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No holding back vinyl fence maker



Published: Sun, February 10, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A local business has found a way to put some color in the traditional white vinyl fencing.

By CYNTHIA VINARSKY

VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Tom Hall says the market is ripe for the vinyl fencing and deck material his companies make, so he's taking on a $1.5 million expansion project at his headquarters in downtown Youngstown.

When the business comes rolling in, he wants to be ready.

Hall is president and chief executive of TRH Inc. at 360 Federal Plaza St. East. The family business has three divisions, all related to the production and sale of vinyl fences and decking: Advantage Vinyl makes and distributes vinyl fencing and decking; Alphakote color coats the vinyl materials; All Vinyl Fences and Decks is the corporation's retail outlet.

His mother, Patty Hall, also is involved in the industry as owner of Light & amp; Lasting, a retailer and wholesale seller of vinyl horse jumping equipment.

A Warren native, Hall said he's been making and selling vinyl fencing since 1987 when he started his first company in the basement of his mother's home. Never before, though, have business conditions looked so promising.

Breakthrough: The company is about to launch a color-coating line to produce brown and black vinyl fencing, using a method devised after years of research. The corporation has applied for a patent on the method.

"It wasn't easy, it wasn't quick and it wasn't cheap," Hall said. "But we think it's going to be big."

Coating vinyl is difficult, he explained, because of the material's slick surface. That's why most vinyl fencing is white. He said some manufacturers make extruded vinyl fencing in colors, but the colors tend to fade over time.

Patrick White, sales manager, said company officials knew they had something special when Alphakote placed an advertisement in the February edition of World Fence News, a fence industry trade publication.

Within days they'd received 25 calls from fencing distributors across the United States and Canada, all interested in signing on for exclusive contracts to sell the colored products.

Company officials believe they are the first vinyl fence maker in the country to come up with a durable, maintenance free and environmentally friendly vinyl coating process.

"Two years from now we'll no longer be the only ones doing it, but we'll be ahead of the curve," White said.

Expansion: Anticipating growth, the company has leased an 80,000-square-foot building next door to its 40,000-square-foot Federal Street headquarters, tripling its production and warehouse area.

Hall said he employed 23 workers when business was at its peak last summer, and he expects that number to grow to 40 or 45 this year as production expands from one shift to three.

Youngstown's Economic Development office has approved a $10,000 facade grant to fund landscaping and other exterior beautification efforts at the downtown location, along with a $60,000 performance loan to help fund the company's expansion.

The performance loan will convert to a grant over three years, said Jeffrey Chagnot, city development director, provided the company fulfills its employment and expansion goals. The city grant and loan are both contingent upon the company getting bank funding and a loan guarantee from the federal Small Business Administration.

Production: Hall bought an automated painting line that another local manufacturer had used for metal painting and adapted it for the vinyl coating process. The first line is set to begin operating by March 1 and the company plans to add two more coating lines by May 1.

Until now, Hall said, workers had been applying the coating by hand -- a slow, painstaking process. By year's end, he expects to be producing 70,000 linear feet of coated vinyl fencing and decking a day.

At first the company will limit color offerings to black, brown, and a wood grain design because they have the strongest consumer demand. Other colors may be added later.

The company can keep its prices competitive, even with the addition of the coating step, because it uses recycled vinyl. The coloring component added to vinyl to make it white is the most expensive element, Hall explained, so the grayish recycled product costs less.

Gazebo kit: Advantage Vinyl also is launching a build-it-yourself vinyl gazebo kit this spring. The design will sell for about $1,500 and would take the average home handyman about two hours to produce.

The company is negotiating with several potential distributors for the gazebo, including a nationally televised home shopping channel and Carter Lumber.

Hall said orders for the company's horse jump equipment are climbing, too, as horse trainers and others in the equestrian industry discover how light and maintenance free the vinyl jumps are compared to wood.

Competition's woes: Meanwhile, the vinyl fencing industry's largest competitor, pressure-treated wood, is facing tough times.

The wood product commonly used for decks, fences and docks generally contains chromated copper arsenate, a strong pesticide used to protect lumber from decay and insect damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency implemented a rule last fall requiring that wood containing CCA be labeled, and the agency is talking about tightening its pressure- treated wood regulations even further.

That's good news for the vinyl fence industry, Hall said, because its product is the ideal pesticide-free replacement to wood fences and deck products. Besides, he said, vinyl is lighter and virtually maintenance free, while wood decks and fences require regular staining or waterproofing.

Meeting demand: The challenge now, Hall and White agreed, is controlled growth.

If Advantage Vinyl got an order for 25,000 gazebo kits from home improvement giant Home Depot, for example, it would be more than the small manufacturer could properly handle.

That's why they plan to expand slowly and to stick mostly with smaller, regional distributors.

"What we have here could revolutionize the fencing industry," White added. "We can be as big as we want to be. The only thing stopping us is us."

vinarsky@vindy.com




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