Kentucky Horse Park | Courtesy of Dant Clayton Corp.

Kentucky Horse Park | Courtesy of Dant Clayton Corp.

Louisville-based Dant Clayton Corp. has manufactured and installed bleachers and grandstands for some hallowed ground in American sports, including the Kentucky Horse Park and Yankee Stadium.

But the company’s core business – outdoor seating for athletic facilities for schools and universities – has been growing very little, as educational institutions have to spend their dwindling dollars on classrooms rather than coliseums.

To diversify its capabilities and customer base, Dant Clayton has bought an Indianapolis-based railing business whose operations – and jobs — are being moved to Louisville.

Dant Clayton Corp., headquartered at 1500 Bernheim Lane, not far from Churchill Downs, has secured some recent high profile jobs: It is renovating the bleachers for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for $4 million and seating for some courts in the famed Flushing Meadows tennis complex in New York for $7 million.

Notable local and regional projects include 37,000 chairs at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and a new grandstand at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The company employs 160 on its local 25-acre campus, with about 60 percent of those working in a 350,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. Dant Clayton provides services that range from pre-construction consulting to design, engineering and installation.

With 70 percent of an essentially flat industry being dominated by two players, Texas-based Southern Bleacher and Dant Clayton, increasing sales has proven challenging.

“We’ve been looking for growth opportunities,” Chairman Bruce Merrick told IL this week.

Limited options

Geographic expansion beyond North America is tough because of high shipping costs and other logistical challenges.

“The business doesn’t export very well,” Merrick said.

That meant that if the company wanted to grow, it had to find other products and/or customers, and Merrick said the company found both in its acquisition of Tuttle Railing Systems, based in Fishers, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis.

While Dant Clayton provides railing in about 80 percent of its projects, it focuses primarily on aluminum and steel products. Merrick said that Tuttle allows the company to provide a greater variety of products, such as high-end and custom-designed railing systems that incorporate stainless steel and glass.

Dant Clayton now can offer essentially any railing system that is being used in public venues, he said.

Tulane University | Courtesy of Dant Clayton Corp.

Tulane University | Courtesy of Dant Clayton Corp.

And while Dant Clayton hopes to offer its newly acquired capabilities to existing customers, it also hopes to sell its products to industries in which Tuttle has garnered a reputation for high-quality commercial railings, including high-end office buildings, hotels, convention centers and airports.

“We felt like it was a good complement to our existing core product and could give us a good growth vehicle,” Merrick said.

The company will keep an office with about 12 people in Fishers, but 40 production jobs are being moved to Louisville through the first part of next year.

Merrick said he expects to add another 40 jobs within the next three years.

In filings with the state, the company said it planned to invest $1.65 million to foster the relocation of Tuttle. Average hourly wages of the jobs would be $19 including benefits. The state has provided initial approval for incentives of $850,000 through the Kentucky Business Investment program.

The company is hiring, Merrick said, and finding people in skilled trades, especially TIG welders, is difficult. Potential employees should contact the company’s human resources department by phone or mail.

Reputation

While Dant Clayton wins a lot of its business through bids, Merrick said the list of companies that get invited to public projects is screened, which means quality matters. Getting good word of mouth from satisfied customers also plays a big role.

Rick Kramb, a sales consultant for Dant Clayton, knows that first-hand.

Kramb used to work with Alcoa, which provides aluminum for Dant Clayton, and decided to become an independent dealer for Dant Clayton after getting to know Merrick and the company’s products.

He has sold Dant Clayton’s bleachers and services now to high schools and universities in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan for about 23 years.

“It’s satisfying to work with owners on a quality product and then deliver it … and walk away with a happy customer,” he said.

A happy customer also means a potential repeat customer. Kramb said the company has completed five projects for Michigan State University, for example.

You don’t get a chance to come back for three or four projects if you don’t deliver on the first one, Kramb said.

The company also installed bleachers for a high school in Columbus, Ind., where Kramb lives.

Seeing people having fun in the bleachers of a sporting arena that he helped build or renovate is “a very satisfying feeling,” Kramb said.

Gratifying

Brucde Merrick

Bruce Merrick

Merrick co-founded the company in 1979. Since then, Dant Clayton has completed more than 130 projects for college and professional sports leagues, including the NCAA, Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

The company also has supplied outfield bleacher seats for the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, AT&T Park in San Francisco and Yankee Stadium in New York City. It has ventured as far as Canada to supply seats for soccer stadiums and is providing seating for a baseball stadium in the Bahamas.

“It’s highly gratifying to go anywhere in the United States and see significant projects that we’ve been involved in,” Merrick said.

It’s equally exciting to see a lot of the stadiums just about any day on television, he said.

But Merrick said he gets his greatest satisfaction not from constructing stadiums but from building the careers of young people who have come to work for Dant Clayton and stayed for a long time.

Whether he builds another thousand stadiums isn’t going to change his life, he said, but helping people on a professional and personal level, “That’s something I can take with me,” he said.