• REVIVAL

    Breathing new life into an old industry
    By Paul Alongi

Brent Beason remembered it was a snowy day in December 2000 when he went on his first sales call, accompanying his father on a trip to a JPS Industries textile mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Their company, B&W Fiberglass, was a startup looking for its first big break, and Brent was a junior at Clemson.

When Brent returned to the same mill almost exactly 16 years later, he was there to buy it. The deal, which drew praise from then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, saved 57 jobs and will create 46 more over five years, Brent said.

Slater Mill in northern Greenville County became the eighth operating location for B&W, now a global company with more than 200 employees and over 1.4 million square feet of floor space under roof. Brent, a 2003 Clemson graduate, serves as president.

“Sixteen years ago, this facility gave us a chance to scale our business,” he said. “It was very special to come here and offer the people of this community and particularly this facility a second chance and an opportunity to take it into the future.”

  • Earning His Stripes

Clemson orange runs deep in Brent and his family.

The shaggy gray North American retriever who travels just about everywhere with him is named Ford after former head football coach Danny Ford, who led the Tigers to a national championship in 1981. Brent’s sister, Mitzi, was a member of the class of 1988, and her daughter has been accepted into Calhoun Honors College. Brent and his wife Blair have two girls, Anna Gray and Sadie, who, according to Brent, could spell Clemson before they could spell their own names. While Blair’s name might not be on the company letterhead, Brent credits her steadfast support for much of his success.

Brent first became involved when he was still pursuing his mechanical engineering degree at Clemson and B&W’s only location was in Forest City, North Carolina. Brent and Mitzi’s father, Bill Beason, is also a Clemson alumnus who graduated in 1961 and founded B&W as a consulting business 30 years later.

“I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and went to California for three months of treatment,” Bill recalled. “With support and encouragement from his engineering professors, after classes each day Brent drove two hours from Clemson to North Carolina to manage the plant.

“He drove back to Clemson at night. He demonstrated to me at that time he was dedicated and not afraid to work.”

After Brent’s graduation, father and son traveled to Europe and Asia for a month’s tour of glass fiber manufacturing plants. Bill introduced him to people in the industry.

“I was his personal trainer in the plants,” Bill said. “During this time, Brent realized he needed to get his hands dirty and learn the technology, or he would never be successful. When we were building our first plant, he worked beside me, digging ditches, putting machines together and doing whatever was needed.

“With all this as background, he has earned his stripes, and I am very proud of him.”

  • Taking Business to the Next Level

The company the Beasons have built is helping revive textile manufacturing in the United States.

The domestic industry was hammered in the 1990s when other countries began offering cheaper materials and labor. The Carolinas were hit especially hard, forcing some mills to close and leaving struggling communities in their wake. While many mills remained open, reduced employment turned them into shadows of their former selves.

Companies like B&W are breathing new life into the industry by sharpening their focus on advanced materials.

B&W’s operations in Shelby, North Carolina, and Manchester, England, make many variations of yarn, some of which is sent to the Slater Mill, where it is woven into a substrate and receives various technical coatings.

The final products include a woven grid that assists in affixing stucco exteriors to buildings. They also include fabrics used as filtration media/systems in coal-fired power plants, cement production facilities and carbon black manufacturing.

Some of the company’s other products find their way into circuit boards, aircraft, roofing substrates, various construction materials, reinforced tape, automobiles, boats, protective apparel and architectural membranes, to name a few end applications.

It’s always been possible for the United States to compete with other countries, Brent said, but it requires an investment in technology.

“You are competing against government-subsidized foreign companies that can afford to throw 100 people who make a dollar an hour at it, and they can beat you that way,” he said. “However, they can’t beat automation, and they can’t beat a room full of very, very smart, intellectual people who can figure out a better way to skin the cat. We invest in the mind in order to take the business to the next level.”

Bill said that while he talks daily with his son about what is going on at work, he likes to keep his mind off business and stay busy boating, fishing, exercising and spending time with Pam, his wife of over 35 years. One of his favorite activities is landscaping his yard at his Florida home. He also enjoys hanging out with his Clemson buddies and following Clemson athletics and events.

“I put my two cents worth in, and Brent makes the final decisions,” Bill said of his involvement in the company. “I love the business, technology and people. I am an ol’ athlete at heart. Business is like an athletic event. You have rules you follow, you keep score and either win or lose. I do not like to lose!”

  • An investment in people and a place

The Beasons announced that B&W Fiberglass was acquiring Slater Mill from JPS Composite Materials during a December 2016 press conference that drew several economic development officials and three members of Greenville County Council.

“There couldn’t be a better Christmas present for this part of Greenville County than what we’re celebrating here today,” councilman Butch Kirven said.

The announcement was a pleasant surprise for the plant and the surrounding community. A spokesman for JPS parent company, Handy & Harman Ltd., had told The Greenville News in August the plant might have to close if a buyer couldn’t be found.

That buyer turned out to be B&W, which created a new division as part of the acquisition. The new division, Poseidon Advanced Materials LLC, is named after the mythological Greek god of the sea who could make the Earth shake with his trident.

“Although I do not believe in Greek mythology or their gods, this is the attitude we must adopt,” Brent said. “The world will hear from Slater. Our best days are not past. They are yet to come.”

A factor in the company’s decision was the inland port in Greer, a facility that connects the Port of Charleston by rail to the Upstate 212 miles away. Brent said B&W could boost volume at the port by as much as 6 percent.

“When I got the letter that this was going to happen, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Joe Dill, the county councilman who represents northern Greenville County. “It seemed like a month or two ago I got a letter that said, ‘We’re going to shut it down. We’re going to send everybody home.’ This is a good day.”

Haley showed her support in a written statement.

“The investment that B&W Fiberglass is making in the people of South Carolina represents a significant commitment to our state, and we couldn’t be more grateful for that,” Haley wrote. “The 46 new jobs this fantastic company is creating in Greenville will make a real difference in the lives of South Carolinians, and we look forward to seeing the impact it will have on the Upstate for a very long time.”

The Beasons remain connected to their alma mater. B&W has hired several alumni and is persistently scouting for more. Brent is on the Board of Visitors for the University and the advisory board for the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. He also was an original sponsor of head coach Dabo Swinney’s youth football camp.

Brent said higher education is positioned to play a role in the advanced materials industry by creating engineers who “know how to dream.” He is always on the hunt for engineers who can converse like salesmen or, even better, have a Master of Business Administration.

“There is a different way certain engineers think,” he said. “When presented with a problem — financial, technical, etcetera — they have an uncanny ability to take it in, dissect it and come back with an intelligent solution. Getting to a point where you can critically think and also critically dream, that’s important. For me, I can’t put a dollar value on that. I want as many of them as I can get.”

Bill said that when he first started the business, he had no idea just how big it would become. “During the early days I kept thinking how I could pass along something to my children so that they could benefit from my work and experience,” he said. “We do more business in one day now than I dreamed of doing in a year.”

“Our family has been exponentially blessed,” Brent added. “For that we ultimately thank God. But God doesn’t hand you anything for which you aren’t prepared. Without my father’s years of continual sacrifice, work ethic, vision and perseverance, we wouldn’t have ever gotten off the ground, and that is something I can never repay nor will forget. Even in the face of success, you cannot forget from whence you came and those who ultimately contributed to it along the way.”

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