Wally’s Bessemer Alchemy

Wally Evans, 66, knows a thing or two about running a family business. While growing up in Decatur, he spent many hours helping out at his father’s company, which manufactured aluminum and canvas awnings, patio covers and storm doors, among other products. Fast forward to today, and Evans, the founder of Special Shapes Refractory Co. Inc., has spent more than a quarter of a century operating the privately-held, family-owned manufacturing enterprise in Bessemer.

In June, Evans stepped aside as the company’s president to become CEO, allowing his son, Luke, 37, to take the reins as president. Years ago as a young man, Evans says he chose a career in the corporate world over working in his father’s awning business. His life, however, came full circle after launching his own business.

“I grew up in my family’s business where my aunt worked there and my mother and my dad. The interesting part is that I wanted to get away from that, and now I look at where we are. Family will be honest with you, and you can expect honest answers and good feedback. With family, you’re more open for fresh ideas, and that’s one reason I’m real excited about Luke being here.”

New ideas are at the heart of Special Shapes Refractory. The company makes refractories, which are used to line the inside of furnaces and kilns that process molten glass, steel, iron or aluminum. A refractory consists of non-metallic materials that can withstand extreme high temperatures over a long period of time without cracking or melting.

Special Shapes’ approach to making its product is similar to the way a prefab home is assembled. The company builds whole sections and panels of refractory that customers can connect and install quickly, thereby shortening the time it would take to rebuild or repair an aging or damaged furnace. Special Shapes also makes smaller parts and pieces of refractory based on each customer’s needs and specifications.

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Additives mixed with the ceramic bonded refractory help resist alkali vapors at extreme temperatures.

Luke Evans says the company’s biggest clients are in the glass container industry. They include bottle producers, such as Gallo Glass Co., Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Ardagh Group, and Guardian Industries, which makes glass products for automobiles and buildings. Special Shapes’ other customers include Owens Corning and manufacturers in the aluminum and steel industries.

The Evans’ company has 40 employees, including a team of millwrights, ironworkers and bricklayers. Workers make the refractory by combining several minerals and chemicals together before pouring the mixture into large molds. The primary minerals Special Shapes uses are alumina, silica and zircon, which come from the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and China. Over the years, says the elder Evans, the high cost of minerals has been one of the company’s biggest challenges.

“China, at various times, for example, has bought up a lot of zircon. That drives up the value and the availability goes down, ” says Evans. The prices also are higher because some companies have stopped mining minerals.

It takes approximately 12 hours for a mold to harden. Afterward, the mold is stripped away and the refractory is placed inside a furnace. Depending on how it will eventually be used, the refractory can be fired in the furnace at anywhere from 800 to 2, 500 degrees. After a period of time, the furnace temperature is cooled before workers remove the refractory. Once completed, the refractories can withstand temperatures up to about 3, 000 degrees, Evans says. The refractories are then either prepared for shipping or taken to another section of the plant for further processing.

Special Shapes makes some 4 million pounds of refractory each year, Evans says. The majority is shipped F.O.B. on flatbed trucks, vans or by train to clients across the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America. The company also has customers in parts of Europe and Asia.

Evans says he began the company in 1987 in a building that was once a blacksmith shop and general store on 20th Street in Bessemer. After several years on the job as a technical salesman for another refractory company, he decided to start the business with just $10, 000, two employees and two clients.

“Even though the industry and business and the economy as a whole in the United States was falling apart in 1987, we were in a niche market, and we could do things that other companies could not do, ” Evans says.

The Finishing Department works with freshly cast product.

In the beginning, the company produced insulating brick, the least sophisticated product in the industry, he says. Over time, they began creating more specialty parts and shapes, and the business grew by word of mouth, he says.

To stay competitive with larger refractory companies, Special Shapes has, over the years, invested heavily in research and development to find ways to make refractories more durable and resistant to corrosion, Evans says.

“We took chances in formulating chemistries to strengthen the products, ” he says. “In 1999, we commissioned a ceramic engineer to develop products for us. Then over time, we started our own research and development department in Columbus, Ohio.”

As demand for his products increased during the early 1990s and 2000s, he needed more warehouse space. So Evans turned to the Bessemer Industrial Development Board for help securing new buildings.

The Board custom builds, leases and sells commercial properties to assist primarily light industrial, manufacturing and wholesale distribution businesses. Evans says the development board built three buildings to his company’s specifications over the years.

“Then we leased the buildings from the Board instead of having to go to the bank for a mortgage, ” Evans says. “That allowed us to put more of our money into working capital and research and development.”

In 2004, Special Shapes purchased its current building, a 255, 000-square-foot facility just off Industrial Boulevard in Bessemer that was previously owned by Rohn Industries Inc. Special Shapes occupies about 150, 000 square feet of the building, which includes the plant, warehouse and office space. Two other businesses rent the remaining space, Evans says.

Luke Evans, who helped out in the business as a teenager, joined the company full-time in 1999. He worked 11 years in the company’s sales department.

“After college, I knew I didn’t want to be in banking, and I didn’t want to be a stock broker, ” he says. “I always enjoyed working in a manufacturing environment. I had the opportunity to work in a family business that was growing and doing interesting things. And, I wanted the opportunity to work with my dad. It seemed like a good idea, and it just worked out.”

His first job at the company was working on the plant floor. The experience, he says, helped him learn the business from the ground up.

“We actually start everyone we hire on the main factory floor for a period of time, so they can understand and appreciate those who do it on a day-to-day basis and so they can get their hands dirty and understand the importance of what we’re making, ” he says.

That included the company’s new chief financial officer, Jeff Lees. He joined Special Shapes in May 2012.

“I got out there and hand-casted refractories myself the first week or so I was here, ” says Lees. “It was a unique experience.”

Wally Evans says he has had opportunities to sell the company, but he turned them down. “We didn’t think it would be the best thing for our employees, ” Evans says, “and we just felt like if it’s kept in the family, then you have better opportunities to grow and have innovation.”

He says the key to the company’s longevity has been hard work, investment in research and development and surrounding himself with “good people.”

“I’ve been in the refractory industry for about 42 years, ” he says, “and I’m most proud of the opportunity that we’ve given people to grow in their personal and professional lives and see their families and see how proud they are to work for Special Shapes. And I’m very proud that my son is taking over as the president to continue the legacy I feel that we started. It makes our company a special company.”

Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

text by Gail Short • photos by Cary Norton

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