The 1960s were a period of change for Alabama Metal Lath Company. Steel labor union strikes were a common occurrence, which resulted in both material supply issues and price instability. Tight supply meant prices often rose quickly and unpredictably. The company therefore would occasionally buy products from other companies just to fulfill customer orders. The 1960s also saw a period of equipment development for the company. Throughout this decade and
the next, Alabama Metal Lath Company built five expanded metal presses, all of which are still used in production at various facilities.
In 1960, the Board of Directors authorized an investment to produce a full line of Expanded Metal and Grating products. Again, the founders’ idea was expanding. Expanded metal and grating products were a natural extension of what was being produced already. An executive of the company once said, “We try every way in the world to destroy steel.” As a U.S. Steel newspaper pointed out alongside this quote, “there is much truth in his quote just because in the course of producing their complete line of metal products, raw steel may be subjected to an awesome variety of cutting, stretching, punching, and compressing operations.”
In 1960, the company added its first expanded metal press, an 8’ Bender press that operated around 185 strokes per minute. A Dramex facility in Youngstown, OH which also produced expanded metal (and would later be acquired by the company), had a press that ran at 50 strokes per minute. The presses now in use can run at speeds of up to 300 strokes per minute, and EMC has a press for micromesh that can run at around 3000 strokes per minute.
Discussion began in late 1960 about the company’s name. Alabama Metal Lath Company no longer accurately portrayed their offerings. Robert “Ace” Luckie and John Forney, named partners in a local advertising firm, were assigned the task of investigating and recommending a suitable new name for the company.
The Alabama Metal Lath Company had officially become AMICO.Luckie’s firm would later grow into Luckie & Co., an advertising firm with locations in Birmingham, Atlanta, San Antonio, and London. An early suggestion was Alabama Metals Company, Inc., which would be acronymized into Alametco, Inc. However, due to various issues, including trademarked names already being in use, Luckie & Forney eventually discarded other ideas and settled on proposing Alabama Metal Industries Corporation – AMICO. They suggested that the company adopt a uniform logo and color scheme for all communications, literature, and advertising to help create an image and identity for the company. The Board of Directors voted on May 30, 1961 to adopt the changes suggested by their consultants. The Alabama Metal Lath Company had officially become AMICO.
Over the next few years, AMICO would expand its facilities as well as its product offerings. The company improved existing machinery and added new equipment – such as a new slitting line – to achieve better efficiency and lower costs. In 1965, a major facility expansion was completed which added over 125,000 square feet of covered space.
The company also developed another new product during these years. When expanded metal ran through some of the presses and the sheets weren’t perfectly square, it would leave curls in the material. John Coxe would walk the floor of the plant every morning to check on operations. He walked through one morning and noticed a sheet that had been run incorrectly and had those aforementioned curls in it. He lambasted the plant manager, Robert Durfield, for the product being damaged, and told him that if he was going to damage part of the product, he “might as well mess up the whole sheet”. Durfield worked through the night to fulfill his wish, as a prank. His men ran an entire sheet of expanded metal with the curls in it, and he left it in Coxe’s office. The next morning, when Coxe saw the material, he immediately called Durfield and told him that it looked incredible – like ornamental iron – and that they were going to sell it. Durfield and his tooling men worked through the night to create a die set that would purposefully create the material in that way. Before long, Ornamesh was being marketed as an architectural product that could update the aesthetics of an old building. Ornamesh would not last forever as a product offering, but it paved the way for other architectural products that AMICO would sell.
1966 saw the first time AMICO incorporated Research and Development formally into its practices.1966 saw the first time AMICO incorporated Research and Development formally into its practices. Employees would develop the next generation of products in-house. There was also a resident professional hired who would assist in looking for companies and products that would complement the existing product lines.
Also in that year, AMICO experienced the longest strike of its history to that point. The employees were on strike for two full months. Sales and profits were impacted, but not as badly as they could have been. AMICO had at that time a rather large inventory of finished goods which allowed some buffer space between sales and production.
In 1967, AMICO paid off the last of its mortgage and duties to First National Bank. The city of Birmingham had held an interest in the property at Fayette Avenue due to back taxes at the time of purchase. The mayor who was Boutwell Auditorium’s namesake signed a quitclaim deed, transferring all rights of ownership to the company. The company still holds that deed, signed on July 19th by Albert Boutwell.
In 1968, AMICO moved its accounting systems to an IBM platform, automating many of the tasks the department was manually completing. For 30 years, all accounting had been done by hand using pencils, ledgers, and physical spreadsheets. Automating many of these processes resulted in AMICO employees being paid by check for the first time ever; they had always been paid in cash until the IBM conversion.
That same year, a bank, acting as executor of Frank Horton’s estate, sold his shares of the company back to AMICO for a total of $212,000. Horton had died two years prior.
1969 saw two interesting events take place. First, another strike occurred. This was another long strike, totaling 30 days. This caused a 60-day lead time on customer orders. In an effort to curtail the impact of the strike, many members of management continued operations in the factory. During this effort, the plant ran at about a 30% fulfillment rate.
