Larry McLain, 55, has been president of B.H.W. Sheet Metal Co. since 1996.
JONESBORO, Ga. - Few people ask what the "B.H.W." in B.H.W. Sheet Metal Co. stands for anymore, which is just fine with company president Larry McLain. He knows it's "Buice-Harris-White," but he can't remember the first names of the men who founded the company with his stepfather, Bob Harris, in 1959.

What he does remember is that the company was started by his stepfather and two other sheet metal craftsmen. The trio leased 1,200 feet of space in the basement of a downtown Atlanta building and turned it into their sheet metal shop. With little more than a hand brake, a Pittsburgh machine and about eight employees, they began turning out rectangular duct and fittings for small commercial jobs in the area.

After a year, Harris' two partners dropped out, leaving Harris to solely oversee the company. Under his guidance, B.H.W. grew to become one of the largest sheet metal firms in the state, with clients that included Delta Airlines and the Centers for Disease Control.

In 1996, Harris stepped down as president, handing the company over to his stepson, Larry McLain. Today B.H.W. is a lot more than just a handful of employees and a press brake. The company has an 86,000 sq. ft. complex in suburban Atlanta that takes up three buildings and seven acres. B.H.W.'s 250 workers, all members of Sheet Metal Workers' International Association (SMWIA) Local 85, fabricated 7.6 million lbs. of sheet metal in 2000. They also installed much of it. Annual volume exceeds $28 million. About 80% of B.H.W.'s work is commercial (both new construction and renovations) with the rest mostly industrial.

All major hospitals in Atlanta have ductwork by B.H.W, according to McLain. A recent job at Emory University's Crawford Long Hospital required B.H.W. to fabricate and install 775,000 lbs. of sheet metal in just 14 months.

Kim Kirby at B.H.W.'s Spiral-Helix spiral duct machine.

A major investment

Those kind of projects might explain why McLain just spent more than a million dollars to purchase two Iowa Precision six foot coil lines. Six foot coil lines offer several advantages over the standard five foot line: the use of six foot steel for ductwork means fewer corners, flanges and connectors are required in the field. That translates into fewer chances for leaks and labor savings in the field.

However, the added length means other equipment, such as plasma cutting tables and beaders, must also be upgraded to accommodate the larger stock. And some workers don't like the bigger sheets, arguing they can be difficult to handle. At B.H.W. though, McLain says he hasn't heard any complaints.

"Everybody's real excited about them. I think we'll be able to cover up the world with some duct," he says with a smile. McLain adds he's seeing more projects in the Atlanta area coming in that specify larger ductwork, ideal for fabricating on a six foot coil line.

While some shop owners prefer to wait until a machine has been proven or come down in price, B.H.W. has always chosen to invest early in new technology. "You've got to keep up with the latest thing out there," McLain says. "I think that's what keeps us competitive."

It's a business philosophy McLain learned from his late stepfather. "If anything new came out, if we didn't get the first one, it was close to it," he says. Although it's not the cheapest way of doing business, McLain says he has yet to purchase a piece of equipment that didn't pay for itself many times over.

Having such an attitude has placed B.H.W. among the handful of sheet metal shops sought out by manufacturers to test their latest products before they're widely available. About 15 years ago, Lockformer asked the company to try out its WhisperLoc Pittsburgh seam closer, still in development at the time. The verdict: "It was fine," McLain says.

In addition to the new coil lines, the B.H.W. facilities have four Lockformer plasma cutters, four Spiral-Helix spiral duct machines, one flat oval machine from Spiral-Helix, and TDC, Pittsburgh and snap lock machines form various manufacturers. The company also makes rectangular and welded duct, plus fittings.

Outside the shop, the company keeps three tractors and up to eight trailers on its lot to haul ductwork to job sites throughout the southeastern U.S.

Like many sheet metal shops across the country, business at B.H.W. has slowed down somewhat from the record levels of 1999 and much of 2000. McLain sighs. "You get spoiled. I think we've got a little hiccup right now." But he's not too worried. "There's been enough work in Atlanta to keep us busy," he says.

Despite working on some of the largest jobs in Atlanta, McLain still does not turn his nose up at smaller commercial projects and regularly bids on them as well. "I don't ever want to get to the point where I say, 'Ah, that's too small,'" he says, adding, "you make your profit one dollar at a time."

Besides, he says, he has to stay ahead of the competition - especially his two stepbrothers, both of whom own sheet metal shops nearby.

At 55, McLain points out he's at an age where many workers would considering retiring. But he's not ready to turn off his press brake just yet. In addition to running B.H.W., McLain has been an active member of the Sheet Metal Contractors' National Association (SMACNA) for more than 30 years. He currently serves as president of Georgia SMACNA and is a SMACNA council chapter representative.

When he's not in the office or on a job site, McLain enjoys spending time with his wife of 25 years and their two grandchildren. He can also be spotted driving one of his two vintage Corvettes in the greater Atlanta area.