December 2007- Childhood is full of cautionary tales about pretty people and things that turn out to be ugly on the inside. Snow White's apple, the Biblical Jezebel, the candied house that Hansel and Gretel stumble upon. Fortunately, that rule doesn't apply to mirror-finished stainless tubing producer American Stainless Tubing Inc., Troutman, N.C. ASTI's tubing products are as lustrous and attractive as its dedication to quality, consistency and customer satisfaction.
Top to bottom, ASTI provides more than just a pretty product. With comprehensive customer service, a wide variety of tube shapes and sizes, and specialty cutting capabilities, it's a bastion for quality mirror-finished tubing and, when you consider its family-focused origins, a testament to how the simple decision to produce high-quality products, one that's unfortunately not always made in business, can lead to dazzling success.
A family triumvirate
Sometimes when a person wants something done right, it's best to do it himself. When Paul Haughton and Tommy McCoy became disenchanted with the quality of stainless steel tubing available on the market, while trying to run a mirror-finished furniture operation, they decided to produce their own stainless tubing. With the help of the marketing mind of Fred Lampe, the men transitioned from a furniture manufacturer to the tubing manufacturer Romac Metals Inc., which they sold in 1986. Restless in their retirement, the men went into business again in 1994, forming ASTI and dedicating themselves once again to providing top-notch, mirror-finished stainless tubing.
When the men came out of retirement to start ASTI, some family members were hesitant. "I tried to talk dad out of it," remembers Maria Haughton, Paul's daughter and CFO. "He was 65 years old. I said, 'Dad, what are you doing?' He said, 'Maria, I'm going to do this.' So I said, 'Well, can I have a job?'"
Her father, McCoy and Lampe's determination paid off, and today the three families continue to run the business, nestled in the bucolic Piedmont region of North Carolina, with second- and third-generation family members now employed. They use their unique talents to perpetuate the patriarchs' original vision.
"We all have different areas that we excel in," says Maria Haughton. "We work well together, and its good to get a lot of different people's opinions when you make a major decision. I think it works really well, as good as any other company that's not family-based."
With more than 150 employees and a 200,000-square-foot facility with 20 mills, ASTI is, as sales manager Mike Gamage puts it, "big enough to be competitive and small enough to be responsive, with quick answers to special requests."
"We make the jewelry in stainless steel tubing: the pretty stuff," says Haughton. "We're known for our high-quality finish."
While ASTI has a concentration in round stainless tubing, the company also makes square, rectangular, flat ovals, ellipticals and other special shapes. For round, sizes range from 0.5 inches to 5 inches in diameter while squares have widths of 0.375 inches to 4 inches and rectangle dimensions start at 0.244 inches by 0.944 inches and top off at 2.5 inches by 4 inches. Finishes offered include 180, 240 and 320 grit as well as special ASTI linear buff, linear grit and super buff. But these are just the standard finishes. Special finishes can be requested and are usually able to be matched.
"The thing is that we're proactive in trying to get the best quality and finish out there," says Haughton. "We set the quality standard."
As for gauges, ASTI tubing runs from 11 gauge (0.113 inch) to 22 gauge (0.028 inch) in all shapes. All of the company's tubing is GTAW-welded and available in 201, 304, 304-L and 316-L grades.
While cutting to length isn't unusual for a tubing manufacturer, in certain cases ASTI offers specialty cutting, allowing it to ship tubes to clients that are essentially finished products, which is particularly advantageous for mirror-finished tube because it means labor-intensive touch-ups resulting from end-user cutting aren't necessary.
"We're set up in some cases to ship finished parts," says Gamage. "Since we put the mirror finish on our tube, if you ship somebody a 20-foot piece of tube and then they have to cut it, they're going to mar that finish where they cut it and then have to do some kind of touch-up. What we actually do is cut the welded tubes to the specific lengths and then buff them, so [the customer] basically gets a finished part. That's a distinction that we have over most manufacturers."
ASTI is also known for its expediency in responding to customers, with lead times averaging two to four weeks, a promptness that Haughton finds ASTI?s competition, particularly foreign companies, have trouble matching. Also, with 20 mills in operation, accommodating an urgent or highly customized order is usually not a problem.
"I don't see that we're much different than any other company or any other American," says Rex Haughton, plant manager. "When we want something, we want it right away. Something that separates us from other companies is our response time. With 20 mills, we can usually set up and get something in pretty quick. There have been times when our customers were waiting on another supplier and called us in dire straits. We turned the order from standard production tubes around in three days."
Whereas requested deviations can sometimes take up to six months in the stainless tubing world, ASTI can usually handle them in a matter of days.
With many tubing applications leaving virtually no room for error, product consistency and accuracy are tantamount to its physical quality. To ensure the company's products are made right the first time, ASTI has received ISO 9001:2000 certification.
"ISO 9001:2000 is something that a large chunk of our customers demand," says Gamage. "Basically what they're looking for is evidence that you're going to make very few errors and if you do make errors, you're going to take corrective action. From the sales perspective, ISO certification open doors to typically larger, higher-volume customers that have more demanding quality control systems themselves."
Recently, because of surcharge woes stemming from a fluctuating nickel market in 2007, ASTI has begun offering products made from 201 stainless in response to customers looking for lower-cost alternatives to the standard 304, yet another example of the company's desire to understand and satisfy customer needs.
"We try to be responsive to the needs of customers that are outside of our standard offering," says Haughton.
Perhaps more impressive than how mirror-finished stainless tubing looks is its vast and diverse applications. ASTI thrives on finding unique applications for its products, which run the gamut.
The company's largest market is the marine market, where its tubing is used to craft boat railings, ladders and deck furniture for vessels of all sizes. ASTI also supplies tube to the automotive industry, most notably for brackets on external mirrors of Class-8 trucks as well as their exhaust pipes. One might also find ASTI tubing used for the retractable steps for larger SUVs and trucks or for the luggage racks on the vehicle's roof. And, for those easy riders, ASTI provides tubing to top motorcycle manufacturers so they can craft the all-important handlebars.
Other applications include hospital bed rails, IV poles, exercise equipment, swimming pool ladders, refrigerator and oven door handles, and handicap railings.
With a product as glamorous in the metals industry as mirror-finished stainless tubing, it might be easy to only concern oneself with the finish. ASTI realizes that to make a beautiful tubing product, a company has to provide an accurate, heavily scrutinized product along with comprehensive and timely service. Add some familial business values for good measure and the result is a company that shines, inside and out. MM
By John Loos, from the December 2007 issue of Modern Metals.