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February 2013
Steeling Themselves for Success
By Barbara Fagan

     The Charlotte Knights’ baseball season at the new BB&T Ballpark uptown will begin next year. Construction of the state-of-the-art stadium can be viewed in real time via webcam at the team’s official website and soon will show the erection of the steel columns, beams and metal decking for the 10,000-seat facility.

     The 1,035 tons of steel needed to build the $54 million stadium will be provided by SteelFab, Inc. But the ballpark is hardly the first high profile project for SteelFab. Within sight of the ballpark, the peaks of several other SteelFab projects carve out the Charlotte skyline.

     Duke Energy Tower, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Convention Center, and 1 Bank of America Center were all built with steel fabricated by SteelFab.

     Other SteelFab projects nationwide include the Georgia Aquarium, Temple University Fox Business School, UNC Dental Science Building, TRADOC Headquarters, 12 Crate & Barrel stores, as well as paint shops for car manufacturers Kia, Volkswagen, Honda and Nissan. The company has worked on projects in industries as diverse as commercial health care, energy, food processing, heavy industrial and defense.

     For the last three years the company’s jobsites have included two naval shipyards where they’ve fabricated the staging and temporary shoring needed for work on nuclear submarines.

     Headquartered in Charlotte and with seven divisions spanning the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Texas, SteelFab has become a national leader in the fabrication of structural steel. The company’s success is a source of pride for Chairman and CEO Ronald G. Sherrill, but Sherrill views the success from a broader perspective.

 

A Steel Core

     At its core, SteelFab is a family business, founded in 1955 by Sherrill’s father J. Glenn Sherrill, who grew up on a farm and dropped out of high school after the ninth grade to work in a cotton mill before starting work building handrails for a local steel fabricator. After a tour of duty in the Navy in WWII, Glenn Sherrill returned to Charlotte to work for the same company before starting his own business in a barn off West Boulevard fashioning ornamental handrails for a local house builder.

     “I was about seven,” Ron Sherrill recalls, “when I would ride with my dad on the weekends. We’d measure for the handrails and then in the next week, he’d fabricate them and put them up the following Friday or Saturday. I have two brothers and a sister and my brothers and I would work for him during summer breaks and holidays growing up. When I graduated from college in 1970, I knew I wanted to work for my dad.”

     At the time Sherrill joined his father in the business, the company had 15 to 20 employees and had branched out into jobs involving smaller structures like one-story office buildings and shopping centers.

     Brothers Don and Phillip soon followed Ron into the business, but the brothers quickly realized that something needed to change if the family business were to continue to succeed.

     “So,” says Sherrill, “in the late ’70s, we started buying more equipment. We began investing so we could do bigger work. Some contractors and developers we worked for started expanding, and because we did a good job for them, we started growing as well.”

     In the early 1980s, the company became involved in more office buildings, manufacturing facilities and several high-rise buildings in Myrtle Beach. Although the brothers continued fabricating handrails, stairs and other miscellaneous type jobs, in 1985 they decided, for efficiency’s sake, to move that work to a different location.

     So, in 1985, they opened a new division, CM Steel Inc., continuing the early legacy of SteelFab with those fabrications as well as structural steel in a 70,000-square-foot plant in York, S.C.

     The next decade was a time of expansion for the Charlotte-based company. In 1988, SteelFab opened a new structural fabricating facility in Florence, S.C. Named SteelFab of South Carolina; the new facility was followed by SteelFab of Virginia in Emporia in 1990, SteelFab of Alabama in Roanoke in 1996, and SteelFab of Georgia in Dublin in 2000.

     Sherrill credits the expansion to the regional growth of their business. Not only is it more cost efficient to fabricate the steel nearer to building sites, but “it’s nice to be closer to your customers,” explains Sherrill. “This really is a relationship business. From the very beginning our philosophy has been to take care of our customers. We realize we’re only as good as our last job.”

     With a small marketing staff and no outside advertising, SteelFab is a word-of-mouth, repeat business success. Sherrill says many of their customers are long-term, and notes that they’ve been doing business with several local contractors and developers for more than 35 years.

     Clients aren’t the only long-term aspect of the company; when Sherrill’s sons, Stuart and R. Glenn Sherrill Jr. joined the company in the 1990s, it became a third generation family business.

     Sherrill admits that being family didn’t make joining the family business any easier. “There’s no training program,” he says. “You get a desk and a computer and you’re expected to learn on the job and set a good example for others.”

     When SteelFab of Georgia was having a rocky time, Sherrill’s son Glenn volunteered to save the ailing facility. Within a couple of years, he turned it around, and in 2007 when SteelFab of Georgia merged into SteelFab of Charlotte, Glenn became and today remains president and chief operating officer.

