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Keeping it All Together

This Mobile company mastered fasteners, across industries, across 50 states. They make and deliver what locks it all in place — from bridges and towers to ships and Ferris wheels.

ABOVE Company officials, David Spurlock, vice president; Billy Duren, president, and Jerrad Douberly, vice president commercial sales. 
 

Few among us consider the bindings of bridges, electrical towers, or virtually every machine with moving parts. We are unaware of the nuts, bolts and screws transforming pieces into structures. And then there’s Threaded Fasteners Inc., the authority on the nuts and bolts of the nuts and bolts business.

Based in Mobile, TFI puts it all together — literally. Administrative offices and a central warehouse oversee nine locations in five states with bolts, nuts, screws, fasteners of every norm and nomenclature. They are bolts of note: anchor bolts, transmission bolts, custom-built bolts.  Some are diminutive, connecting two small parts as one. Others are massive for massive jobs, like keeping a bridge suspended, a Ferris wheel turning or a tower upright.

TFI’s customer base includes commercial marine, utility companies, chemical plants, the Department of Transportation and metal building manufacturers. Some buyers want picked and packed kits, perhaps for installation in factory equipment. Thousands of fasteners are crated ready for delivery.

Other projects include offshore drilling platforms, highway signs and bridges. “We can sell one bolt or one million,” says company President Billy Duren. A unique point about Threaded Fasteners is that a customer can order 20,000 structural fasteners for skyscraper beams or one washer, to replace a missing one in a ceiling fan.

ABOVE Joe Walther (top left) heads an anchor bolt, while all around him workers craft fasteners from red hot metals.
 

Duren notes, “We’ve had cases where David (David Spurlock, company vice president) will be on the phone with a million-dollar account. The next call will be a guy working on a lawn mower.”  But the company president adds, “We help the lawnmower man, too. You never know who might be a company CEO.”

Competition is significant in the $77 billion fast and furious fastener business. Yet TFI bolts to the top. From Mobile, and distribution centers in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma, the company does business in all 50 states. Duren credits company success to customer service and employees who know the business, not just order takers, thumbing through pictures in a parts catalogue.

“We have great people,” Duren adds, pointing at a conference room wall display depicting a tree with the names of employees and years of service, many over two decades. “They not only have the knowledge but do everything they can to help customers benefit from it.”

“You learn this business hands-on,” adds Jerrad Douberly, vice president commercial sales.  “There is a lot of on-the-job training. It’s not something you learn in a classroom or from books.”

Making a hex nut is one thing. Knowing its application, where it fits and why, is another. “We travel a lot,” notes Spurlock. “We visit the customer’s site or project, take their design requirements, make our suggestions.” One size does not fit all.

“Not only must we know our industry, we have to know theirs,” adds Douberly. “They have a lot of questions like ‘Who are you, what are your stocking capabilities and what are your products?’  Each industry is different, and we have to know them all.”

Then it’s time for homework. “We research and from our knowledge and resources make suggestions to the best of our abilities,” adds Spurlock. From client specifications a bolt is born.

Fasteners are manufactured in house, based on customer specs, supplied from current stock, or ordered from suppliers.

Attention to detail and knowledge of product and services dates back to the company’s start-up 39 years ago by brothers-in-law Frank Martin and Steve Sholtis. Both are retired but their presence is felt.

“I asked new salespeople to work in the warehouse before making calls,” recalls co-founder Frank Martin, who retired in 2007. “I wanted every employee to feel the product. If you don’t hold it, if you don’t touch it, you don’t know it.”

Through the years, employee expertise grew and so did the company — from humble beginnings.

TFI began in Mobile in 1979 with three employees, a borrowed warehouse and a pipe-threading machine. Shortly after start-up, it went underwater — literally — flooded by Hurricane Frederic. “We had weeks without power,” recalls Martin, “Business was transacted from phone booths.”

Co-founder Steve Sholtis adds, “Back then, everybody I knew gave the same advice regarding starting a business — ‘Don’t do it.’” But the Frank and Steve duo never doubted the future. Sholtis adds, “We were so small and began with such limited resources, we had to make it. But people buy from friends, and we made friends out of customers.”

The hurricane diminished, waters receded, and the fledgling enterprise grew and out grew.

From its original Eslava Street location, the company relocated in 1983, 1990 and 2014 to Mobile’s Conception Street, St. Louis Street and Crichton Street respectively. During main office moves, TFI stretched its arms out of state. Branches opened in Florida: Pensacola in 1992, Panama City in 2012, and Tampa in 2013.

Gulfport, Mississippi was added to the family in 2006 and Chattanooga, Tennessee came onboard in 2016. In addition, there were acquisitions turned into new business — Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2011; Rossville, Georgia, 2017, and an additional location in Tampa in January 2018, merging with the earlier Tampa location to create a larger presence.

TFI began with $28,000 in the bank, a $600 truck and a dream. Today the employee-owned company maintains a $4.6 million inventory across six distribution warehouses. Approximately 163 workers accommodate a combined 232,000 square feet of warehouse space containing more than 42 million parts.

ABOVE Company Co-Founder Frank Martin (right) and Vice President Jerrad Douberly.
 

The Mobile-based company is one of the largest fastener manufacturers and steel bolt distributors in the Southeast. More is on the way.

“You guys should take some pictures of this,” Douberly says, leading an impromptu tour of a work in progress, the Quality Galvanizing construction site. The venture, which broke ground in Semmes in March 2017, will galvanize TFI products, protecting them from weather and corrosion. “Actually, it’s more than a coating,” adds Billy Duren. “The process actually allows zinc to penetrate steel in a bonding process.”

Structures can stand in the weather for 50 years with little rusting, if galvanized. Without it, bolts can corrode within a week, especially in the South. “This is a new venture for us,” Duren notes. “We are excited about it.”

Quality Galvanizing is set to open in mid-2018. Next door is TFI’s manufacturing facility. Since 2009, the sprawling complex houses products in various stages of completion. Raw materials of steel and iron bars are stacked and waiting. From raw stock, craftsmen weld, thread, mold and cut bolts. Finished products range from shirt-pocket accessible, with heads from less than an inch in diameter, to saucer size.

As for competition (and beating it), the company president says, “We always stay focused. We try to always keep our eye on the ball.” Company leaders point out that TFI never considers its products as little or insignificant. For without nuts and bolts, bridges collapse, buildings tumble and giants fall.

The can-do message on their company business card reads “Solutions from the Ground Up.” Chances are, Threaded Fasteners Inc. has the products and know-how for whatever you plan to build. Some assembly required.

Emmett Burnett and Brad McPherson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and McPherson in Mobile.

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