Eddy Gibbs, owner of Ameristar Fence Products Inc., is so proud of the Tulsa, Okla.-based company’s “speed of business” model that he has “SPDOFBZ” on his license plate. With a focus on lean manufacturing and Six Sigma principles, as well as a dedicated workforce, Ameristar uses the fast pace of its operation and extensive in-house capabilities to provide a competitive price point. This is just one reason why it has become the largest ornamental fence manufacturer in the world.
It was Gibbs’ innovation and dedication to quality that led to Ameristar’s inception, according to President Mark Meek. Gibbs started out as the owner of a fence installation business in the 1970s and, at that time, most fences were made of wood or chain link. “He thought all of the gate hardware available at the time was poor quality,” Meek says. So, Gibbs bought an old stamping press, designed new hardware and patented it himself. He would stamp enough pieces to fill his pickup truck, travel around for two or three days selling his wares, and when he was sold out, he’d return home to fill up his truck again.
“Word got out, and fence contractors wanted his products,” Meek explains. “After about $6 million in sales, he maxed out with the hardware, so he started with ornamental fences, and that business really took off.”
Gibbs’s goal when he started, Meek says, was to enhance the appearance of modern fence products, while also improving ease of installation, strength and durability. This is what attracted fence contractors – superior quality of products and ease of installation enhanced the contractors’ profitability. He says Ameristar is now known for producing the highest-quality high-end security, industrial, commercial and residential fences in the market, and it consistently delivers this high level of quality by controlling its manufacturing processes. In fact, Ameristar is the only architectural metal fencing manufacturer in America to control all of its quality criteria from the receipt of raw material to the completion of finished product, all within its own facilities. Additionally, most Ameristar fence products are produced from recycled steel which qualifies for LEED points.
“All of our manufacturing is done in Tulsa,” Meek says. “The company started with 100,000 square feet of production space, but today we have 1 million square feet of environmentally friendly space. We bring in raw, 46,000-pound coils of steel and slit it ourselves, send it through our own tube mills, roll formers, robotic welders and three coating lines – two powder and one e-coat. We start with raw steel and we ship a finished product that is ready to be installed.”
Far Ahead of the Competition
Ameristar’s speed-of-business and six sigma principles helps it maintain a high level of efficiency, as well as quality. Meek explains that some products can go “from raw to finished in the same day,” while anything in stock will ship within three days. For special orders, Ameristar only needs a 10-day lead time. To ensure its inventory is well stocked, he says, the company will run large volumes for a couple days at a time. Additionally, it was the company’s focus on quality that brought about the creation of the speed-of-business model.
“Eddy Gibbs was looking at our operation to see how we could do everything better, faster and with better quality,” Meek says. “On our Montage line, for example, there was some automated welding equipment available that could produce 10 8-foot welded fence panels in an hour, but Eddy thought it could be better.
“He toured an automotive facility in Detroit and hired a robotic engineer from the automotive industry to make new robotics for our plant,” he continues. “Now, our machines can do 120 panels in an hour, while no competitor can do anything faster than 10 to 12 panels an hour.
“Additionally, we’d always had powder coating, but Detroit was using e-coat. E-coat covers everything and coats three times more area than a powder-coat line. Powder coat is excellent, but it doesn’t get underneath or in the nooks and cracks. We made about a $20 million investment in e-coat, and have been e-coating for more than six years. No other U.S. competitor has gone to e-coat.”
With the company’s size and capabilities, it has weathered the recession fairly well, although its residential business dropped because “residential construction was hammered,” Meek says. Residential represents only 25 percent of Ameristar’s business, however, and the company has spent the last few years hiring more people so it could expand into other industries.
Ameristar is focused on security – providing security fencing to military bases, government facilities, schools, banks or “anywhere that might have any type of threat,” Meek notes. Many of its competitors don’t have the size to expand into a market like this, but Ameristar is using its capabilities to ensure it serves security clients with the same level of quality that it provides to any other market.
“We’ve worked hard to get the product specifications to meet the needs of the security market, and we’re doing more than 1,000 architectural presentations a year,” he says. “We’ve done well with perimeter security needs with our fence products and gates, but our goal is to provide the entire perimeter security package. Last year we purchased the North American division of the British firm ATG Access, which makes bollards and other vehicle barriers that are designed to stop various vehicle types traveling at a variety of speeds. We’re also looking into potential acquisitions to expand into all perimeter security products, such as turnstiles, gate operators and guard booths. Crash-rated gates also are important in this market, and we may acquire a company that makes those or develop our own.”
Meek says there is a significant barrier to entry in the crash-rated niche of the fence market. “It’s about $75,000 per crash test, and we’ve done over 14 tests so far,” he explains.
“Our ultimate goal is to provide the complete perimeter security package,” he continues. “We’ve targeted specifying our architectural products in this market because large companies want to protect their properties. They will be looking for the entire package, but right now they need about seven to eight companies to get everything they need. Our goal is to be a one-stop shop within the next few years.”