With a Heart of Gold, Colin Wayne and Redline Make Products of Steel

TANNER — Decorated Army veteran seriously injured in Afghanistan.

Redline Steel has produced some 5 million products from its 110,000 square-foot facility in SouthPoint Business Park.

Traveling the world as a fitness model.

Entrepreneur and steel manufacturing guru.

Humanitarian and philanthropist in line to receive Huntsville’s “Key to the City”.

A person can accomplish a lot in just 31 years. Ask Huntsville native and social media extraordinaire Colin Wayne.

His company, Redline Steel, is ranked 110th among the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America – and is the fastest-growing company in the state

. In addition, Inc. 5000 recognized Redline Steel as the No. 4 Fastest Growing Manufacturing Company nationally with a recorded growth increase of 3,215 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Quickly becoming one of the largest steel monogram companies in the U.S., Redline Steel is expecting to surpass $100 million in sales by the end of the year.

But, to Wayne, giving to the community is what moves him.

“I am an entrepreneur, but I have always been a humanitarian and philanthropist at heart,” he said.

Wayne’s journey to becoming a steel manufacturing expert has been nothing short of extraordinary.

He was seriously injured in a rocket attack eight years ago in Afghanistan and spent six months in physical therapy and recovery from lumbar fusion surgery on his back.

Transitioning out of the Army in 2013, he traveled the world as a fitness model gracing the cover of more than 50 men’s health magazines and promoting products for Under Armour and Nike.

Moving back to Huntsville in 2015, it was a fortuitous business transaction that led Wayne to steel manufacturing and eventually build Redline Steel into his own company in January 2016.

Colin Wayne makes a presentation to Huntsville Police Capt. Mike Izzo. (Redline Photo)

Since then, Wayne has paid his good fortune back to the local, regional, and national communities that have resulted in his success many times over.

His company donated $50,000 to the Huntsville Police Department and, in 2017, donated $25,000 to the American Red Cross. Redline Steel has also given back to Alabama farmers, veterans groups, schoolteachers, and truckers.

In the meantime, like hundreds of other businesses, Redline Steel has been adversely affected by the pandemic.

But, unlike hundreds of other businesses, he didn’t let it adversely affect his employees. Redline Steel employs more than 85 employees and based on current projections, Wayne expects that to reach over 100 by end of the year.

“When the coronavirus hit this spring, I doubled our workforce, and we did not lay anyone off, even during the worst of it,” Wayne said. “Then, to lessen the negative impact, I paid all our employees’ house payments in April.

“The coronavirus has been challenging because we have struggled like everyone else to find ways to combat it and keep going. It caused a lot of stress on the company’s growth because of the unknowns and we have had more unemployment the past couple months than we have had in over 50 years.

“People aren’t spending like they were before the pandemic, so we had to get creative to find different ways to monetize.”

He said now that almost every state including Alabama has mandatory mask requirements, they began getting a lot of requests for them through their website. They set up a partnership to make and sell face masks but – to him – that wasn’t enough.

“We donated over $4 million in products to provide support for essential healthcare workers and partnered with my friend, actress Megan Fox, to donate $3.2 million to medical support personnel and first responders,” he said.

From its 110,000 square-foot facility in SouthPoint Business Park just off Interstates 65 and 565 in Tanner, Redline Steel manages all manufacturing and fulfillment coming from their online retail store. In its first four years in business, they have moved some 5 million products. Their mostly steel-based products include personalized and monogrammed gifts, home décor, jewelry, children’s items, and accessories.

Colin Wayne takes a selfie with President Trump after a ceremony in Washington.

This year, President Trump invited him to the White House where he awarded Wayne with a signed commendation plaque. They also took a selfie together and Trump bought an American flag from his company’s Patriotic Flag Collection.

More recently, he was nominated for the 2020 Russell G. Brown Executive Leadership Award in Alabama for Small Businesses and will be receiving Huntsville’s Key to the City recognition for his charitable community involvement.

In August, Redline Steel launched three nonprofit campaigns.

“I look for causes whose missions align with my values and beliefs,” Wayne said. “My five-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with cancer and the Olivia Hope Foundation specializes in pediatric cancer.

“She is currently in remission, but she is still on oral chemotherapy and it is very difficult.”

The Olivia Hope Foundation was created in honor of 11-year-old Olivia Hope LoRusso, who lost a 15-month fight with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Redline Steel is offering exclusive home décor pieces with every donation. For information, visit oliviahope.org.

“We are also launching a campaign with Midnight Mission,” he said. “They feed the homeless and, of course, that is important to me because 70 percent of homeless people are war veterans.”

In August, a long list of Hollywood celebrities teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to promote a social media campaign called #Hammertime. Redline Steel became involved by making a special steel hammer to send to every person who donated $25 or more.

“And Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “They are a much larger organization obviously, but they are also a Christian organization that helps people in need to build homes.”

Sit Down with Success: Restaurateur Stephanie Kennedy-Mell

After she spent more than 20 years in the fashion and apparel industry, Stephanie Kennedy-Mell and her husband Matthew Mell opened the Church Street Wine Shoppe in Huntsville.

Now their Church Street Family owns Purveyor at the Avenue, Pourhouse at Stovehouse; Mazzara’s at Stovehouse; and, in spite of the uncertainty of COVID-19, they are about to open Catacomb 435, a speakeasy in the basement of Downtown Self Storage at the corner of Jefferson Street and Clinton Avenue.

Four restaurants and a fifth on the way – aren’t you facing unprecedented challenges?

I look at it as a time to work on your bobbing and weaving skills. The alternative is to get overwhelmed by it and it’s easy enough outside of COVID for small business to get overwhelmed. We take things as they come at us. Adjust, ask questions, prioritize, and handle things as they come at us. Bobbing and weaving all the time and repeating our mantra #keepmovingforward.

How are you getting through it?

We live in an amazing community. It is so supportive of small business and we feel very lucky for that.

We are extremely cautious with our customers and our employees, thanks to relationships we have with people at the hospital.

They have guided us on how to sanitize our restaurants properly and thoroughly; how to deal with positive cases, and how to follow protocols so we can stay open and keep people safe.

They provide us with quick testing, so all our employees are tested for the virus before they are hired on at the Church Street Family. It must come back negative before they can start.

What advice would you give someone getting into the hospitality business right now?

I’m not sure it’s the best time to start a new business, so if you are not already established, I would advise them to hold off.

If they are already established, I say giving up is not the answer. Go slow, be cautious, do your due diligence, and market yourself using social media to reassure people you have survived and are following protocols and guidelines.

How are things at Stovehouse?

It is a great socially distanced space, mostly outdoors, and the tables are socially distanced. It is a comfortable place to go right now to eat and drink, play bocce ball and enjoy music. It is very popular and still growing. The tenants talk to each other daily and have conversations about what is working and what is not; and what we can do together.

