Strongwell honored for corporate citizenship

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Print this page by Tim Thornton
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Strongwell traces its roots to a furniture factory founded
in 1924. Photo courtesy Strongwell Corp.

Like every Eagle Scout, John Tickle had to organize, supervise and complete a public service project. The habit stuck. It continues with his family’s Bristol-based company, Strongwell Corp.

“They’re super-involved in the community,” says Lennie Gail Mitcham, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Alliance for Manufacturing.

The company is so involved, Mitcham says, the narrative introducing Strongwell as the alliance’s “Manufacturer of the Year” was extra long.

“They’re very big on corporate citizenship,” Mitcham says, ticking off a long list of organizations, causes and services the company and its employees serve. Boys and Girls Clubs, the Boy Scouts and the Birthplace of Country Music are among the groups that have benefited from Strongwell’s involvement.

The company also promotes advanced manufacturing as a potential career for young people in Southwest Virginia through tours, internships and the support of groups such as YMCA Tech Girls.

“Innovation, corporate citizenship and advocacy,” Mitcham says, “They definitely hit the mark on all those things.”

Strongwell’s four plants produce tens of thousands of feet of structural fiberglass parts every hour, according to the company’s website, using a process called pultrusion.  Pultrusion involves pulling liquid resin and reinforcing fibers through heated metal dies. Depending on the ingredients and dies used, the end product can range from studs and nuts to components for wastewater treatment facilities to other components that can be assembled into complete buildings.

Strongwell traces its roots to a Bristol factory that started building furniture in 1924. During World War II, Strongwell’s corporate ancestor switched from building radio cabinets to making parts for weapons.

In 1956, the company produced its first pultrusion plastic products, ladder rails. They are still an important part of the company’s product line.

That group now includes a variety of products, including power poles, bridge components and building panels that can withstand a shot from a .357 magnum or a projectile hurled by a 250 mph hurricane.

“After the Great Recession, we became a very diversified company,” says Tekai Shu, Strongwell’s social media and business development manager.
Since its inception, the company has gone through a number of ownership changes, moving from private to public and back to private.

It added plants and production processes until Tickle and his family gained ownership of Strongwell — Tickle worked at the company nearly 30 years before his family took full ownership — and focused its efforts on pultrusion.

Strongwell also focuses on promoting advanced manufacturing in a region known for coal mines, furniture plants and textile mills.
“There hasn’t been a real great focus on manufacturing within our region,” Shu says.

To change that, Shu says, Strongwell hosts 20 to 24 tours each year for middle school pupils up to MBA candidates, showing them the operations and job opportunities of advanced manufacturing.

With more than 650,000 square feet of manufacturing capacity, more than 10,000 square feet of lab space and a wide range of products to create and market, Strongwell needs workers on and off the factory floor following a variety of career paths.  The company is blazing new paths in other ways, too. In a field stereotypically dominated by men and in a region stereotypically portrayed as overwhelmingly white, more than 60 percent of Strongwell’s workers are women and more than 20 percent are minorities.

“We’re very proud of that,” says Shu.

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