The second event was once again expanding the founders’ idea into something larger. AMICO was created, it expanded its product offerings, it began expanding metal, and now it would expand its geographic reach. Two years earlier, John Coxe and his vice president, Charles B. Webb, had been exploring ideas to diversify again. A committee had been looking at acquisition possibilities. Many companies were investigated and negotiations actually occurred with a few different firms. Coxe stated that from this experience, he had not thus far uncovered any situation locally that was particularly appealing or which would meet the acquisition objectives of the company. He had come to the realization that AMICO should direct its expansion efforts into other geographical areas. Two areas of interest were the Northeast and the West Coast. The Board agreed that this effort was in the best interest of the company as it would increase company volume and sales, as well as being a means to protect its investments.
AMICO was created, it expanded its product offerings, it began expanding metal, and now it would expand its geographic reach.A company in Los Angeles had been in contact with Coxe which had disclosed an interest in divesting its expanded metal manufacturing facilities and equipment, which prompted an interest from the Board in expanding operations and sales to the West Coast.
The following year, the Board had approved the expansion project and authorized an initial investment of $511,000. Adjusted for inflation to 2014 levels, this would be approximately $3.5 million. Set with approval and the investment needed to begin the project, AMICO acquired facilities and moved equipment and began to set up its operations in California. The original location was in Commerce, CA, but later moved to its current location 50 miles east in Fontana, CA because the facilities had become inadequate. After sales doubled in the region, it became difficult for trucks to get into the facility in Commerce, thus necessitating the move. AMICO had begun its expansion towards being a national, and ultimately global, presence.
The 1970s were not quite as active a period as were the 1960s; however, there were several events of note. This began with the loss of another of the company’s founders. In 1970, John Coxe wrote a letter to the Board of Directors, telling them that they should, at some point, start considering the idea of replacing him as he would soon be turning 65 years old. His wish was to see the “California project” through to completion and then phase his activities out, which he estimated would take just a few years. Tragically, not long after he turned 65, he died in a traffic accident on his way to work. A truck hauling steel hit his vehicle and he was trapped inside for over half an hour. He was pronounced dead on arrival to University Hospital. AMICO vice-president Charlie Webb would be named the interim president of the company, and later would take on the position fully, retaining it until 1979.
The company was still donating money to various causes in the community at this point as well. Charlie Webb was authorized to donate to the 1972 United Appeal campaign. Across the country, commission-controlled Community Chests were now giving way to organized efforts such as United Appeal, a predecessor to the United Way’s efforts to assist the community.
In 1972 and 1973, the company would endure what is, to this day, the longest strike in the history of the company. Spanning the seven months between August 1972 and March 1973, it ultimately provided a positive outcome for AMICO. When the union and management had not reached an agreement on August 6th, the union voted to move to strike the following day. Until an agreement was reached on March 7th of the following year, the employees did not work. Between 20 and 30 employees from management and the administrative offices worked on machines and kept up production as much as they could. Due to the efforts of these men, strategic purchasing, and large inventories, AMICO was able to fulfill customer orders and actually set a couple of sales records during that period.
Charlie Webb spent a good amount of time on the floor helping to run the plant. He operated a crane and was a material handler. Robert Shook, who was a vice-president of the company and would eventually become Webb’s successor to the president’s office, also spent time moving material in the factory. During this period, Shook injured his foot when he ran over it with an electric pallet jack.
Eventually, management decided to take the opportunity to review the plant layout and flow in the down time. In early 1973, machines were moved to better facilitate a smoother work flow with less time and motion required. As an agreement was no closer to completion, management chose at that time to reopen the plant and hire new employees. Not long thereafter, an agreement was reached and the shop employees returned to work after seven long months. Management remarked in a Board meeting that the atmosphere was generally good and that everyone was working well together. The following year would be one of the most profitable years in the company’s history. This was attributed by management to the improved productivity, process flow, and decreased cost which was engendered by the machinery reorganization.
At the end of the year, management made the decision to exit the roof drainage products market. Competition had grown to incredible levels, which drove prices down to levels which weren’t sustainable for the product line. The bleak outlook on this segment of the business prompted AMICO to leave it altogether and use those resources and capacity to find other ways to diversify.
Those efforts paid off in 1976 when AMICO entered into the welded bar grating business. Charlie Webb had been looking for ways to again expand the business. Dub Gable, a salesman representing the Southeast Texas and Louisiana markets, had friends in oil extraction and refinement in those areas. He had discussed what types of products were used in refineries and oil rigs. One of those products was bar grating. Between sixty and seventy percent of bar grating at that time was being used for refineries and oil rigs in the Gulf area, and that grating was often being supplied by the same service centers to whom AMICO was already supplying other industrial products.
Management decided to enter into the bar grating market as a cold startup, and bought a Nucor forge welder to place into the plant. Once again, the idea had expanded.Management discussed it and decided to enter into the bar grating market as a cold startup, and bought a Nucor forge welder to place into the plant. Once again, the idea had expanded.
In 1979, AMICO entered into the international market as it began sending sales managers outside of the nation’s borders. There was a large increase in construction being done in the Middle East and AMICO was pushing its products into those markets. Lath and expanded metal was being used in many applications there – from municipal centers to universities.
One of the last things to occur in that decade of note was the transition of the presidency of AMICO. Robert Shook would step into that position for a few years, as Webb became CEO and Chairman of the company. In this position, Webb retained managerial leadership of the company until it was sold in the mid-1990s. Webb’s family also possessed majority ownership of the company. As mentioned previously, Shook’s grandfather was instrumental in bringing The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company to Birmingham, an event which brought Birmingham to prominence in the steel industry.