And the future?

It is all about attitude. This too shall pass, so keep your chin up. Have a plan and execute your plan. You may have to alter that plan but stay with it.

Area Commercial Construction Continues to Rise in Wake of COVID Uncertainty

There has been very little, if any, slowdown in commercial building in Huntsville and Madison throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the weight of uncertainty related to the pandemic has not disappeared, commercial builders and developers continue to work through it like Marshall Space Flight Center engineers work through the challenges of the space program – always moving positively forward; always working the problem from a pragmatic standpoint; and never accepting failure as a final outcome.

According to Shane Davis, Director of Urban & Economic Development for the City of Huntsville, new construction permits, and permit inspection requests have not declined throughout the pandemic and the City continues to see strong growth in all building sectors.

“In terms of the overall environment, we continue to see multiple new projects looking at the Huntsville market as a new or expanding location,” said Davis. “While COVID has slowed the number of potential new companies and their projects, active projects are very strong and diverse in varying business sectors.

“Ongoing construction activities have been hindered by reduced workers, intermediate quarantining, and delays due to the availability in building materials. But while these conditions have slowed the overall construction pace, all ongoing commercial and industrial projects continue to move ahead with a shift in completion deadlines and openings.”

He points to the very visible and very active downtown construction happening on what seems like every block.

“City Centre is under construction with Phase II – lofts, retail, and a parking garage,” he said. “Two new public parking garages are going up at Greene and Monroe streets. Both the Curio Hotel and Hampton Inn and Suites are in the midst of construction, and the new Huntsville Hospital Tower is taking shape.

Last year, Russ Russell Commercial Real Estate set a land sales record for downtown Huntsville at $56 per square foot for the Hampton Inn and Suites project. Located on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Monroe Street, the land is prime downtown real estate across from the expanded Von Braun Center.

“It is one of the few corners that has been vacant with no building on it,” Russell said. “Out-of-town developers look at these parcels of land with fresh eyes are willing to pay a premium because they can see it developed, where sometimes local people can’t because they drive past it every day.

“I set up an ugly tent with cold beer and rare velvet Elvis artwork, and you will be surprised how it brings that vision into full view,” he said.

Mitch Coley, division Manager at Robins & Morton, said they are working on a variety of projects in the greater Huntsville area. Some of the most visible include Huntsville Hospital’s Orthopedic and Spine Tower, Redstone Federal Credit Union, 106 Jefferson, Pelham Street Park and Redstone Gateway 7100 and 8100’s new office building.

“Mid-year there was a decline in new projects and delays in projects in the planning stages as owners and developers hesitated, wanting a clearer picture of what was ahead,” said Coley. “But the industry is seeing some of these projects resuming. The good news is that those projects haven’t gone away and that’s providing strong start for next year.”

He said they are seeing a decrease in the number of new projects reported as upcoming opportunities from architect and design firms, but they believe this will manifest itself in a market-by-market and city-by-city basis. Huntsville is not likely to be as affected by what would ordinarily predict a nationwide downturn because Huntsville’s market sector is so diverse.

“Looking back at the recession of 2008, the construction industry contracted,” Coley said. “It was different from what we’re facing today because of the lack of capital during the Great Recession, but it resulted in a pent-up demand for construction.

“There was still a backlog when COVID-19 surfaced. Although some clients expressed hesitancy to proceed with projects in the very early stages of planning mid-year, we’ve seen many of them resume.”

Russell sees positive signs everywhere. From the construction of the $40 million Autograph Collection by Marriott hotel being built to replace the southern portion of the Von Braun Center parking deck; to the long-awaited downtown Constellation development, which begins Phase I construction this fall.

In addition to these large-scale projects, downtown continues to see new businesses opening up and the redevelopment of existing spaces in the core, Davis said.

“The biggest impact on new commercial projects and hospitality projects has been the pause in project financing,” Davis said. “We have dozens of projects that still have approval from both the private equity and brand/retailer sides. However, COVID-19 has caused a pause in the start of construction due to the ability to close on the financial package.

“The ability for these projects to keep the private equity and national brand approvals shows the current strength of the Huntsville market.”

Don Beck, partner in The Shopping Center Group of Alabama concurs.

“The banks are lending money and it is cheap,” said Beck, whose company specializes in retail developments. “Bankers know the Huntsville market is good because its employment base is there with federal dollars coming from Redstone Arsenal and subcontracting coming from Cummings Research Park. With the jobs there, the banks are a yes for lending.”

On the other hand, many banks are showing hesitancy toward some restaurants and hotels.

According to Joey Ceci, president of the Breland Companies, “We have several cases where regional hotel and restaurant owners are ready to move forward but in those two industries, it is almost impossible to get financing, despite their financial statements looking fine. Accessing capital is very important to companies that are expanding so this has been a deterrent.”

SouthPoint Business Park (Photo/Hollingsworth Companies)

Outside of downtown, Davis points to growth and the success of other commercial projects throughout the region.

SouthPoint Business Park, off Interstates 65 and 565 and five miles from the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant, broke ground on its 11th facility at the 1.9 million square-foot industrial park that is already home to six companies. The new building is the region’s largest spec industrial facility and, according to Davis, it is almost full.

SouthPoint is a component of the larger regional economic strategy, and Davis calls out regional leaders and partners for that expansion, as they continue to focus on the bigger picture and work to be successful in those areas.

“Cummings Research Park remains the location of choice for big business,” Davis said. “Several entities have plans for expansion and the city continues to invest in new and updated infrastructure as part of implementing the updated Master Plan. Even with the COVID events, projects are in the works for 2021 and we believe will be a big year for CRP.”

At MidCity, construction slowed due to COVID, but retail, hospitality, and the initial multi-family components are still on schedule to start construction this fall.

“Most of the infrastructure construction, site grading, and utility relocations are wrapping up such that the redevelopment plan can go vertical,” said Davis. “We believe 2021 will be an exciting year for MidCity as the building architecture that has been shared through the Master Plan will come to life.”

One of the worst kept secrets in Madison County is all that red clay moving around at the corner of Town Madison Boulevard and Zierdt Road.

The newest Huntsville Starbucks location and Outback Steakhouse are moving forward, while Town Madison continues to build a retail center across the street from Toyota Field. The buildings are 50 percent complete and will welcome a chef-driven Italian restaurant to its tenant line-up.

“Economic development continues to be a primary focus for our Madison team,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “Our YTD sales tax is up over 10 percent from last year despite the COVID-19 situation, and we continue to see success in growing our retail sales tax base.

“Town Madison, Madison Boulevard, The Avenue Madison downtown, Midtown, the (U.S.) 72 corridor, and County Line Road have all seen growth in restaurants, retail, and groceries,” Finley aidd. “Redevelopment of Hughes Plaza, Madison Boulevard and Hughes Road all continue to give Madison an upgraded, new and positive look.”

