Gulf Coast Aluminum
Gulf Coast Aluminum
Business View talks with Thomas Davis, CEO of Gulf Coast Aluminum, about his innovative employee training program, industry regulations, and future initiatives.
In Florida’s sun-soaked Gulf Coast, where aluminum structures dot the landscape, one company stands out for its commitment to innovation, ethical business practices, and a solid vision for the future. Gulf Coast Aluminum (GCA), with a list of satisfied customers spanning over 4,000 projects in 2021 alone, brings a unique blend of expertise to every service they offer. From re-screening to new structures, Gulf Coast Aluminum is crafting a legacy of reliability, professionalism, and a genuine connection to the clients they serve.
A Journey of Innovation
The roots of Gulf Coast Aluminum trace back to CEO Thomas Davis’s personal journey, one that meanders through the world of internet marketing and eventually circles back to his family’s legacy in aluminum contracting. Working for his father’s company, Scott Davis Punta Gorda Aluminum, as a teen, Davis committed to himself to find a different path in life, starting by enrollment in Stetson College. “I had one degree in management, and the other one was in family enterprise, and I wanted to get away from the family business. So, I started the internet marketing company called Tag Media Group,” he recounts. Through this successful endeavor, Davis eventually realized that there were substantial profits to be made in the aluminum industry, and found himself drawn back to it once again, bringing his business partner, who was sceptical at the time, along with him. “I started bringing in revenue that way. After one month we made 12 grand just doing that, me picking up a random guy for help. And we made two grand in four months doing the web business. My partner got on board, and we went off to the races for aluminum.” In 2020 Davis bought out the partnership and continued to build on the exemplary reputation the company has today.
As an employee owned company, Gulf Coast Aluminum currently has 45 people on its payroll. Prioritizing transparency, Davis stresses, “Every month I do a financial meeting, and everybody sees every dollar. I’m like, here’s how much money I made this year, here is how much money you made this year. If you want to make more money, or move to a different department, by all means have at it.”
He notes that the number one issue when he took over the business in 2020 was finding employees. “It was really hard to find anybody that wanted to try hard and lived in southwest Florida. People that live here are really ambitious people, with a lot of common sense, and they’re going to get a college education and leave. There’s really not that much opportunity here for professionals. And there’s a vacuum in the trades, everybody, my generation and younger, were really pressed to go to school, get a good education, and get a job out of the trades.” To counter this, Davis made an unconventional move, establishing a rigorous training program and investing time and resources into developing a skilled, reliable, and dedicated team. “We don’t have subcontractors, it’s all employees,” he imparts. “I have an online class, and I just build them from the ground up. You have to hire on character, and then develop the skills. A lot of the gentlemen that I find are really good humans.” Along with the GCA training program, Davis also instills financial literacy and life skills, fostering personal growth.
In order to find those employees who will be able to withstand the long hours and commitment required for the construction trades, Davis has hired a personal trainer, and asks employees to meet him at the gym every morning at 9 a.m. “The trainer is really hard on them, and we try to get them to quit as fast as humanly possible,” he admits. “I’m going to spend 1000s of hours and 1000s of dollars on trying to develop you into a decent actual tradesmen, which takes years to do. It really has helped me not waste my resources on people that aren’t willing to work that hard. Most people would never wake up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym, and the people that would, those are the ones that I can actually mold. You have to have that grit because it’s hot out there, and the job is really tough, and there’s a lot of pain in construction.” For those that stick it out, the rewards are worthwhile, bringing financial security, and quality of life. “They want to be in the company, we do company events, and we do an annual cruise every year where we book a private charter. It’s the trip of the year,” he says.
Navigating Challenges and Embracing Change
For years Davis says he has been aware of a lack of ethical practices in the industry, along with unregulated subcontracting, and a focus on bottom-dollar efficiency. Setting out to defy these norms, he emphasizes the need for internalizing various aspects of the business, from design to installation, fostering a streamlined and efficient operation that significantly improves profit margins. But he stresses that the transition wasn’t just about reshaping the business model, it was about changing the narrative. In an industry known for its lack of regulation and transparency, Gulf Coast Aluminum aims to bring a sense of professionalism, integrity, and responsibility.
Future plans for the company involve searching for an industrial space to move to, given that the present location is adjacent to a solid waste facility. “It’s zoned as industrial, and it’s the only solid waste disposal plant around Lee County, so they can’t really move. As they grind up all the stuff it gets in the air, covers the cars, and people are getting sick,” says Davis. He reports that the challenge is that 99% of all property in Lee County is currently leased, and purchasing a building is difficult due to the high cost of industrial real estate in the area.
The aluminum industry, like any other, faces challenges. From regulatory uncertainties to market fluctuations, Gulf Coast Aluminum has not been immune. However, Davis remains proactive. He serves on the state board of the aluminum association, engaging with regulatory bodies to address industry-wide issues. The recent hurricanes exposed vulnerabilities in screen enclosures, prompting discussions about potential regulations to enhance structural integrity. “I do see some regulation coming into the industry, because there’s so many hundreds of millions of dollars of losses on screen enclosures through Cape Coral, and people are looking at it now,” he maintains. “It seems like once there’s a big national disaster, even if there’s a problem and you’re yelling about it, it takes some type of event to spark change.”
With the prospect of new regulations, GCA is focused on enhancing engineering capabilities, incorporating finite engineering, and integrating more advanced software. “I just really want our cages to not fall down,” Davis asserts. “We want people’s homes not to get damaged during these hurricanes. We just had Irma and Ian within five years. Before nobody cared, but now it looks like there are forces that might actually be change within the industry. So, we’re just trying to get ahead of it and really try to build a more structurally sound enclosure.”
Despite ongoing challenges in the supply chain, Davis recognizes the importance of maintaining strong relationships with suppliers like American Metals, Lansing Building Products and Travis Tisdale Aluminum Specialties, all of whom play a crucial role in the success of GCA’s projects.
As for future plans, Davis remarks, “I want to unionize but ideally I want to keep innovating within the space to continue to make it a quality service. I want to have a big location down here and have a business model that really is kind of like Tesla, to where it’s clearly growing. Last year we did $7 million, this year we’re going to do $10 million. That’s the really important part is to try to keep growing, because as an employee owned company, employees can get stocks, they’re just not worth a lot of money unless the company continually grows.” He adds that he plans to expand, to have locations in all the major markets, and be the dominant option for aluminum projects, concluding, “I want to be the high end, premier contractor for the entire state of Florida. Every market we go into, we’d be the most expensive, but we’d also be the best, bar none.”
AT A GLANCE
Gulf Coast Aluminum
What: A contracting company specializing in aluminum screened structures
Where: Florida’s Gulf Coast Region