

The energy division is located in the company’s Collinsville, Illinois office, just outside St. Louis, where Volkert launched the energy sector, and where Colston is assigned.

“A lot of our energy-based clients have been up here in Missouri and Illinois,” Colston says. “We had a lot of contacts from a right-of-way perspective as well as survey work, and that kind of overlapped with a lot of real estate work.”

“In our region specifically, we are very heavy on the energy clients. We have gas transmission, gas distribution clients, electric transmission, electric distribution, a lot of water type clients, but then we also have DOT type clients. From an energy perspective we are heavily on the side of electric transmission, gas transmission, of the distribution components of those two industries.

“We provide right-of-way acquisition services and real estate services — that’s probably our biggest component. And we also are in the design role. It could be pipeline design, electric facility design, so we are doing a lot of design work. But we also have a lot of other miscellaneous services that includes road monitoring, appraisals, geographic information systems, mapping work. We also do some data base work to help clients with their integrity records, archiving real estate records that date back to the 1800s, so we do a little bit of everything.”

Colston says the energy sector is a busy place right now, and federal and state level regulations are requiring gas companies to meet more maintenance and code requirements, which often means modernizing their systems.

“Every industry has a little bit of a different stance with this, but as a whole, from the federal level to the state level, there seems of to be a lot of initiative, not from just a spend standpoint, but also there are more initiatives coming out from an integrity standpoint, regulatory codes to meet and things like that,” Colston says.

“All of that bodes well for the growth of the energy industry. So we are just kind of going alongside that and catching opportunities as they come,” he says.

“If things continue to trend that way, we expect to grow and expand, whether it be with existing clients or we find opportunities with other clients that need similar services,” he says.

And while the nation’s energy infrastructure is “certainly improving, change doesn’t happen overnight,” Colston says. “We are seeing less and less dependence on coal, and we are seeing a greater move toward cleaner sources. Natural gas is a great example. A lot of natural gas projects are integrity-driven, and a lot of natural gas projects I have been involved with are replacement projects, meaning that there is an existing gas line in place and they are either replacing it or upsizing it or modernizing it, and a lot of the time it is all three.”

Volkert’s energy sector is “growing at a tremendous rate,” says Young. “We are like that first flake of snow that starts a snowball rolling downhill. We achieved $200 million in sales this past year so our goal is to be one-third of the company’s total revenue. Since 2012 we have increased it to maybe 10 percent of our company, and this past year it was a little more so we are maybe 12 percent, so that is pretty good growth.”

Young says that while the company’s focus has been on natural gas, “We have had a couple of opportunities with renewable energy companies. While that has not been our primary source of projects, there are some opportunities whether they be landfill gas — methane gas coming from landfills — or windmills, and we have had some other projects that were electric projects fueled by wind energy. We are working with some local co-ops that have solar initiatives and things like that. So we do touch in that renewable energy space. It is not huge yet but we would like to grow with it.”

Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.

Is the road to the future being paved in the Alabama House of Representatives this morning?

Friday morning as the Alabama House of Representatives prepared for consideration of legislation enabling a 10 cent fuel tax — the first increase in revenue for roads and bridges in 27 years — we spoke with Katie Britt, president of the Business Council of Alabama, one of the key groups supporting the legislation.

What has Britt and her staff been doing as the legislation moved out of committee yesterday and onto the floor of the full house for consideration today?
“The governor has shown great leadership with the Rebuild Alabama Plan, and we have been working to create partnerships to bring more people to the table to support Gov. Ivey’s plan,” said Britt. “We have been talking with legislators about the issues and addressing their concerns and learning what matters in their districts. And we have been talking with our membership about the challenges in their areas of business and industry and then putting that information in front of the right legislators.”

What objections remain?
“You always have to count on something you didn’t expect,” said Britt. “There are a lot of myths out there about this legislation. People read a headline and believe it is going to cost one thing when actually it is very different. We have been working with the Alabama Transportation Institute to account for the full cost to the average driver, and that has been a good message to bring to the table. The cost to the average driver is $4.58 extra a month. Whereas — because they did not have the details for so long — people thought that it would cost them quite a bit more, as much as thousands of dollars a year.

“And there were some who still had fears about accountability. The BCA has worked diligently to make sure there is a strong accountability provision in the legislation. Sen. Clyde Chambliss has taken the lead on that — ensuring that revenue is not going to anything else, such as salaries, but only to roads and bridges.”

What forces weigh in favor of the legislation at this time?
“We are at a unique time in Alabama’s history with the right set of leaders in the state,” said Britt. “We have a governor who is willing to move this forward, along with the Speaker, the Pro Tem, Rep. Bill Poole and Sen. Chambliss. The business community is united and doesn’t want to be left behind because the road to our future must be paved. It is a special moment in the legislative history of the state, and the governor has the courage to do the right thing so that our future generations can continue to prosper and continue to be competitive as we work to recruit others to come live and work in Alabama.”

Company Kudos, March 2019

Three of the spas on the Robert Trent Jones Spa Trail were recently ranked in the Top 100 Spas by Spas of America. Coming in at no. 31 was the Spa at the Shoals in Florence (pictured here), part of the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. The Spa at Ross Bridge, located in the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, came in at no. 33, while the Spa at Grand National, part of the Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort & Spa at Grand National, came in at no. 53.

The state of Alabama came in fifth best for female entrepreneurs by FitSmallBusiness.com.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital received the 2019 America’s Best Hospitals designation from Women’s Choice Award for the practice areas of obstetrics, bariatric surgery, heart care and cancer care and as a best breast center practice

Auburn University’s online graduate programs recently were ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 Best Online Program listing. The Harbert College of Business’ MBA program came in at no. 9 and non-MBA at no. 13. The Samuel Ginn College of Engineering ranked no. 12 and the College of Education at no. 22.

Coffman International Inc., of Dothan, has received the International Truck Presidential Award, which recognizes the top 7 percent of International Truck dealerships based on operating and financial standards, market representation and customer satisfaction.

Grinkmeyer Leonard Financial has been named to the National Association of Plan Advisors 2018 Top DC Advisor Teams listing. Other Alabama firms making the list were Captrust Birmingham, JSL Retirement Services Group and The Radcliff-Schatzman Group at Morgan Stanley.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019. The Master of Science in Health Administration program was the winner of the 2019 CAHME/Baylor Scott and White Health Award for Excellence in Quality Improvement Education by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education. Also the American Heart Association has named UAB Hospital an AHA RQI Verified institution.

The University of North Alabama Collier Library has been selected by the Association of College and Research Libraries as the site of its Scholarly Communication Roadshow workshop on May 16. In addition, the university’s Institute for Learning in Retirement is celebrating its 27th year of service.

Wayne J. Griffin Electric is celebrating its 40th anniversary. As part of its celebration, the firm participated in several community events during the holiday season. Among the projects, it teamed with local charities to donate hats and blankets to homeless individuals.

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