“Retail follows rooftops,” said Beck of TSCG. “The good news is that Huntsville is still growing; we still have a housing shortage; we still have over 10,000 jobs coming into the area; and there is still a lot of demand, even pent-up retail demand.”

Beck, who has developed retail projects throughout the region, said he is positive about the future as he sees developers moving towards mixed-use projects with a housing component and perhaps an office of medical office component fitted together with traditional retail.

“We are still seeing expansion downtown and on the south part of town with the Hays Farm development,” he said. “Scottsboro, Athens and northern Madison County, Hazel Green and Meridianville are showing continuous growth.

“Athens, for instance, is getting a second Publix where the old Kmart used to be. With its proximity to the interstate and Toyota Mazda, Athens is a great commuting city for Huntsville and Madison, and it should soon see a boom as it grows together with Madison.”

He also said smaller towns such as Hartselle and Priceville are seeing growth as well because the commute time to Huntsville or Madison is workable.

“If you moved here from Atlanta or (Washington) D.C., you have an entirely different perspective on commutes,” he said. “And it is less expensive to live in those smaller towns.”

The disconnect he said is with forced reduced sales volumes. Can retailers justify the construction costs and afford the rent?

“We don’t know the answer to that yet, but at some point, business must open back up and people have to get back work,” Beck said. “There’s no way these restaurants with construction costs being where they are, can at 50 percent capacity and a limit on the hours you can sell alcohol, justify new construction costs.”

He said while rent must go down, at the same time, landlords have mortgages and they have to make mortgage payments. The good part is that developers and landlords are being creative in finding ways to make it work.

“On pre-COVID leases, landlords are working on rent deferrals or rent reductions where the tenant pays partial rent for the time being, and when things get back to normal, going back to full rent and perhaps adding a longer lease time, like an extra year on the lease.

“As long as there’s housing demand, retail will be all right, but we also don’t yet know how the Amazon effect will affect big box retail,” he said. “There are still a lot of people who want to shop in stores. Shopping is a social event just like going out to play golf or tennis. But throughout this pandemic, Amazon has filled that space and we don’t know yet how much that convenience will carry over into everyday life once things get back to normal.”

Coley too said there is still a lot of uncertainty, but his company Robins & Morton believes most people are hopeful that we will gain control over the pandemic in the not-too-distant future.

“When you think that it can be two years or more from planning to completion for a project, you can understand why a lot of active construction hasn’t slowed down,” said Coley. “You’re always building for the future, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here in Huntsville.”

Madison County Housing Market Booms Despite Pre-COVID Shortages

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the only things obstructing regional residential growth was the construction industry labor shortage and a desperate shortage of housing inventory. 

Still, during the pandemic, there is nothing – at least nothing new – slowing the residential housing market in North Alabama. Not a virus, not consumers, not builders, not banks, not regulation, and not the economy.

Home-buying and homebuilding are booming.

“We have sold more homes in 2020 than were sold at the same time in 2019,” said Josh McFall, CEO of the Huntsville Area Association of Realtors. “Even amidst the stress of a pandemic and busy housing market there was no slow down, and in fact, the only thing the association has seen take a downturn is housing inventory.

“I don’t even think we can classify the inventory problem as directly related to the pandemic. Beginning in January, we reported the lowest number of homes available for sale in the MLS since the MLS has been keeping track of those records in the mid-1990s.

“Madison County has been the big driver of that because we have the most MLS listings due to the denser population. Inventory is low, but we consistently slide down the entire MLS because our average days on market has also slid down.”

He said the days on market number for North Alabama combined is 42 days but, in Madison County, that number is 26 days and consistently falling.

“I remember five years ago we were reporting 80 or 90 days on the market and here in 2020 and during a pandemic, as of June that number is 26 days,” he said. “So, we had this housing shortage before COVID.”

Last month, around 840 homes were sold in Madison County. Of those, 600 were resales and 230 were new construction. Those 230 are either new construction, a prospect build that was sold, or a custom build that entered the MLS.

“So, what we are saying is, more builders are feeling more confidence in the local economy, so they’re ramping up their building, while at the same time, they have a lot of pressure on them due to the labor shortage and rising supply costs,” McFall said. “But if you look at all the MLS to date, there were 2,307 available homes on the entire market; 926 are in Madison County.”

One-third of houses under construction sell every month so the industry must build a lot of houses to keep up with demand, 

“Sales prices are continuing to tick up from month to month so you can see it is a supply and demand issue,” said McFall.

How are people feeling about buying or building a home during a global pandemic? 

Apparently, completely unfettered.

“Buying a home during COVID-19 was almost no different than our previous purchases,” said David Fields. He and his wife Meredith bought a home right around the highpoint of the pandemic this spring. “Our Realtor was very supportive and took all the necessary precautions including the use of PPE and social distancing. Overall, it was a great experience.”

“We’re getting lots of activity on the housing side of our business,” said Joey Ceci, president of the Breland Companies. Breland’s commercial division is developing the 525-acre Town Madison off I-565.

“At Pike Place at Clift Farm off Balch Road in Madison we already have several townhouses built and sold,” Ceci said. “At Town Madison, they are getting calls from people who are downsizing and who want to get away from a large yard and out from underneath the maintenance of a large house.” 

While Breland builds a variety of housing products, they also contract with homebuilders such as Regent Homes of Nashville. Regent built homes at the Village of Providence and is building The Heights District at Town Madison.

Ceci said all Breland developments, whether they are cottages, single-family homes, or townhouses, are continuing to go up all over North Alabama. The Ledges of Oakdale in Athens, Meadowbrook in Cullman, and The Retreat in Meridianville are selling quickly, while Pebble Creek at River Landing in Madison is sold out.

“The impact on the economy with all these houses being built and sold are keeping home values up for existing homeowners,” Ceci said. “It’s good for our local economy too to be able to say we are not just swapping houses. We were pretty sure all these people would be moving here to take jobs with the FBI and Toyota, and now they are here. There are a lot of new people coming into the area.”

Stone Martin Builders who has developed Celia’s Garden, Allen Acres and Copper Creek in Huntsville, has continued to build throughout the pandemic, according to sales manager Ashley Durham, despite hurdles caused by supply shortages and subcontractor delays. 

“The labor shortage is the building industry’s greatest challenge currently and it has a direct impact on low inventory,” said Durham.  

One of the ways they are addressing the problem is to build strong relationships with subcontractors to help them grow their companies alongside their own.  

“As a growing company, Stone Martin Builders finds value in helping our business partners grow and become great so we can in turn, overcome all types of industry challenges together,” Durham said. “That in addition to seeking opportunities with local technical programs to enhance the workforce, we are all helping each other.” 

One of those technical programs is the North Alabama Homebuilding Academy started by the Huntsville-Madison County Builders Association to address the problem and they have already graduated their second class, even during the pandemic.

