Alexandria Couple Is Worldwide Source of Impressive Tools
By Kris Gilbertson
Late 2011 into 2013 was a period of turmoil on the national scene as Congress and the president failed to agree to a federal budget. During this, federal agencies were funded month-to-month at previous budget levels, which meant they could not buy much or start new projects. Small businesses contracting with the government were hit hard.
“The time leading up to the government shutdown was really slow and it really hurt us,” says Christine Heiby, CEO of Beltway Supply, Inc. “When the Fed doesn’t have money, state government doesn’t have a whole lot of money either, and everyone is holding on to their dollars.”
Then, on October 1, 2013, the Federal government shut down. “That,” she says, “almost truly put us out of business.”
Beltway Supply, Inc.
Alexandria residents Dave and Christine Heiby founded Beltway Supply (BSI) in an industrial park just south of the Beltway in August 2006. Dave, a seasoned sales rep in the industrial market, had worked with companies of many sizes, from the national United Laboratories to small businesses, since 1985. Now it was time to work for himself.
Christine’s field was rehabilitation counseling. With a Master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, she worked for 31 years with government and private agencies to assist people with disabilities. To provide stability, she continued that work as BSI started up.
Both the Federal and state governments set aside certain solicitations for small, woman-owned, and minority businesses (WOSB). Virginia, in particular, requires procurements under $5K to go to WOSBs, which fit into the Heiby’s business model:
- Target state, local, and Federal governments because they would always have money. And because different levels of government have different buying schedules, somebody would have money pretty much throughout the year.
- Prefer the micro purchase area that can be done through credit cards. Credit cards assure prompt payment.
- Hold no inventory.
By 2008, BSI was certified on both Federal and state levels as a woman-owned small business . Christine Heiby joined the firm full-time. In the “hold no inventory” mode, their first office was only 500 sq. ft., just enough for two full-time and one occasional employee.
Beltway Supply didn’t supply much (“hold no inventory”); the company primarily consulted, sourced, and teamed. As a WOSB with a track record with state, local, and Federal governments, they could team with companies that wanted to get into a government marketplace. If a proposal required a small business partner, BSI would be that partner.
At the start, BSI promoted the products Dave knew best—fasteners, safety supplies, tools, and hardware, with established vendors. Then in 2009, a cold email arrived from the Smithsonian Institution requesting a quote on an item needed at the zoo. “So we went out there,” says Christine, “and the rest is history.”
A Japanese Giant Salamander
The National Zoo’s Asia Trail comprises seven exhibits of Asian wildlife, the final one being the giant panda enclosure. On the trail, a large glass aquarium set into a rocky background houses a Japanese giant salamander. Growing up to five feet in length, this amphibian is the second largest salamander known to exist. (The Chinese giant salamander can grow to six feet.) To stay alive and healthy, the giant salamander needs a running stream of cool water kept at an optimum temperature.
A small business set-aside was in place to obtain a split-climate control system (air and water) for the giant salamander, but the only company that could provide this environment was not a small business and not certified with the Federal government. Enter BSI, which did all the procurement for the climate-controlled environment in which the giant salamander lives.
“We realized,” says Christine, “that to have a great product line is terrific, but government agencies also have other needs. This leads to ongoing relationships.”
BSI provided the zoo with steel screening for a large cat enclosure. The screen is very fine mesh that doesn’t impede visitors’ views, but keeps them safe and keeps the tigers from jumping out.
They also procured pumps and materials to build a series of waterfalls on the Asia Trail and panda exhibit. One perk of the ongoing relationship gave Dave a chance to get within a few feet of the pandas. “A door with an open screen window separated me from the panda. But it was really close and bleated at me like a goat. I had a keeper next to me, so it was either saying hello to me or to the keeper. A rather neat experience to say the least.”
Recession, sequestration, shutdown
As the effects of economic downturn spread through 2010, BSI’s teaming and consulting opportunities dried up. Of this Christine says, “Our business motto has always been you figure out what’s going on and adjust accordingly.”
They chose to focus on selling facility maintenance and safety supplies to their customer base of stable governments. This strategy worked despite political uncertainty until 2012, when government agencies, faced with the threat of sequestration, reduced or stopped spending and held tight to whatever funds were in hand. Then, in October 2013, the Federal government shut down for 16 days.
This could have been the death knell for BSI. There were still bills and expenses; money going out and no money coming in. But at that critical moment, Gerry Cooper, a good friend from their congregation at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, mentioned that he had a tool that he wanted to bring into the United States from China. Could they figure a way to work together?
“Mr. Cooper was chief procurement officer for Stanley Tools (now Stanley Black & Decker) in Asia for years,” says Dave. “He took Stanley first to Taiwan, then to mainland China, establishing factories and supply chains. He lived in China for 19 years, speaks the language, and understands the culture and ways of doing business, which is very different from the U.S.”
Gerry Cooper retired from Stanley Tools and lives in Alexandria. He owns Asia Tech Source, a consulting/sourcing firm that puts American companies wanting to do business in China in touch with factories in Asia. With his son, he also owns CF Cooper, a corporation based in Alexandria and Asia.
Cooper’s tool was the AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting locking pliers, and the Heibys realized that “this is a great tool, let’s figure out how to do this. Because if we were going to survive, we needed to do something different.”
AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting locking pliers descends from a notable line of tools.
Locking pliers were invented in 1921by William Petersen, a Danish immigrant blacksmith living in DeWitt, Nebraska. He patented his first, primitive version and immediately began design improvements, establishing Petersen Manufacturing in 1934. There were six successive patented versions of the tool, the last in 1958.
Will Petersen was not pleased with the 1958 tool and began designing the next model, but died before completing it. As the 1958 patent expired years ago, there are many knock-offs and the 1958 design is still the standard in today’s toolbox.
Although the Petersen Manufacturing Co. name and ownership changed several times, the plan for Petersen’s last version languished until Gerry Cooper discovered them in 2003. Through CF Cooper, he obtained Petersen’s plan and spent a decade working to bring the AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting locking pliers to market.
How is AUTO-GRIP different?
Standard locking pliers, manufactured from William Petersen’s 1958 design, have a small adjustment knob at the heel. Turning the knob tightens or loosens the jaws around whatever object is clamped. This requires considerable fiddling to get the tension right. It always requires two hands, and every task of a different size means adjusting the grip again.
AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting locking pliers automatically conform to the size of each object gripped. There are no knobs to turn. The only adjustment is for the user’s hand strength, using the pressure screw, which never has to be adjusted again. The red-tipped release lever pulls up (opposite of the old design) and the entire maneuver can be done with one hand, making work with this tool faster (seven times faster—see website video) and more efficient.
In February 2014, Auto-Grip became a division of Beltway Supply, Inc. and the international distributor of AUTO-GRIP tools.
BSI continues sourcing and teaming on both the expected and the occasional unusual proposals (dead goose decoys to repel goose populations [goose poop remediation] on the NoVa Woodbridge campus). But the company’s energy and innovation is focused on establishing and expanding the AUTO-GRIP line of tools.
BSI moved into larger quarters in the same industrial park and hired staff, including Robbie Wright, Director of Business Development, and Patrick O’Connell, Warehouse Manager. “Hold no inventory” is a thing of the past as shipments of tools arrive from factories in China.
Brain Injury Services
- Don’t miss the video Where Would You Grip Yours?
Because the tools arrive without packaging or on cards printed with a factory name, the company needed workers to rebrand and assemble multi-piece kits. Through the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Christine Heiby met Tomoko Taguchi at Brain Injury Services in Springfield. Taguchi is always looking for jobs for her clients. It sounded like the work AUTO-GRIP offered would be a good fit, and it was.
AUTO-GRIP hired three people through BIS who worked steadily getting everything packaged. “They are great workers,” says Christine. “When we first started assembly of the six-piece tool bag, they were able to get 100 of them done in an hour and a half. That, to me, is amazing.
“I credit the Chamber of Commerce because even with my background, I’m not sure I would have gotten to Brain Injury Services to hire the people who are working with us now.”
With the new division have come customers in a new arena. Interline Brands is a major account. Based in Jacksonville, FL, Interline does $2 billion annual sales in maintenance, repair, and operations products, with 4 regional centers, 55 distribution centers, and more than 700 sales reps. Thos. Somerville, the plumbing, heating, and A/C company based in Upper Marlboro, and TW Perry, purveyor of building materials, are interested.
AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting locking pliers is the anchor tool in an expanding AUTO-GRIP line. Also available: AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting groove joint pliers and AUTOBLADE. Design is collaborative among Beltway Supply here and CF Cooper and its contacts in China. With such ongoing innovation, AUTOWRENCH and AUTODRIVER will be available in 2016.
In May, Mustang 360 magazine’s tech editor Mark Houlahan tested and gave a positive review and endorsement of AUTO-GRIP locking pliers and AUTO-GRIP self-adjusting groove joint pliers. “We never thought it would be in the car mechanic world,” says Dave Heiby, “but we love it.”
“Every tool we have is kind of an ‘oh, I’ve got one of those’,” says Robbie Wright, Director of Business Development. “But it’s not like ours—it doesn’t work as efficiently. We have automated, we have upgraded all the tools.
“We have only five items now, but all five are unique. We won’t have anything in our line that’s a ‘me, too.’ That’s the whole concept.”
AUTO-GRIP Locking Pliers – A Distinguished Heritage
William Petersen’s locking pliers played an important role in constructing the Liberty Ships of World War II. Liberty Ships were basic cargo transports built at top speed to carry supplies to beleaguered Britain and Europe, and to replace ships sunk by German U-boats.
The seams of Liberty Ships were welded rather than riveted, a design change that cut labor costs and required fewer skilled workers, many of whom were women. Workers found locking pliers useful to hold the steel plates of the hulls together. To save time, they welded the pliers into the hulls rather than removing them.
In four years, 18 US shipyards built 2,751 Liberty Ships. The first Liberty Ship took three months to build, but by the end of the war this was cut to 42 days. With such speedy construction, the US built cargo vessels faster than German U-boats could sink them and was one key to winning the war.
“Straight jaw and curved jaw, these were the pliers that saved democracy,” says Dave Heiby. In 1941, the tool sold for $1.25.
Beltway Supply, Inc.
7411 Alban Station Court
Springfield, VA 22150
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Or meet the AUTO-GRIP staff in person at the Capital Home Show, September 25-27, 2015, at the Dulles Expo Center.