Sumter’s Merchant Iron Works owner credits his mentors, employees in his journey to success
May 10, 2019
BY BRUCE MILLS
Sumter Economic Development Board President Jay Schwedler describes winners in the world of local economic development as those who are team players who find solutions to add value and increase opportunities in the communities that they represent.
At an industrial business expansion celebration on Thursday, Schwedler said David Merchant, president of Sumter-based manufacturer Merchant Iron Works, is such an example.
About 100 friends, family members, clients and local and state officials turned out for the event marking Merchant’s business expansion, which was first announced last year.
The company, at 3215 Beulah Cuttino Road, is a fabricator and installer of structural steel, miscellaneous metals and material-handling equipment in the industrial and commercial markets and in the midst of growing its facility and adding 27 jobs along the way.
Phase One of a three-phase, multi-year growth plan included an 8,000-square-foot plant expansion and new equipment purchases to increase production and ramp up employment from 35 to 51 employees, Merchant said. The facility currently has about 40,000 square feet.
Phase Two will be completed soon and will feature a 150,000-square-foot outdoor steel processing and shipping area on site, he said. When the expansion is complete, Merchant Iron Works will have about 62 employees.
Founded locally in 2001 by Merchant, the company has grown from “humble beginnings,” according to him. After graduating from Clemson University with a degree in agriculture, starting a welding company in Sumter was a second career for Merchant, representing a “hobby”-turned-dream-come-true.
His first shop was a rented 1,750-square-foot warehouse space in Black River Industrial Park, he said.
He said his wife, Laurie, was his “touch-up painter and installation assistant” when he began the business.
A little later, Merchant was able to hire a helper. Business was good, he said, and in 2003 he was able to buy a local welding shop.
With the help of a fellow church member and business mentor, Gifford Shaw, Merchant set out to grow the business even more and did so with a product line that included stairs, handrails and smaller fabrication projects.
The operation grew to about 15 employees, and in April 2008, he moved the business into its current facility on Beulah Cuttino Road.
That was just before the Great Recession and economic collapse hit hard on the building construction industry across the country.
Merchant recalled shrinking his operation from 25 employees down to eight.
“That was tough,” Merchant said. “We struggled through ’08; we had a backlog and just couldn’t sell anything. It really got tough in ’09, ’10 and ’11, and I wanted to make a sign but I never did that said, ‘Next time you have a ’05, ’06 and ’07, don’t forget about ’09, ’10 and ’11,’ because it’s very humbling.”
Finally, in 2012, he said, the business cycle began to turnaround, and he was able to get his workforce up to about 25 employees. In 2014, he implemented technical upgrades to help production efficiencies, and in 2017 he set out to establish his current growth plan.
Reflecting on his life and career, Merchant said he’s been fortunate to have friends and mentors through the years.
“In closing, ‘I’m just a welder the Lord has blessed,'” Merchant said, quoting Archie LeTourneau, an early pioneer in the welding and steel business. “It’s kind of fitting: He had an interesting way that he got into it, and I look back on our story, and it’s an interesting way how we all got here. But, I’ve been blessed. Blessed with great friends, great customers, great mentors, and it’s truly been a blessing on me and my family.”
Credit: The Sumter Item