The North Alabama Homebuilding Academy trains people to be a homebuilder. Upon graduation, they can work as a contractor in training or in one of the ancillary trades. It was an 18-month endeavor but since January, the Academy has graduated 47 students.

According to Barry Oxley, Executive Officer of the HMCBA, the gap in skilled construction and construction-related labor goes back 30 years to the No Child Left Behind Act when school systems retooled education.

“There was for a long time, the idea that you have to go to college to be successful and as schools began to do away with trade school classes, a stigma developed around trades that said you were not meant for college,” said Oxley. “But the construction industry is made up of a lot of small businesses. If you are a skilled plumber, electrician, window or flooring installer or masonry expert, you do quite well.”

The Academy’s focus is on the 30 percent of school kids who are not able or do not want to go to college. 

The program is an eight-week session with a cap of 18 to 20 students. The fourth session started in early July with 19 students and every class through September is booked to capacity.

“We have been talking about the labor shortage for a long time, so we decided to do something about it,” said Oxley. “They apply through our website and we invite them to an open house. We have been doing those virtually since the shutdowns started.

“We send them an invitation to sign up for a class. It does not cost them anything to attend and we back up the classes with ongoing job fairs where we bring in employers who hire our students. These students are going from minimum wage jobs to making $14 to $16 an hour.”

“We will always strive to build homes efficiently and with great quality … and we will continually seek to find growth opportunities for our organization in the North Alabama market to help offset the housing shortage,” said Stone Martin’s Durham. “We are still accomplishing this goal and our customers remain positive.

“We keep them informed of any affects the pandemic will have on the construction process, and there has been very little disruptions in our builds, so customers continue to be eager and excited about their new home.”

Durham believes it is the commitment their company made to colleagues, customers, and the building team to support one another throughout the crisis. The minute COVID-19 began to challenge the building industry, Stone Martin Builders acted. 

“We identified fellow business owners that may be negatively impacted by the pandemic, and we found ways to become their patrons,” she said. “Many of these business owners were Stone Martin buyers, and we believe it is our duty to give back when we have the ability to do so.”

Some of the steps they took included renting tents from an event resource company whose events had been cancelled. 

“To offset their losses, we used these tents for outdoor closings and information gathering stations to offset the cancellation of open houses in North Alabama,” she said. “Our goal was to find ways to use the product of a struggling customer to help offset the struggles we were having.” 

Durham said some of their processes with customers also changed.

“Upon our first meeting with a customer, we seek to understand the ‘Why?’ they are building a new home,” she said. “COVID changed that process slightly in that we now need to understand how a homeowner is going to function in their new home. 

“COVID is requiring the home be multi-functional and that looks different for every homeowner.”

For instance, they see an increase in the need for home offices, quiet rooms for schooling or reading, functional kitchens with people cooking at home more, and good natural light for being home in day time hours.

“We are creating home plans that meet those needs,” said Durham. 

“We continue to see high demand for housing in Madison County, and especially in Madison,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “The City instituted a Growth Impact Committee in 2017 that documented inventory and anticipated growth. Using this data, the Madison School Board, supported by the City Council, defined 12 mills as the proper number for managing this growth via the property tax referendum.”

The mill rate is the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property.

“This passed in September 2019 and we are now building the needed schools to manage the growth,” he said. 

To support this managed growth, the Madison City Council formulated and instituted a Growth Policy in mid-2019. Town Madison’s residential growth was factored into the Growth Impact Committee’s study and they continue to build out both the residential and retail portions. 

A new townhouse development on Kyser Boulevard is a perfect example of how managed growth can work for all parties. 

“The developer focused on providing 366 townhouse units on industrial property,” Finley said. “Our growth policy dictated that the only way we would change this zoning was if significant city objectives were achieved. 

“Working with the developer and schools, we defined two significant objectives: connecting Westchester Road to Kyser Boulevard allowing school buses a more direct and safer route to Sullivan Street; and extending the Bradford Creek Greenway from Palmer to historic downtown. These two objectives are estimated to cost $4,000,000 and will now be built and paid for by the developer. 

“The developer also agreed to spread the building out to eight years with a 50 unit maximum per year and will not include second stories or a swimming pool, keeping their focus on non-school age purchasers.”

“If you think back 10 years to the recession, Huntsville was not hit as hard as some places, but some of the bigger builders either scaled down or consolidated,” said McFall. “You may notice tracts of land still sitting empty in the back of neighborhoods that were built out for new homes in 2009 and 2010.

“Now they are exploding because builders have bought them. You can drive all over town and see construction in neighborhoods where one builder built the homes in one section of the development, but another builder is completing it. 

“The bottom line is people need a place to live, whether they are moving up or moving down. Marry that with the best interest rates seen in the mortgage industry in a long time, it explains the good housing numbers.”

Sitdown with Success: Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf

(Sitdown with Success is a regular feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Weddendorf who helped revolutionize the craft-brewing industry in Huntsville and the state.)

Just four short weeks before COVID- 19 became everyone’s daily reality, Huntsville City Mayor Tommy Battle proclaimed Feb. 14 as Straight to Ale Day.

Bruce Weddendorf stands in the Straight to Ale stockroom, a converted gym at the former Stone Middle School. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The Valentine’s Day proclamation came on the heels of a recent accolade from RateBeer, naming the Huntsville brewery the “2019 Best Brewer in Alabama.” And what an honor it was: Five times in six years, Straight to Ale has earned the title.

Going far beyond its local and state popularity, Straight to Ale has become a nationally recognized product, as well as a hang out. The taproom is a prime destination location for out-of-town visitors.

It’s that kind of comfy place where old friends gather over a pint, business folk network and new connections are forged.

Getting its start in 2009, Straight to Ale has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the small, 500-square-foot production facility at Lincoln Mill.

In spring 2011, Straight To Ale took up residence in the former Olde Towne Brewery on Leeman Ferry Road. Still operating as a production venture, the passing of the Brewery Modernization Act in fall 2011 that included taprooms, was a business model game-changer.

Once the taproom was added, operations expanded to host a wide assortment of special events. Every night was a party of some sort and, by 2014, Straight to Ale was bursting at the seams.

School’s out forever! By summer 2016, Straight to Ale became the anchor tenant at Campus No. 805, formerly  Stone Middle School, which was a part of the West Huntsville redevelopment initiative.

In its spacious, 45,000-square-foot facility, Straight to Ale has plenty to offer. There’s the taproom with more than 20 taps of Straight To Ale brews. The beer names are uniquely memorable, such as “Monkeynaut,” and “Unobtainium.” STA Operations Manager Matt Broadhurst creates the quirky label art that’s poster worthy and unforgettable.

Having a reception, business meeting or a party? There are five special event rental spaces. There’s also a small retail shop that sells STA merchandise.

For dining, there’s Ale’s Kitchen, serving up items from a variety of cultures, all made from scratch.