     Business milestones were reached in 1999, when SteelFab fabricated and erected the 42-story Hearst Tower, and in 2008, when SteelFab provided 23,500 tons of fabricated steel for the 2.1 million-square-foot NCE project in Fort Belvoir, Va. The year 2008 also was a record production year for the company when, for the first time, they fabricated over 100,000 tons of steel in one year.

     But SteelFab isn’t just about big projects. “The first job I ever sold was for $3,000,” remembers Sherrill. “We grew up on very small projects and we’re still very involved in that market. A large percentage of our projects are under $500,000. We also handle $200 jobs.”

 

Commitment to Quality

     Whatever the size of the project, SteelFab has become known for its commitment to quality. “It’s an excellent company,” says Eric Reichard of Rodgers Builders, “very professional and good to work with.”

     In his position as COO, Reichard has personally worked with SteelFab for over 20 years on projects ranging from Lowe’s corporate headquarters to the Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation at Queens University. Currently they are teaming up to build the BB&T Ballpark.

     “We had a project in the limited space of the city where two cranes were needed simultaneously to pick up one steel beam,” Reichard adds. “They did a great job. Another time, they had to haul large trusses to a jobsite in the middle of the night because that was the only time allowed by the permit. SteelFab sets the bar very high for any other subcontractor.”

     And the bar has changed dramatically since Sherrill started with the company. “All the shop drawings used to be done by hand,” says Sherrill. “And the actual fabrication was very labor intensive. Labor’s still a big part of it. Our employees are highly skilled craftsmen. But we’ve also invested in computerized processes and state-of-the-art equipment to help them achieve even greater accuracy and efficiency.”

     The role of technology continues to grow in importance. The company began using BIM (building information modeling) technology in 1997. Its initial role of transferring basic information to equipment has expanded to the point where it now enhances the functions of purchasing, production, estimating and 3D modeling. SteelFab provides three-dimensional modeling on all its projects to minimize errors and provide better information to the design team.

     SteelFab also uses bar coding technology to track material through production, to assist in shipping, and to provide important information to workers both in the shops and in the field.

     Investments in equipment have also helped SteelFab remain competitive and able to handle even the most demanding projects. Each of SteelFab’s fabricating facilities contain several pieces of CNC (computer numerical control) equipment that allows them to saw, drill, punch, shear and burn every type of structural steel. The automated equipment enables them to fabricate up to 2,000 tons of material each week companywide. One of the machines performs in 20 seconds what used to take 30 minutes by hand.

     The company has also invested in heavy cranes and forklifts in order to handle large and complex assemblies that can weigh upwards of 120,000 pounds. They have a dedicated shop for these heavier fabrications and specialized truss and frame fabrication areas which allow finished assemblies to be fabricated together to ensure that pieces fit perfectly when erected in the field.

 

Commitment to People

     Given the materials involved and equipment used, Sherrill admits that safety is a big concern but also a source of pride for SteelFab. SteelFab has full-time corporate safety personnel that strive to meet or exceed all local, state and federal guidelines, standards and rules.

     Sherrill states that their philosophy behind safety is driven by the company’s belief that “We must be each other’s keeper” and that working safely is a condition of employment.

     “Our safety record is one of the things that make me most proud,” Sherrill says, “The Charlotte facility’s last lost time accident occurred more than three years ago and all the SteelFab facilities together total more than 4,000 days without a lost time accident.”

     Sherrill is also proud that SteelFab employs 800 people companywide; 250 of them at their 285,000-square-foot facility on Old Dowd Road in Charlotte. Many employees, such as engineers, project managers and estimators, have engineering backgrounds. Production positions include skilled welders, machine operators, material handlers, fitters and quality control personnel.

     “We want our people to work here because it’s a good place to work,” Sherrill says. “We want to treat each other, our customers and our vendors by the golden rule. It’s a pretty simple thing to do—treat people the way we want to be treated. We’re proud of our culture here.”

     Part of the corporate culture is community involvement. SteelFab donates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, United Way, Teach for America and over a hundred local and national non-profits.

     “It’s our way of giving back to our communities and to our customers,” Sherrill says.

     SteelFab continues to grow. It opened a Washington, D.C. Mid-Atlantic sales office in 2010, and in 2012 it purchased Alpha Industries, Inc. in Texas. The newly named Alpha SteelFab Inc. expands their project footprint as far west as Colorado. In 2012, SteelFab companies did work in 14 different states.

     Sherrill smiles. “It really is amazing,” he says. “When I first started working here I never dreamed we could be where we are today.

     “This company was never built on dreams. We came to work each day, we worked hard, we took care of our customers and our people, and our growth was a byproduct of that. It’s a family business and a group success.

     “I can’t take the credit. We’ve got 800 people who can take the credit.” Sherrill winks. “I just happen to be the oldest,” he says.

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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