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One-of-a-Kind Companies

A one-of-a-kind state yields one-of-a-kind businesses. From the red hills of Huntsville to the bay shores of Mobile, unique businesses tap unique markets.

When Vulcan was showing his age, Robinson Iron came to the rescue—renovating and rebuilding the massive Birmingham icon.

When Vulcan was showing his age, Robinson Iron came to the rescue—renovating and rebuilding the massive Birmingham icon.

Photo courtesy of Robinson Iron

Robinson Iron Corp.

Alexander City

Alabama has a precious metal—iron. In Alexander City, iron is art and home to Robinson Iron Corp. Employees travel a lot. Presently they are in Washington, restoring the largest iron dome in the world, on the U.S. Capitol Building.

They also work in-house. Like in 1999, when Robinson’s workers plucked the 50-ton, 56-foot tall Vulcan statue off of Red Mountain, moved it to the shop for repairs, and, in 2003, reinstalled it on its Birmingham pedestal.

Have an idea involving iron? Tell them about it. Someone brought Robinson a drawing of a Bengal tiger and said, “Make that.” Today the metallic cat is part of Auburn University’s Tiger Walk. “Football players ‘pat’ it while entering Jordon-Hare stadium,” says Scott Howell, Robinson’s vice president and general manager.

“The tiger is an example of what makes this job so rewarding. We create and captivate interest in iron objects, creations that may last for centuries.”

A spinoff of Robinson Foundry, Robinson Iron started in 1974, as a means to sell the company founder and namesake Joe Robinson’s collection of antique metal patterns. “‘Mr. Joe’ and wife Sara loved those patterns,” says Howell. “We marketed reproductions nationally with some success, but we really grew in the 1980s, when America renewed its interest in restoration work.”

Today Alexander City’s magicians of metal build and restore architectural ironwork across the world. They also will build you a backyard birdbath. “If a customer brings us a pattern, sketch, design, we can take it from there,” Howell says.

“From the design, to ordering raw iron from foundries, to creation and delivery, we are the beginning and ending of the project. Our welders, machinists and fabricators are also artists.”

Robinson’s fountains gurgle and splash water all over the country, including the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Wicker Park in Chicago and Kenilworth Mall in Baltimore. Customers range from Vulcan, god of the forge, to John Doe the homeowner. The same company restoring the New Jersey State House will build you a mailbox stand.

Robinson also is responsible for an ironic twist of history. “The U.S. Capitol Dome was constructed around 1865 under guidance of President Abraham Lincoln,” says Howell. “But Congress criticized Lincoln, arguing the 70,000 pounds of iron in the dome would be better used making cannon balls to fight the South.” 

A century-and-a-half later, a Southern company from Alexander City is restoring the same dome.

Rushbiddies

Birmingham

What’s the rush? For thousands of college-bound women pledging sororities, rush is everything. Panhellenic acceptance opens doors to networking, social connections and future jobs.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: Competition is fierce. This year, 2,000 girls will try out for sororities at the University of Alabama and 1,400 at Auburn University.

Forget sisterhood. This is war.

Rushbiddies ups the odds for victory. “It’s not your mamma’s rush anymore,” says company co-owner Pat Grant. “The number of sorority candidates has doubled since your parents tried it. You need an edge.” And if it’s Greek you seek, Rushbiddies may be that edge.

The Birmingham consulting firm advises clients on the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of sorority recruitment. Grant and co-owner Marlea Foster provide clients with strategies for success, including wardrobe selection, how to write and what to include in a resume, how to talk in a crowd, proper eye contact, hair style, make up selection and etiquette. Intensive two-day or more workshops are held, as well as private consultations.

“Our typical client has no experience with the Greek system,” says Grant. “She had no mom, aunt or grandmother in college sororities. Her main fear is the unknown. We give the tools to address the unknown.”

Rushbiddies combs through a client’s accomplishments. “We examine grades, achievements, awards, everything,” adds Grant. The sororities’ selection committee wants to know about academic milestones, clubs and organizations attended and community involvement. Things you may never think to include, Rushbiddies digs and plants on your resume.

And then comes rush, guerrilla warfare in hairspray.

One successful Rushbiddies grad summarized the experience, “rush is not for the faint of heart.”

“Think of it as your job for one week,” says Foster. “During rush, a girl may attend 11 parties during a day. She has to be cool, fresh, cute and adorable at every one of them.”

