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NEW MARKETS FEEL LIKE SUCCESS FOR TEXTURED METAL MAKER

Walk around Rigidized Metals' plant in Buffalo, and its distinctive textured metal pops up in unexpected places: on doors, in floor tiles, even on tabletops and the kitchen countertop in the break room.

But they are not merely creative in-house uses of the Buffalo company's expertise. They reflect Rigidized Metals' push to find new markets for its textured metal.

The company embosses three-dimensional patterns on flat-rolled metal, a process designed to make it more attractive and more durable. Rigidized Metals was started nearly 65 years ago by the grandfather of its current president, Rick Smith.

This year, the 39-employee company has surpassed $10 million in annual sales for the first time, achieving a goal previously set by Smith's father. If all goes well, the company could finish the year with about $13 million in sales, up 50 percent or more from last year's $8.7 million.

Though he is mindful of the company's history, Smith has not been reluctant to innovate or look for ways to expand the reach of Rigidized Metals' products. The strategies range from pinpointing the company's sales efforts to broadening the type of work it performs in its Ohio Street plant.

On the sales side, Rigidized Metals has become more effective at tracking potentially lucrative architectural projects, Smith said. Before, the company would start out in the running but often lose out on contracts, due to changes in the projects as they evolved or the long timetables involved.

Now the company has a salesperson devoted to architectural work. "The strategy, in essence, was to stay on top of a project from when it was first announced. It's hard work," Smith said.

The approach is getting results, he said. Among its architectural jobs is a project to make covers for columns at the Miami International Airport.

Rigidized Metals also serves customers in the transportation and industrial markets. Its textured metal is used in everything from refrigerators to elevator cabs to the toilet partitions in the bathrooms of Wal-Mart stores.

Customers like Rigidized Metals' products for both its look and its durability, Smith said. And textured metal is particularly tough for vandals to leave their mark on, a particularly appealing feature to customers who use it in high-traffic areas.

"I think we're extremely exclusive," said Dick Friedman, the company's Eastern sales manager. "We make our own niche and work within it."

Andrew Brown, general manager of sales and marketing, said the same long history that has established Rigidized Metals' brand has also made it more difficult for competitors to go head-to-head.

"It really is an art of manufacturing, too," Brown said. "Others have tried and not succeeded. We've kind of mastered it after three generations."

The company has also tried to attract more business by "adding value" to its products. Instead of acting only as a "converter" and applying a three-dimensional pattern to a sheet of metal, the company in some cases will make more of the finished product, such as cutting a sheet to a particular size or shape.

While it is a promising step, Rigidized Metals is also being sensitive to the fabricators it works with, Smith said. The company wants those fabricators to view Rigidized Metals as a partner, not a rival out to steal their work.

"The strategy isn't necessarily to complete the product all the way through, it's to complete more of the product," he said.

For instance, if Rigidized Metals makes a product like a tabletop, it still needs the services of a fabricator to assemble the table, he said.

Smith said this expansion of Rigidized Metals' capabilities, technically called "downstream integration," offers potential for more growth.

"It's a wager that we made, and I think it's a beautiful thing, because it's starting to pay off," he said.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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