Quality, service, and lead time have helped the full-scale steel fabricator to gain an advantage over the competition.
In an ever-evolving marketplace, ALNC‘s ability to change quickly and improve continuously keeps the contract manufacturer up to the challenge of meeting its customers’ needs.
The company’s origins date back more than 50 years to an auto bumper business that grew into an oil and gas industry supply business and other local manufacturing enterprises. The present company, which takes its name from the initials of the founders — Aubrey Lee and Neva Conner — was purchased by new owners, Kristin Churchwell and Clint Barta, from family members looking to retire in 2008.
The vast majority of the company’s work is in fabrication of carbon steel parts for a variety of businesses around the country, with highway construction and the oil and gas industry at the top of the list in varying percentages. ALNC has also become known for its own stairway and catwalk system designed and produced for the oil industry.
Although not an engineering company, the team considers themselves a full-scale fabrication facility, and offers in-house drafting capabilities as well as the other services necessary to supply customers with turn-key parts, typically avoiding outsourcing for other operations.
Things have changed a bit during Business Manager Brittany Tidwell’s fourteen years with the company. She says, “When we started as a business, we were more of a wholesaler, and we would sell to the distributor who would sell to the end user. Things were a lot simpler. Things were very standard. People were taking truckload quantities of duplicated items, and now everything is getting bigger and more customized. Luckily, we’re very good at that, but things take a little longer. Everybody’s preferences are different, and we have to be very careful about who we sell direct to, so as not to step on existing customers’ toes. In our eyes, there has to be enough pie for everybody. We want to keep that loyalty, and those good relationships, with our distributor customers who are selling to the end users.”
With the need for 800 to 900 tons of steel per month, the supply of raw materials is always a concern, and of the situation earlier this year, Tidwell says, “Acquiring that tonnage from one vendor or two vendors was becoming pretty difficult, so we had to widen our purchasing preferences. A majority of our business is guardrail construction, and that is DOT work, and it requires domestic materials. Whenever you run into a supply chain issue, people suck up all the foreign material, and those buyers start acquiring the domestic material that we need, because they can use either/or. That cuts into our inventory and allocation a bit, but I’ve been buying steel for a long time, and have lots of wonderful vendors that I can count on, so we made it through okay, but pricing went through the roof.”
As important as a steady supply of raw material is, large increases or decreases in the cost of steel are not desirable for the business, nor are the very large increases in shipping costs in recent times. “We like a stable steel market,” Tidwell says. “We’re still waiting on some consistency, but now it’s a lot more affordable, and it’s a lot more available.”
A large portion of ALNC’s labor force is made up of skilled machine operators and welders. But with many other businesses in the area searching for workers, retention is sometimes difficult. Although they generally have a fairly steady stream of applicants, people often move on despite the company’s efforts at keeping them through increased benefits and wages.
Presently, business is good, and the company doesn’t employ any outside sales force, instead relying on a loyal base of existing and repeat customers with occasional calls to drum up business when their capacity warrants it. Fluctuations in the needs of the oil and gas industry for components are an important driver of ALNC’s changes in sales volumes, as is workforce size at their San Angelo and Del Rio facilities. “We have learned to try to be conservative, and try to really push for great, fast service for the customers that we have,” says Tidwell.
Challenges: The workforce retention issue over the last several years is leading to more of an emphasis on automation. However, the million-dollar-plus expense of machinery capable of handling the large scale of the parts the company fabricates is slowing that transition somewhat.
“It’s like the age-old warning that robots are taking over,” Tidwell says. “But robots are taking over because we can’t get anybody to come work. At trade shows, we’re looking at what machinery is going to help us in our industry, and how many people it’s going to replace. I know that sounds terrible. Luckily we still have plenty of opportunity for hands-on jobs, but we’ve got to look out for the vitality of the company, and that means getting material and products out, and doing it more efficiently.”
Opportunities: Tidwell says, “We want to grow. We just do it at a conservative pace. Our owner is very, very good at reading where we’re headed, how we did for the year, and how much we’re able to expand for the next year. We’d love to get back into automotive and agricultural. We’d love any opportunity for those, but it has to be a good fit, and the materials have to fit, as well.”
Needs: To continue their controlled growth and focus on the specific types of work that the company can handle expertly and efficiently.