With its headquarters in South Carolina, Charleston Aluminum is a leading national distributor of all types of metal and metal products. Since being founded in 2000, they have grown quickly on the back of their culture of good customer service, quality products, wide product line availability and excellent product & market knowledge. Their dedicated and experienced sales team has a well-earned reputation for putting customers first, and are committed to the industry for the long haul.
Charleston Aluminum was formed by Willie Portnoy in Orangeburg, South Carolina. As the business has grown, it has moved closer to Colombia, the state capital. Portnoy came from a background as a metals trader, and originally the company used those skills to purchase materials mainly from overseas. As it evolved and grew; Charleston has moved further downstream, first into a “master distributor” and then into a full line metals service center.
“In recent years we’ve moved and more into becoming a full line service centre,” says COO Dean Blakeney. “We realized that we could not only sell to other distributors, that we had an attractive offer for end users too, especially in the higher added value markets.”
Today, Charleston Aluminum provides a plethora of metals and metal products, as well as services to clients in the commercial, marine, aerospace and defence industries. They are also the leading choice for high quality, light gauge foil products including converter foil, air filter foil, fin stock foil, flex-tubing, venetian blind coil stock and honeycomb foil. Their team searches the globe to source material tailored to meet their client’s needs at the best quality and price available.
Charleston’s warehouses with value added processing are located in Gaston, South Carolina and Miami Gardens in Florida with various other storage warehouses located in different parts of the country. They are able to provide rapid delivery of materials in order to meet even their customer’s most demanding requirements. Their own fleet of tractor trailers and regional delivery trucks provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week if needed and their warehouse facilities offer a complete list of metal cutting and processing capabilities – including sawing, shearing, material stencilling, timesaver finishing and packaging.
The company’s customers tend to be nationally based, in both the United States and Eastern Canada – where they also deliver. Their base is made up of some of the major companies in their respective industries.
“We have better material availability and more competitive prices,” says Blakeney, summarising what sets Charleston apart from the pack. “We supply nationally, but in every major city there are maybe five or six metal distributors selling aluminum. They mostly sell common alloy coils and general engineering materials. We sell and focus on high value added specialist materials, that we can distribute nationwide.”
Charleston also goes out of its way to provide a special service to their customer. “We’re always available, for example,” Blakeney says. “Nowadays everybody is lean and very busy. But whenever you call Charleston Aluminum, somebody picks up the phone – a real person. That’s just one of the many things we do.”
“We’ll work weekends and nights, customers can call us at any time,” he continues. “And even the executives here, we sell ourselves directly to the customers.” At Charleston, they do not have a typical hierarchal structure – they’re more like a group of entrepreneurs working in lockstep, Blakeney says.
“To win respect in our business, you have to have a good experience in the industry,” he explains. “Nobody who is green and inexperienced can do our job. We have a lot of education and experience in our ranks, and we use those skills to deal with customers directly. That type of personal involvement of senior people directly with our customers is one of the reasons for our success.”
Blakeney, an industry veteran in his own right, has been with the Charleston Aluminum business for over three years now. Before coming on board, he knew of Charleston and Portnoy in the industry for many years through one of the previous companies he worked for, where he was the General Manager of an Aluminum Mill Products Group that was one of their key mill suppliers.
Also immediately prior to joining Charleston, Blakeney was serving as the CEO of a distribution company called Clinton Aluminum & Stainless, based in Ohio. When that company was struggling in the economic downturn and owned by a private equity group that was not coping well with their venture into the metals industry, Blakeney left and “immediately came down here” to join Charleston, and has not looked back since.
Currently, Charleston Aluminum employs between 65 and 70 people. Blakeney describes the working relationship with employees as extremely close. “We’re out there constantly interacting with the staff, working alongside them. I personally walk around at least once or twice a day and talk to the people in the warehouses and each department.”
“You find a lot more information about what’s going on if you’re out there with the people, rather than stuck in your office at a distance,” he adds.
At any time, the company has five or six drivers on the book to man their semi-trucks. Nationally, finding drivers has proven a challenge for many industries, but Blakeney says their relationships have been reasonably stable. “We do things like pay them a little higher than average for the industry, and we also give them things like cash advances so they’re not out of pocket for things like road tolls – we also buy them three meals a day, which is not always the practice in the industry.”
Maintaining close relationships is important in every facet of the business, and their drivers and logistics team is no exception. Those people are key to their business success, because one of Charleston’s main points of difference is their ability to deliver.
In recent years, Charleston has developed new and stronger relationships with mills like Alcoa, Constellium and Aleris. They have also strengthened their relationship with existing customers, and have been aggressively pursuing new ones. Blakeney says those efforts will continue. The future for Charleston Aluminum is an exciting one.
The company has also been taking some calculated risks with new investments, which have thus far paid off handsomely. They have a new Austrian-made Schelling Precision Saw, for example, which gives them new capabilities when it comes to accuracy and speed. They have also invested in a brand new warehouse building extension on site in South Carolina – a new 60,000 square foot warehouse worth over $1 million.
“We want to have more continued growth in the higher value markets,” Blakeney says. “That growth will be organic growth. We do feel like we have the structure in place for more volume. We think we’re in good shape for where we want to go in the future.”