And don’t let the word “party” fool you, she says. It’s really an interrogation. You are being scrutinized, your every move observed. A party crowd of potential sisters are actually being judged on poise and confidence.

Rushbiddies emphatically states they have no insider connections with any university and will not pull strings. They provide the tools; the rest is up to the client. But of their 100-plus clients, hoping for a sorority bid, 90 percent got one.

Miles of umbilicals wait for an undersea assignment at Aker Solutions. 

Photo courtesy of Aker Solutions

Aker Solutions

Mobile

At Aker Solutions, a day at the office is underwater—but not a problem for the Norway-based company. After all, Norwegians are known for their kinship with the sea. They don’t just sail the ocean, they explore it, on the surface and deep below. They receive help from Mobile.

Based in Oslo, Norway, Aker Solutions has a branch in Mobile that manufactures and installs “umbilicals,”  3- to 16-inch diameter casings, up to 9,000 feet long and stuffed with electronics. One end of the tube is on an offshore oil platform, the other end is on the bottom of the ocean. Mobile has the only plant in North America where you can buy one.

One of two North American locations for Aker, the Port City plant manufactures and delivers the umbilicals anywhere in the world. But the primary location for the “smart tube” is the Gulf of Mexico.

Like a human umbilical cord, Aker’s mechanical one does similar tasks. It transfers life from one “being”—such as a deep sea oil platform—to another, such as equipment on the ocean’s floor. An operator from above can press a button, activating a pump, turning a drill or starting a motor somewhere in the briny depths.

From a fish-eye view, Aker’s umbilical resembles a 9,000-foot-long strand of spaghetti suspended in water. To an offshore technician, it may be the sole means of operating and communicating with equipment that’s otherwise unreachable. “It’s a unique package of fiber optics, computer cables, hydraulics and more that brings life to the seabed,” says Aker’s Marc Quenneville, head of umbilicals for North America. “It is kind of like a giant extension cord.”

But an extension cord only provides power. Aker Mobile’s umbilicals communicate. They transfer computer data, command machinery and monitor performance of underwater “factories” sitting on a seabed as inhospitable as Venus. All in a day’s work in search of oil.

Business is good.

“We opened in Mobile in 2003 with 28 employees, today we have 230,” Quenneville says. “After several expansions since opening, Mobile is now the largest umbilical facility in the world. We run a global operation, but we focus on the Gulf of Mexico.”

And in the Gulf of Mexico, Aker has dropped its umbilical line 9,500 feet, the deepest part of the Gulf. The longest single length of umbilical tubing created by Mobile’s group was 36.8 miles long. Their biggest overall tube order by one client was for 206 miles of it.

Southern Cord

Huntsville

When parents choose to store their new baby’s cord blood, they receive this kit with everything that’s needed. 

Photo courtesy of Southern Cord

When shopping for a baby shower, the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology in Huntsville probably isn’t one of your stops. But maybe this associate company, headquartered at HudsonAlpha, should be. Southern Cord is a business offering children the gift that keeps on giving—life.

Southern Cord harvests a baby’s umbilical cord blood remaining in the tissue after the child is born. Rich in life-saving properties, the blood is collected post delivery so there is no pain and no health risk to the child or mother. It is then stored with Southern Cord. Should the child need the blood, it’s in the bank, ready for withdrawal.

The process starts with registration. The expectant mom is sent a “collection kit,” which is given to her physicians. On the birth of her child, the excess blood is collected from the umbilical cord. The hospital ships it back to Southern Cord, for processing and banking. Stored in nitrogen for cryopreservation, the material is monitored 24/7.

And what is in this bank that is so valuable?

The miracle that is stem cells.

“Stem cells are basic life building blocks of our body and, hence, a lot of interest for scientists and physicians,” Southern Cord President and CEO Chakri Deverapalli says. “It can also be used to find a cure and/or be used for curing a lot of life threatening diseases.”

Not to be confused with embryonic stem cells, cord blood contains ‘adult cells,’ which cannot harm the donor or be used for cloning. But like the controversial embryonic ones, cord blood cells have the ability to regenerate themselves, meaning they can replace or repair various cells throughout the body. The Huntsville harvest also can be used to treat diseases including cancers, blood disorders and immunodeficiencies.

“The cord industry is relatively young,” adds Deverapalli. “Currently we have 85 diseases with FDA approval to be treated using cord blood stem cells. However, Southern Cord is convinced more illnesses can be cured. We are very optimistic; this is a remarkable achievement.”

