Flex-Strut celebrates silver anniversary

Metal strut channel company has grown from 12 to 90 employees over 25 years

WARREN — When Van Huffel Tube began moving its strut division to Chicago, Dale H. Gebhardt, a chief engineer at the once prominent maker of steel tubes, hooked on with a West Coast-based strut maker expanding into the Midwest.

So did five other key people with Gebhardt at Van Huffel’s Warren production facility to start the new venture; none wanted to go to the Windy City.

“He wanted to keep us in this area and raise his family here, so he went off on his own and started his own strut company with some of the great people he worked with at Van Huffel,” said Dale’s son, Dale C. Gebhardt.

“They all had that same background — they were from this area, had grown roots in this area and wanted to stay in the Mahoning Valley,” said Doug Gebhardt, Dale H.’s younger son.

That was in 1985. Fast forward to 1994 and the group broke away from that company in California and started Flex-Strut, a manufacturer of metal strut channel framing systems headquartered now on Commonwealth Avenue NE in the Golden Triangle manufacturing district.

This year is the silver anniversary for the company that had a modest beginning.

Flex-Strut early on rented space, a 50-by-100-foot bay, at what was Morgan-Dieter Lumber in Champion because of an existing lease agreement at the Commonwealth Avenue NE plant with Dale H. Gebhardt’s former employer.

Not at the same location, but nearby, was Flex-Strut’s office space.

“So that’s how we operated for the first year,” said Dale C. Gebhardt, co-president / chief operating officer for the company. When the lease expired, the company that employed 12 workers then moved back into the 12,500-square-foot Warren plant.

Four years later in 1998, the company went through its first expansion, an addition of 21,000 square feet to the facility, but it would not be the last.

The building grew again in 2001 to 65,000-square-feet and to employ 25 workers, and once more in 2004, this time to 68,000 square feet with 35 employees.

The year 2011 saw the building grow to 102,000 square feet and the company double its workforce. There was another building expansion and nine more employees added in 2016. Now the company employs 90 people — 70 on the manufacturing side and 20 in the office — in its 115,000-square-foot plant.

“When we first started, we weren’t making our own channel, so through our expansion — and ’04 was one of them — we added a roll machine,” Dale C. Gebhardt said. “We added a roll machine in ’98; we added a roll machine in 2011 and in 2001. So every time we grew with the number of shapes we were making, it just required more workers to keep up with the channel punching and fabrication as well that went along with the growth.”

To keep the business afloat early, the focus was custom fabrication applications, said Doug Gebhardt, the company’s co-president and chief financial officer.

“As we grew and got to a point in production where we could roll form 15 different shapes, it helped us grow into that higher volume business, so we do work with some electrical / mechanical supply houses now because we were able to compete in it more,” he said. “That’s larger volume, lower margin, but it helped us expand quite a bit.”

The struts are mostly sold in 10- and 20-foot bundles, but they can be cut to as small as 3 inches. Flex-Strut also produces kits for some customers and does some custom fabrication work.

The steel — all U.S.-made — arrives at the facility in coils and is formed into frames used in mechanical and electrical applications.

“It’s a structural framing product. It’s kind of like an industrial erector set that you could use for mounting pipe overhead or in a wall,” Dale C. Gebhardt said. Flex-Strut also has a line of fittings and hardware.

Said Doug Gebhardt, “If you look up in a large big-box store or warehouse setting, a lot of time you’ll see pipe clamps holding this stuff on the wall. You’ll see it once you start looking for it, but otherwise, you’ll never notice it.”

Flex-Strut operates three shifts with most of the employees working the morning shift. Ten employees work the afternoon and night shifts. It ships products across the U.S. and some to Canada.

In store for the future is “hopefully a repeat of the past 25 years,” Dale C. Gebhardt said. There is room to expand the facility north toward North River Road should the need arise and add employees to the lesser-populated shifts.