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Andy Givens, who owns Lamtech, Inc. in Florence, AL, loved to work with wood as an adolescent. High school shop classes at Wilson High (Lauderdale County) and Allen Thornton Vo-tech School in Killen only intensified his natural inclination. He appreciated working with wood - cutting it, shaping it, polishing it. He particularly enjoyed seeing how the final product of his woodworking would turn out.
Andy graduated from high school in 1985.
He started Lamtech - then named Fixture Perfect - in 1992, but it was only after a lot of research and counseling from the local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of North Alabama (UNA) while he held various jobs. While he attended SBDC workshops, he heard something he has never forgotten: a local businessman got up; and told the audience that “…as long as you are happy, you are successful.” It has stuck in his mind to this day.
Later a SBDC counselor helped Andy prepare his business plan. That enabled him to find start-up financing by applying for loan. “I didn’t have the plan complete,” Andy said, “and I was awfully young.” The loan application failed. But with help from his father, he was able to get enough money to open his business. He started, as most businesses do, small. He worked at it part-time.
His first business location was his 700-square foot garage, in which he concentrated on re-laminating and refurbishing of store fixtures. He also built custom cabinets for residences and businesses. By 1996, Andy was in business full-time. Book-A-Million, the large regional book store chain, was his first major customer.
Andy helped Book-A-Million refurbish its fixtures so they could minimize buying new ones. He still serves them today. He continued to attend the SBDC workshops, learning what he could about marketing, business operations, and other helpful topics.
Lamtech now occupies 21,000 square feet in a new building on County Road 8 in Lauderdale County (built in 2003 out of proceeds from a $750,000 504 loan). Givens has overseen the business’ growth. His primary product (70 percent of his work) had been until recently cabinets for new coastal condominiums in Florida, where he helped construct four new condominiums, and in Alabama.
Since that business has dried up, he concentrates on building custom residential cabinets for local apartment complexes. He still does some cabinetry work for local schools and hospitals. His latest year’s annual revenues exceed $750,000.
Andy operates on a set of values that put the customer first. Beginning with courteous and prompt service, Lamtech strives daily to meet deadline commitments. Andy’s three employees – at one time he employed 14 - work hard to satisfy customers.
“I still enjoy the work. If I didn’t, I would do something else. But seeing what comes out of my labor and vision gives me the same satisfaction it did at school shop class years ago,” Givens said.
Andy is happy and successful. He appreciates the help he got from the SBDC and from SBA. Based on the repeat business from former clients and referrals to new prospects, they certainly meet that customer service test.
While many U.S. companies are buying products from China or setting up factories there, one Alabama company exports its products and services to China. Electric Systems & Controls, a Birmingham-based firm in business since 1960, has found a niche in the Chinese market.
It seems Electric Systems and Controls’ excellent international reputation preceded it to China. The company, under its present ownership (Gregory Bray is President and CEO) since 1980, is well known in the foundry, cement, and paper industries for its engineering and production processing machinery for heavy industrial plants. It had some experience in international work, but nothing on the scale of what the Chinese wanted.
Greg Bray tells how it happened: “It seems a Chinese salesman, while he visited Weichai Power Co., had an American magazine that featured one of our advertisements. He showed it to the right person, who initiated the contact with Bray in Birmingham. “That salesman now works for us,” Bray says.
Weichai Power Co., headquartered in Weifang City, Shandong, China came to Bray and asked him to bid on a large project for engineering and building a cupola melt facility and emission control system for a diesel manufacturing plant in Weifang City. The contract was for $11.8 million.
A cupola melt facility is a vertical shaft furnace used to melt scrap iron for re-use in heavy iron products like engine blocks.
Bray did bid, and won the contract over a German competitor. But financing was a challenge according to Mr. Bray. “Fortunately, we were able with the assistance of First Commercial Bank in Birmingham and the Alabama International Trade Center, to obtain a working capital guarantee from the Export-Import Bank of the US,” he explained. In essence, the working capital guarantee enabled a performance bond to be issued which the project requires.
The Alabama International Trade Center, an SBDC in Tuscaloosa, is a partnership program with the SBA and the Alabama Small Business Development Consortium.
“The other parts of the work there have been challenging,” Bray added. Language barriers, sub-contractor issues, and shipping made the final negotiation of the contract tedious. “The Chinese simply do business a different way. We had to hire a consultant to help us through that,” Greg added. Now finalized, the Company has delivered the material, and awaits the initial start-up.
And Mr. Bray is soon scheduled for his 23rd trip to China to start on another bid he won with the same company for a second cupola melt facility at the same plant.
Congratulations to Electric Controls and Systems of Birmingham – a true American and Alabama success story.
Jacob Oestriecher, owner of J & W Wood Specialist, Inc., Stapleton, Alabama, manufactures wood construction stakes. “At the time the hurricanes hit, I had 19 customers, of which 18 were located on either the Gulf Coast or New Orleans. The hurricane wiped them all out.” The damage my company sustained was not physical damage to the firm itself, but was economic damage.”
His customer base was eliminated and he had no sales. He had a total of four employees. The business was closed for six weeks after the hurricane. From the time the hurricane hit to the time he re-started the business, they worked with a gentleman about ten miles north of Stapleton that is in the modular home building business. Mr. Oestriecher says, “I had made a deal with him, that when my shop was slow, that my employees and I could go to work for him on a day-to-day basis.”
The company had been in business for five years last September. Everyone told him that he couldn’t make it because he didn’t have a college education. He said, “I was going to prove them wrong.” That is what motivated him to both start my business and re-start my business after the hurricane.
The loan received was an economic injury disaster loan for $36,600. Oestriecher said “The process was very simple. My wife did all of the leg work. We went to the Bayou La Batre office only twice. I would have completed the paperwork the first time I visited the SBA office, but I didn’t know what I needed for the application. Applying for the loan was a one and a half week - process. Getting the loan was another 2 weeks.” If he had not received the SBA loan, Oestriecher says, “I would not be in business and could not have re-started the business. I would do it (apply for the SBA loan) again in a heartbeat, if needed.”