Southern Cord is the only family cord blood banking company in Alabama. It is part of the Cummings Research Park, second largest research complex in the U.S.

“Our customers are expecting parents and grandparents who want to give their grandchild a gift of a life time,” says Deverapalli. “As our website says, ‘we are banking your child’s future.’”

Dr. Thomas Dooley works in the lab at Magenta Medical, where he’s working to transform shrimp shells into surgical membrane. 

Photo courtesy of Magenta Medical

Magenta Medical Inc. Innovation Depot

Birmingham

“This could be a game changer,” says Magenta Medical Inc. CEO Dr. Thomas Dooley. He speaks of his company’s patent-pending process transforming shrimp shells into surgical membranes. “It is a medical breakthrough.” Magenta is breaking it.

It’s all about chitosan, a derivative of the chitin part of a shrimp or lobster shell. The discovery came after Dooley’s partner-in-science, Dr. Arthur DeCarlo, sought methods to enhance wound healing in oral cavities. “Art (a practicing periodontal physician) wanted a better way to promote healing and ease patient pain during surgery,” says Dooley. “He wanted something superior.” Supported by a National Institutes of Health grant, the answer was chitosan. The future is good.

In a nutshell, chitosan is a sugar polymer derived from the chitin shell of shrimp and lobsters. According to Magenta, when processed, chitosan makes an excellent surgical material. Today’s industry standard is collagen, with emphasis on the word, today. Pending FDA approval, chitosan may take the lead tomorrow.

Collagen comes from pigs and cows and is used in surgical sutures. So is shell-based chitosan, but Dooley believes chitosan is superior because it has stronger suture strength and is more durable when wet than collagen. “Collagen becomes soggy like a wet blanket. Chitosan not only maintains its strength but it is also easily distinguishable from surrounding tissue.”

Magenta believes its process also has antibacterial properties that promote healing. Collagen does not. “Clinical studies show chitosan membranes can be placed between bones and soft tissue to promote healing and ease pain,” adds Dooley. It can also be used to separate tissues and provide tissue support during wound healing.

“No one has ever been able to produce a chitosan membrane that has clinical handling characteristics until now,” the doctor says. “We are the first to offer it for surgical sutures.”

After FDA approval, Magenta, which is a spinoff of Agenta Biotechnologies in Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, plans to market its chitosan products initially for the dental industry and then to physicians of all specialties. The young company’s current shrimp material supply is from overseas, but local Gulf species could be used.

“I’m an advocate of ‘vertical integration,’” says Dooley. “We could consider using shrimp from many sources, including the Gulf of Mexico for medical use.” 

Ironically, the same shellfish contributing to one’s high blood pressure may one day be used to lower it.

Technicians from TCI of Alabama work to prevent pollution and salvage scrap from a massive transformer. 

Photo courtesy of TCI of Alabama

TCI of Alabama LLC

Pell City

Four things to know about a sub-station transformer:
1. It can weigh a million pounds. 
2. When life is good, it regulates electricity to our homes and businesses.
3. When life is bad, that thing gets really nasty.
4. When a transformer goes bad, TCI of Alabama takes care of it.

With 20 years in business in Pell City, the staff at TCI are the 105 men and women who decontaminate and recycle transformers.

Most of us pay little attention to the big box on the telephone pole, behind the hospital or on top of the restaurant. But if it runs on electricity, transformers make it happen. During its life cycle, oil, gunk and goo contaminate the machinery and if not disposed of properly, harm the environment.

You can’t just throw away a used transformer. It makes the EPA, DOT and OSHA really angry. One instead calls TCI.

“Since our inception, we have striven to provide our customers with a recycling option for their obsolete oil filled transformers and other electrical equipment,” says company President George Jackson. “Being an EPA permitted company, we can offer our services for equipment containing any PCB level.” PCB, short for polychlorinated biphenyl, is defined by the EPA as any of 209 listed chemicals deemed harmful and extremely resistant to breaking down in the environment. You don’t need to know the chemicals. TCI does.

They start with an interview process. Just as a doctor examines his patient, TCI wants to know about a transformer’s “health.” The 105 company employees are interested in what type oil is in it and what services the machine was used for. And last but not least, how big is this thing? Transformers can be the size of a large microwave oven and weighing 200 pounds to the size of a small house and weighing as much as one.

“After the transformers are decontaminated and cleaned, the metals are removed and taken to smelters,” adds Jackson, where the metal is recycled for use in a new product.

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.

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