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What's in a name

By Nick Wright

Woman-owned fab shop gets high profile jobs with mastery of government contracts

ffj-0107-webex-elegant-image2January 2013 - Along with the metalwork, every fabrication business has paperwork to do: Material purchase orders. Blueprints. Pay stubs. At Elegant Iron, a Tucson, Ariz.-based shop, Amanda Holbert tackles all of it, including certifications and government contracts, while her husband, Steve Holbert, handles the fabricating. Some days, she’s up at sunrise, responding to RFQs on federal government websites.

But after the bids are submitted and paperwork filed, Amanda zips up her “money suit,” a protective jumpsuit emblazoned with $100 bills, and steps into the powder coating booth.

“I’m the only woman in Tucson that does what I do,” she says. “On any given day I’m in my money suit, steel-toed, working hard like everyone else.”

Since 2004, Elegant Iron, as the name suggests, has fabricated architectural elements such as detailed gates, curved railings and dramatic archways, some of which have been featured in high-end residential magazines.

But another segment of Elegant Iron’s portfolio, perhaps not as indicative of its name, has kept the couple busy—government projects to beef up U.S. Border Patrol vehicles, fabricate replica Russian assault vehicles for Air Force target training and other builds made to take a beating.

“After the election in 2008, our phones didn’t ring for six months,” she says, noting that the recession hit Elegant Iron hard. Times were tough. “We were literally loading one of our last pieces of equipment onto a flatbed that we sold on eBay when we heard we landed our first federal government contract.”

That contract came from Texas to outfit 30 Border Patrol vehicles with full off-road bumper replacements. The job was five times larger than any of Elegant Iron’s other one-time contracts.

“We were excited and terrified because where the heck were we going to come up with $15,000 in steel, labor and overhead to do this job, much less get it done in 30 days?” Holbert recalls. “But we did it, we did a great job and it kind of just spiraled from there. Word of mouth and past performance are a big deal for the government.”

A similar set of specialty bumpers, made from rolled and formed 12 gauge or 1/4 in. diamond plate steel, went into vehicles at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in New Mexico. There, new agents ram each other at 50 mph, nearly totaling the trucks. They needed bumpers that would outlast the life of Chevrolet Tahoes and Ford F-250s. Elegant Iron provided a prototype, which the training center had a week to test.

“When we went to pickup another vehicle, they said, ‘Our sole mission was to break your product.’ They ended up breaking the other person’s truck,” she recalls. The bumper design accounts for the structural integrity of taxpayers’ test vehicles, as well as the human factor. “If our product fails, it won’t hurt just the truck, but could possibly kill the person driving it.”

Elegant Iron is finalizing the provisional patent on its bumpers, which look like major league ramming bars, powder coated and finished to match the vehicles’ color scheme.

For another bid, a nearby U.S. Air Force base needed full-scale SA-20s, a Russian model of surface-to-air missile batteries, with 90 percent radar-reflective properties and detailed cockpits. Holbert says she had to request Tucson police to sit outside the shop because passersby would stop and take pictures of the range targets.

“The reason we got that job is because of our design. They came out 40 ft. long by 10 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide, full to scale,” she says.


Sharing the workload

Although they co-operate the company, Amanda generally drums up business while Steve drafts designs and works in the shop.

“We’re a tiny company, but we do big business. The biggest little company you’ll see.”

In its 3,500 sq. ft. shop, Elegant Iron has a plasma cutter with rails built by Steve, a press brake, ironworkers and Miller welders. It’s evolved into a nimble, solutions-based operation, aimed at helping all customers with problems they’re having with their products. Steve even designed and built much of the shop’s own tooling and material handling equipment.

That Elegant Iron is certified as a woman-owned business by the Small Business Administration helps it open opportunities to compete for government bids.

“So when we go out and do bids, I’m the face of the company. It can hinder me or it helps me,” she says. “We have to work 10 times harder than the other guys.”

However, people are noticing Elegant Iron’s tenacity. The Tucson Metro Chamber named Holbert a Small Business Leader of the Year finalist last year for Elegant Iron’s success. It also won the Mid-Sized Business Administration’s “Manufacturer of the Year 2011” for the city of Tucson. Once a week, Holbert teaches a class for the city, instructing other business owners how to land government contracts. At the same time, she wants to teach her two daughters that it’s all right to get their hands dirty.

“My dad never let me in the garage when I was growing up,” she adds.

With all the blood sweat and tears, she says it’s rewarding to see a Border Patrol truck on the freeway, loaded with Elegant Iron’s custom bumpers. “We’re hoping to be one of the most recognized outfitters of vehicles.”

And Elegant Iron is certainly on its way, one bumper at a time. FFJ




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