Bruce Weddendorf, his wife Jo, and business partners Dan Perry and Colin Austin were the trailblazers on this first wave of local craft beer; frontrunners with the taproom concept.

The idea behind Straight to Ale was to make Huntsville more fun! “We wanted to provide a product that was uniquely Huntsville,” said Weddendorf. “To get people -all kinds of people- together over beer.”

Before 2009, there wasn’t a craft beer segment to the beer market. Free the Hops paved the way by helping to pass the Gourmet Beer Bill. That was the first industry game-changer. When they helped to pass the taproom laws two years later, it completely changed Straight to Ale’s business model.

“The thing is, we really didn’t know what it would do, we didn’t understand at the time how big a part of our lives it was going to become because we were still very much a manufacturing business,” said Weddendorf. “It (the taproom) made it so much better, so much easier to reach customers and to make bonds with those customers.”

Since 2011, Alabama has gone from seven craft breweries to 45 in 2019. The passing of the Gourmet Beer Bill and Taproom law had the one-two punch effect of creating a new industry and adapting the brewery business model from strictly production to a business that encompassed hospitality and retail, too.

Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf is climbing the ladder to success in the craft beer industry. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“We grew from being just manufacturing-oriented to becoming part of the hospitality industry,” said Weddendorf. “That wasn’t something we planned, but it’s been tremendously beneficial to our business and beneficial to Huntsville.”

There remains to be challenges; but challenges are something that Weddendorf sees as something to go over, go under, go around, or break the walls down. Until the recent pandemic, home alcohol delivery wasn’t an issue nor was it on the radar.

“It was something that we hadn’t noticed until COVID-19,” said Weddendorf.

Despite the current business climate and the obstacles associated with COVID 19, Straight to Ale recently completed a merger with the Tuscaloosa-based Druid City Brewing. The idea was to help Druid City bring their great beers statewide to and to expand their fun, yet tiny taproom and brewery.

And it’s been a win-win.

“This has been a great relationship and it benefited everyone,” said Weddendorf. “We are very glad that we were fortunate enough to be able to make this deal.”

Straight to Ale provides the place and the experience where people can come to relax.

“It’s all kinds of people and everyone has the beer in common; the beer and the desire to be with other people,” said Weddendorf. “It’s amazing to touch the friendships, the business relationships, and all kinds of important connections and networking that come out of this place. And that is very satisfying to see; that type of success where we’re really influencing a lot of people’s lives, we’re making their lives better.

“We’re giving them somewhere to connect with other people and it’s beneficial to the community, so I’m really proud of that.”

 

Chamber Launches GetYourGiftOn.Org to Support Local Restaurants and Stores

If you were not hungry before, you will be after visiting the new GetYourGiftOn.org website (https://www.getyourgifton.org/), launched by the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce in support of local small businesses, especially restaurants and retail establishments.

The website features retail and dining establishments which can quickly and easily upload detailed information about their business, including any promotional offers and specials; new and limited business hours; whether or not they offer curbside or delivery options (even if they didn’t offer it before); and links to online gift cards that can be used to order food or goods, or that can be given to someone else as gift.

Searchable by neighborhood, it is easy for businesses to take part by clicking the “Submit a Business” link at the top of the site and filling out the information. That information goes to the Chamber to be verified and could go live within a couple of hours if not sooner.

There is no cost for businesses to be added and Chamber membership is not required to participate.

“Maybe your company never thought about offering gift cards or just hadn’t gotten around to it yet,” said Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber. “This makes it really easy, and that was our intent – to keep it really simple and make it very attractive.”

For businesses that do not offer gift cards, there are options available.

  • Instagift, an Alabama-based e-gift card service, is  waiving monthly fees for any Huntsville signups;
  • Gift Up is waiving its 3.49 percent fee on the first $5,000 of gift card sales.

For businesses with e-gift cards and using platforms such as Square, they can be easily and quickly linked.

The Chamber has been brainstorming ways to help support local businesses during this unprecedented shutdown and heard about a site called LocalDistancing.com in Birmingham.

Inspired by three childhood friends and entrepreneurs Vince Perez, Dylan Spencer, and Trey Oliver, the Chamber asked them for help in building a sister site in Huntsville based on the same premise.

According to Cape, it was a labor of love working with them to get the site up quickly, and to provide such an easy format so business owners can add themselves to the site and be up and running almost immediately.

“Please pass along the word about GetYourGiftOn.org and encourage every retail or restaurant owner you know to add their information to the site,” said Cape. “We expect to add a lot more vendors to the site in the coming days so if there is a business you haven’t been to lately; or if you know of a business or restaurant in your neighborhood that should be using the site, be sure and let them and the Chamber know so we can get them up as soon as possible.

“Remember that even though we may be losing track of dates these days, we have not canceled holidays and Mother’s Day is coming up May 10. Maybe you are checking in with your mom, but not able to visit. You can still send her a gift. Go to GetYourGiftOn.org and buy her an online gift card to somewhere to eat or to her favorite retail store.

Because the website is new, the Chamber is seeking feedback to provide improvements and updates.

 

HudsonAlpha’s Dr. Lamb Warns: Misinformation Spreading Like the Virus

Drinking hot water; using a hair dryer to blow hot air down your throat; and gargling with bleach are just a few of the outrageous preventatives against the COVID-19 disease that can be found on the Internet these days.

Some of them may even quote an expert with the Center for Disease Control or a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Neil Lamb: “Please, please, please don’t try any of the things you read on the internet.” (Photo/HudsonAlpha)

Dr. Neil Lamb of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology recently answered questions from local business owners in a teleconference with the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce and warned against trusting the Internet for valid information.

“Please, please, please don’t try any of the things you read on the internet,” he said. “During an epidemic, the virus isn’t the only thing that spreads – so does misinformation.”

While these specific questions were not among those asked by Chamber members, Lamb answered numerous highly intelligent and often-asked questions during the call.

For instance, can people build up their immunity system for fighting the COVID-19 virus by eating healthier and using vitamins and supplements such as vitamin C, A, D, E and zinc?

“You can build up your resilience,” said Lamb. “For instance, if you smoke or vape – stop now! You want your lungs to be in the best shape possible.

“If your diabetes or hypertension is not controlled by medication – get it under control with medication.

“Get enough sleep, because your immune system is weakened when you are under stress and not getting enough sleep.

“Absolutely think about your diet. We often reach for comfort food during stressful times like a milkshake or ice cream with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” he said to laughter. “Instead, help your body control immune and inflammatory responses with healthier foods like extra fruits and vegetables.”

There is nothing that scientists and doctor know of right now that will stop the spread of the virus once a person has developed symptoms, he said.

“The best thing you can do is make it really hard for the virus to find you, and you do through social distancing, limiting contact and interaction with others, and practicing good handwashing and hygiene rituals,” Lamb said.

In regards to Vitamin C, he said the levels of vitamins doctors are using to treat people in the hospital, are many, many, times the levels of Vitamin C purchased over the counter or in a multivitamin.

“The Vitamin C hospitals are using is given intravenously too, so you cannot eat enough Vitamin C pills to reach the level they are giving,” he said. “And if you eat a bottle of Vitamin C tablets, it is going to pass right through your system in your urine, so it is not going to do you any good.

“Taking a normal routine of a multivitamin or antioxidant is beneficial all the time; eating more green vegetables is good all the time; but the real way to increase disease resilience is by taking good care of our body.”

Another question pertained to handling he return of employees back to work in the weeks ahead. If a company wants to implement taking employee’s temperature upon entering the building, would that be appropriate?

“The CDC is recommending self-monitoring and part of self-monitoring is taking your temperature,” Lamb said. “As we begin to tiptoe back towards normal, the challenge is that you can be completely asymptomatic and still be actively spreading the virus. You can be infectious with no fever.

“I think we’re beginning to see what’s called a serological test coming to market, that uses swabs to look for the presence of the virus’ genetic material in your nose or throat,” he said. “These tests look to see whether you have developed SARS-CoV-2 antibodies due to exposure to the virus. That is very different from molecular testing we’re seeing offered at hospitals now.

“I think we will soon begin to see these tests come to market as they begin opening drive-in clinics, specifically for finding out whether you’re actively infected.”

Face masks are creating the most conversation right now and there were many questions regarding the effectiveness of wearing them in public.

“The World Health Organization has maintained that you should only wear a face mask if you are sick or caring for someone who is sick or working in a health care setting,” said Lamb. “Other countries around the world have freely handed them out and made them mandatory. There is a lot of ground between those two and we don’t have any firm guidance yet, but I think in the next few days, we’re going to see some guidance from the CDC and the White House about wearing face masks.

“Remember, wearing face masks out in public is not to protect you from somebody else, but to protect other people from you. The face mask keeps any respiratory particles you might be spreading, contained.

“If you’re sick, you need to be wearing a face mask. If you’re caring for someone who’s sick, you need to be wearing a face mask.”

However, there is not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical professionals right now so people do not need to be going to the grocery store wearing an N95 mask. Those need to be in the hands of health care workers, the people on the front lines of this pandemic who desperately need every possible protection.

“The kind of face coverings we’re going to be encouraged to wear out in public can be homemade face coverings,’ Lamb said.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle suggested face masks are a psychological reminder that people still need to practice social distancing, but that they should not give a false sense of security.

Lamb agrees.

“The thing to remember is that most of us don’t wear a face mask every day, so it’s going to feel different on your face, causing people to be constantly adjusting it,” he said. “If I am constantly touching the outside of my face mask, I’m potentially taking any contamination I have come into contact with on my fingers, and moving it all over my face. That may inevitably increase the risk!”

Are there hot spots around town we should all avoid, like going to one store and not another, or are some stores cleaner and safer than others?

“I think you should just assume everything is potentially contaminated and you need to be hypervigilant about that,” Lamb answered. “I don’t want to freak anyone out, but we should realize any surface can have virus on it.”

He went on to explain how he approaches surfaces.

“When I enter our building, I use a folded handkerchief to reach for a place on the handle I doubt a lot of other people have grasped,” he said. “Then I fold it inward and try to be conscious of not touching that part of the handkerchief again.

“Keep plastic grocery bags in your vehicle so when you get gas, you can put your hand inside the bag and grab the gas pump with it. Then put it into the trash can right by the pump.

“When you go to the grocery store, before you grab a cart, if someone isn’t there sanitizing the carts, go grab the wipes first or use your own wipes to clean the cart.

“Think about the way you touch groceries. Don’t pick up multiple cans or boxes to read the ingredients like you usually do. Pick up the can or box you want and put it in the cart. When you get home, consider having a dirty space and clean space on your countertop. Wipe off the containers and put them in a clean space.

Many people are intrigued by the bright colorful pictures they have seen of COVID-19 virus. How does the virus behave?

“The SARS-Co-V2, which causes COVID-19 disease, has a fatty membrane around it,” said Lamb. “A lot of viruses are encapsulated and protected by proteins, but this one does not have that, which means it is a relatively fragile virus. All the things that break up fat like soap, tear open the membranes of the virus. That’s why washing your hands for 20 seconds and building up the suds and foam will destroy it.”

How about the weather? Do cold temperatures help the virus maintain stability, and will warmer weather break that down?

“Certainly the influenza virus drops off during the summer, and we know from research that the flu spreads better in drier, colder air, which means the hot moisture and humidity in the South during the summer does not benefit the spread of the flu,” Lamb said. “But we don’t know if the coronavirus behaves the same way as influenza.

“We don’t have a lot of data, and I’ve seen a lot of people suggest we’re going to see a summer dip; but there is also evidence from warmer parts of the world still having rapidly spreading coronavirus that might argue against that. We can’t really be sure. We are just going to have to wait and see.”

There is a lot of information on the Internet about stopping the virus from moving from the upper respiratory to the lower respiratory system if a person starts showing mild symptoms. Is this true?

“I know it may be incredibly frustrating to watch this virus spread around the globe and not think, ‘What can I do and what can’t I do. I’m just one person trying to take care of my household and coworkers,'” Lamb said. “However, every action has consequences,” Lamb said. “The choices we make today, the decisions we make about not hanging out in large groups and about minimizing the number of trips we take outside of home, will shape the next three weeks.

“What you do today, every day, over the next three weeks is a gift to yourself and our city three weeks from now.”

And finally, once this virus passes, how long will it be before life gets completely back to normal?

“I’m going to say this up front and I know no one wants to hear it, but it is likely this is not the last time we’re going to be talking about social distancing,” Lamb said. “The goal of social distancing is to make it harder for the virus to spread so we don’t overwhelm the health care system, but the flip side of that is that many of us will still not have been exposed to the virus so we will not have immunity.

“So it’s likely when we come back together and lax social distancing in different regions of the country, we will see spikes in some regions and we will have to undergo social distancing again. How many of those bumps will we see on the tail end of that curve?

“It shouldn’t be as widespread and require a total shutdown like we are seeing now, but I don’t think it’s going to be a nice, smooth curve at the end when we all go back to everyday life.”

Sit Down with Success: Ellen Didier – ‘Love, Love, Love What You Do’

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Ellen Didier, President & Creative Director of Red Sage Communications. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.

What about your company, Red Sage Communications, are you most proud?

I think our ability to survive in the midst of such disruptive change in the advertising and marketing industry since I started Red Sage in 2006 is what makes me most proud.

Ellen Didier: You have to have a love for marketing and the whole idea of branding. (Photo/Steve Babin)

I’m completely self-taught. When I started Red Sage, we didn’t have smartphones or social media. I didn’t know how to use Photoshop, InDesign or Quark. We had websites, but WordPress and open source software wasn’t around; content management systems were just starting to come out, but they were still evolving. My biggest startup-cost was a $28,000 piece of software I had to throw away three years later.

Just look at how much marketing has changed, and it is a huge change. In that conversation you have social media. I started using social media in 2008-09 and I was on the earlier end of adoption. I had both a MySpace and Facebook account, but at the time, there was no way of determining which one would win out. It wound up being Facebook.

It took me forever to figure out how to monetize social media and make it an additional revenue stream. It kept getting more complex and for a long time, we just trained clients how to use it. Because it changes all the time – Linked-In for instance just completely revamped all their tools – it’s really crazy.

Also, in that conversation are online rankings and customer reviews. People are able to post and say things about your brand. That means marketing is no longer a push, but a two-way conversation.

When you’re trying to manage in the face of that much change you must watch what’s going on all the time and really balance how much time are you spending in training and learning. You’re putting in three or four hours a week just learning and keeping up with what’s going on. It was hard to figure out how to be profitable.

We got through it and I think we’ve found a good balance of not necessarily staying on the bleeding edge, but of at least knowing what’s coming and being able to help our clients understand it.

There are a lot more marketing “tools” out there now, aren’t there?

If you look at the marketing toolbox when I started, it was traditional advertising: printed materials, a billboard, radio or TV and that was about it.

Now, we’re running campaigns for people that include media relations, social media, digital marketing, traditional marketing, print campaigns, direct mail – huge toolboxes – the traditional stuff plus the new stuff.

You still find a place for traditional marketing?

Yes, because there is so much saturation online that sometimes traditional works. I think a lot of the newer, all-digital agencies miss the idea that there’s still some traditional tools that are very appropriate in some cases and do better than digital, depending on who you’re trying to reach.

It’s just really been fascinating the amount of change that we’ve navigated through and most importantly, stayed profitable while continuing to grow.

Why did you start an ad agency?

I love, love, love marketing! The challenge of understanding who you are and establishing your brand; exhibiting how you’re different from the competition; telling your story so it aligns with your business needs – I like everything I do, but there are some parts of business that will do a lot better if I focus on the parts that are easier to sell or that generate the most revenue.

I was with another marketing company when I made my first pitch. It was to a hospital and we went in and talked about ways they could promote their services both in traditional media and in cross-marketing within the facility. It was the first time I was able to bring ideas to a client using a multi-pronged strategy that would help them tell their story in a variety of ways. We came away with just about everything we pitched and that was exciting.

You have to have a love for marketing and the whole idea of branding to convey different messages and to align those different messages to different audiences. You have to understand the business and set goals and objectives, and then integrate your overall marketing strategy to reach those goals and objectives.

You have this super big toolbox that is much bigger and more complex than it has been in the past and I love that complexity. I love being able to look at all of that.

I’m also a process fanatic so I can go back and forth from 30,000 feet to minute details and not a lot of people can do that. It’s worked for my business because I can dream the big dreams but then also build the infrastructure to take me where I want to go.

Do you specialize in certain types of clients?

We do a lot of business-to-business marketing in North Alabama. We have some nonprofit clients like Cyber Huntsville, the National Cyber Summit and SMD (Space and Missile Defense Symposium), so we help with some corporate marketing events. We have a client in Fort Payne who has a radiation shielding technology business built on nanotechnology and not lead. They are a very innovative product poised for a lot of national growth. It’s going to be fun building lead generation and tracking and how much of that converts to actual business.

We look at it as, how can we help you grow your business, and how to be smart about it in the face of the many challenges.

What are your biggest challenges, overall?

Our biggest challenge is the pace of change always, and like everyone else, growth and workforce.

How do we find the right people?

It’s painful to have business knocking on your door and having to turn some of it away because I don’t have the staff to deal with it. I need three people right now and it’s hard to find them, plus it is time-consuming when you’re busy to do the hiring, so right now staffing is my biggest challenge and finding the right fit. This is a difficult industry in that I need people who are good critical thinkers and used to a fast pace.

What do you think is the answer to that?

Short term, we’re looking at how we can extend our team with contractors, and how we can build and grow our team in very specific places. My current employees have been with me a while and they are very good. If I can take some of the work off them that can be outsourced, they can manage a contractor to do that part of the job.

What would you tell somebody who wants to start an ad agency today?

It will be the most challenging and the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done. What’s amazing about the advertising and marketing agency business is you can be working with a company that retrofits Blackhawk helicopters with Garmin electronics one day and figure out how to sell eye care products and services the next.

You will build relationships with your clients because you grow to understand their business and their challenges, and that requires communication that often leads to good friendships too. That’s where the reward is.

The challenge is that it is extremely hard to grow. The first couple of years is always fairly easy because people are excited about a new strategy, but scaling this business is really hard.

The first hard jump is when you start adding employees. With that comes health care and employment taxes and other things; and there are also a lot of freelancers and small specialty agencies that don’t offer employee benefits, so we have to justify charging more for our services.

 

Strong Coffee, Strong Women Series: Sonia Robinson Shares her Journey

“Strong Coffee, Strong Women,” The Catalyst’s widely popular breakfast and networking event, features inspirational stories from successful businesswomen that focus on professional growth and successfully overcoming challenges along the way.

Sonia Robinson: “The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

This particular event was no exception as Sonia Robinson, a breast cancer survivor and the executive director at BIO Alabama, spoke to a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd.

Robinson was very candid about sharing her breast cancer survivor journey.

“I do not miss a chance to talk about my boobs,” she said.

In 2017, Robinson was at the peak of her high-intensity career: 36 years old, divorced and raising two boys, then 4 and 8. To Robinson, going for her routine gynecological exam was just that, routine; another self-care box to check off between meetings and an otherwise busy workday.

As the nurse did the manual breast exam, she suggested that Robinson get a baseline mammogram.

Robinson initially declined, thinking to herself, “My career was on fire. I was 36 years old and never had had a baseline mammogram. I don’t have time; I’ll do it when I’m 40. Had I waited until I was 40, my story would have been very very different.”

The nurse practitioner felt a palpable lump in Robinson’s breast and asked her, “Have you ever felt this?”

For Robinson, monthly self-exams were not on her radar, so the answer was “no.”

Even after the nurse practitioner sent her for a diagnostic mammogram, Robinson saw it as another item to check off the to-do list. She assumed that the lump would be benign and she would be back to work without skipping a beat.

When the mammogram was complete, the technician told Robinson the radiologist wanted to speak with her on her way out.

“I thought my radiologist just had really good bedside manner and stopped to chat with all the patients afterwards; she’s good, but not THAT good,” said Robinson.

The radiologist told Robinson, “It looks suspicious. I’ve already spoken with your gynecologist.”

The next step was a surgical biopsy. When her surgeon called Robinson to discuss the results, he said the words she never expected to hear: “Sonia, we have a little cancer.”

As she processed the news and discussed the treatment options, Robinson slowly walked to her bedroom and lay down on the bed.

Sensing the news was bad, her mother lay down beside her as the conversation with the surgeon continued.

The cancer was likely Stage 1. A double mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation would be the options given.

Before making a decision, Robinson wanted a better understanding of what she was dealing with. Her surgeon gave her four weeks to research, gathering as much information she could.

A sold-out, standing-room-only crowd hears Sonia Robinson share her incredible journey. (Photo/Steve Rabin)

“What does life look like on the other side of this?” Robinson wanted to know.

Robinson opted for a double mastectomy. During surgery, it was discovered the cancer had spread to one of the lymph nodes, which immediately put her into Stage 2, which became a game-changer.

When the oncologist told Robinson that chemotherapy was to be scheduled, “I told him, “No,” said Robinson.

She advised the audience, “We are to question; we are to ask, to research. Y’all have to fight for your health.”

Robinson still believed that everything would be ok without chemotherapy.

“I felt that maybe I should have Dr. Harriman just ‘clear the margin’ and I do nothing, no chemo,” said Robinson. “As the words left my mouth, I thought how irresponsible that was.

“I had an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. I wanted to be their mommy for a long time. When you’re given a diagnosis like this, it’s not just you, it’s we.”

After four weeks of research and consulting the medical community and breast cancer survivors, “I was told, ‘Sonia, you’re in a gray area’,” said Robinson. “You have to be happy with the decision that you make. Ultimately, I made the decision to move forward with chemo.”

Once the decision was made, Robinson threw a “Shave Party,” inviting forty of her closest friends and family members. The event included a champagne toast and a bouncy house for the kids.

After her head was shaved, she reveled in the new look.

“Try it, shave your head,” said Robinson. “It changed my life.”

Then, there were reconstruction decisions, such whether to keep one’s nipples or get tattoos. Robinson decided to keep hers. “Nipple tattoos, it’s a real thing, y’all,” said Robinson. “I want y’all to look at these,” as she sent images to friends, male and female, to get honest feedback. “Our boobs are so important to us as women,” said Robinson. “I really needed that feedback. I was 36 years old and single.

“Had I been older, I may not have made the same decision.”

Robinson’s fourth and final round of chemo came just 6 days after her 37th birthday. That came with the expectation that life would return to what it was, pre-cancer.

“Chemo is over, Sonia is well,” said Robinson. “That’s when the real work started.

“In order to be your ultimate self, guess what you have to do? Put yourself first. The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.”

 

 

 

Robins & Morton Building on Relationships for a Growing Huntsville

The first building constructed by Robins & Morton was a Shell gas station in 1946.

The Birmingham-based company now has offices in Huntsville, Nashville, Charlotte, Dallas, Orlando, and Miami.

Huntsville Hospital’s seven-story, 382,000-square foot Orthopedic & Spine Tower is expected to be completed in 2021. (Photo/Robins & Morton-Marty Sellers)

“We’ve grown quite a bit since then, obviously,’’ said Mitch Coley, operations manager for the Huntsville office.

Robins & Morton is no stranger to the Rocket City. The firm began a relationship with Huntsville Hospital 31 years ago, and Coley said that partnership is “the backbone’’ of its business in the city.

Two towering cranes just off Gallatin Street are part of the construction for Huntsville Hospital’s seven-story, 382,000 square-foot Orthopedic & Spine Tower. It’s expected to be completed in 2021.

But while hospital construction is Robins & Morton’s calling card, Coley said diversity, particularly in Huntsville, is part of its footprint.

Next to the hospital tower, the finishing touches are being put on Redstone Federal Credit Union’s five-story, Class-A office building with an adjoining four-story parking deck.

“The exterior of the office building is close to complete and it’s a very striking structure,’’ Coley said. “That project will wrap up at the end of this year.”

Robins & Morton recently placed a tower crane downtown for the upscale 106 Jefferson, Curio by Hilton.

“As you can see from the cranes rising above downtown,’’ Coley said, “We have three major projects transforming the Huntsville skyline.”

Robins & Morton is working with Redstone Gateway and Sanmina, and counts Times Plaza on South Memorial Parkway among its projects.

Other local Robins & Morton projects are:

  • Intergraph/Hexagon headquarters
  • Calhoun Community College Huntsville Campus Science Lab
  • Parsons Research Park
  • Huntsville Hospital Madison Hospital
  • Governors Medical Tower
  • Huntsville Hospital Athens Surgery Centers
  • Clearview Cancer Institute
  • Rockwell Collins at Research Park
  • Medical Park Station Retail Center
  • Huntsville Hospice Family Came Inpatient Facility

The company’s projects around the state include the Auburn Arena, the Auburn University Recreation and Wellness Center, Regions Field and the Embassy Suites hotel in Tuscaloosa.

Robins & Morton opened a full-service office in Huntsville in 2007 to further take advantage of the city’s exploding growth.

“We knew the best way to serve the business community was to become an ongoing part of the community,’’ Coley said. “And that’s worked well for us. We have more than 223 projects valued at $1.3 billion completed or in progress throughout Huntsville and the surrounding area.

“Even more important to us: 80 percent of that work is from repeat clients.”

Redstone Federal Credit Union’s five-story office building has an adjoining four-story parking deck. (Rendering courtesy of Robins & Morton)

Another company strength is that Robins & Morton, which employs around 170 salaried employees and craft workers, uses its own workforce.

“We self-employee a lot of the work,’’ Coley said. “For instance, the concrete structure (on the tower), we’re doing that with our own men, our own forces. The reason we do that is it helps with cost, schedules, and quality.’’

Robins & Morton’s economic impact in the Tennessee Valley is substantial. The company reports it is responsible for more than 800,000-square feet of new construction with a projected construction value in excess of $225 million; is working with more than 150 trade partners; and expects to create between 800 and 900 full-time equivalent jobs throughout construction.

While Robins & Morton is involved throughout North Alabama, its local presence has been seen and felt mostly in Huntsville’s downtown and hospital district, both of which have undergone a facelift.

A Notasulga native, Coley met his wife Elaine while both were students at Auburn. They have two sons, Miles (6) and Cameron (4).

When he moved here 13 years ago, Coley said he remembers walking downtown on a weekend and finding a “ghost town.’’

“Now, you go down there and there are food truck rallies, laser light shows, people everywhere,’’ he said. “It’s really neat to see.

“We’re glad to be part of that growth.’’

In late spring or summer, Robins & Morton will announce plans for another downtown project.

“We want people to know that we’re not here just for the duration of a project,’’ Coley said. “We’re an established part of the Huntsville business community, and we look forward to continuing to be part of the region’s growth and economic development.

“We’ll continue the strong relationships we’ve maintained over the past 31 years while building new ones.”