The day shift at the main W&W/AFCO Steel plant in Little Rock is cutting, welding, drilling and shaping metal bound for construction sites near and far.
The employees’ fabrication work at the 1500 E. 22nd St. facility is destined for roofing trusses on the $26 million arena for the Searcy School District, bridge girders on the nearly $1 billion 30 Crossing project in Little Rock-North Little Rock and columns for a $12 billion semiconductor chip complex in Phoenix.
Trellis pieces for the exterior of the $1.8 billion MSG Sphere near the Las Vegas strip are piled in the shipping yard awaiting transportation west.
Little Rock and five other company plants are contributing 29,100 tons of fabricated steel for the complex geometry, sphere curvature and diagonal bracing of the 17,000-seat event center. The eye-catching structure is on a COVID-delayed timetable for completion in 2023.
“We specialize in steel fabrication of most any kind,” said Grady Harvell, president of W&W/AFCO. “We have a very diverse product line.”
The corporate moniker represents the 2015 consolidation of W&W Steel Co. and Little Rock’s AFCO Steel. Until then, the two companies operated as separate ventures under common ownership after W&W purchased AFCO from the heirs of Frederick Isaac Brown in 2002.
The $81 million AFCO purchase included two Little Rock plants and two subsidiaries, Van Buren Bridge Co. in Van Buren and Platte River Steel Co. in Greeley, Colorado.
Headquartered in Oklahoma City, W&W/AFCO deploys about 2,000 workers in 26 plants at 17 locations in facilities with 3.4 million SF under roof. The Arkansas operations employ 320 in Little Rock and 80 in Van Buren.
“We’ve got a lot of good people, and that’s the best part of the company: the people,” said Harvell, who grew up in Izard County’s Lunenburg community.
The W&W/AFCO combination of two regional companies 19 years ago created one of the largest U.S. firms in its field. Its 2018 acquisition of Hirschfeld Steel Co. of San Angelo, Texas, made it the largest steel fabricator in the nation as measured by bridge, commercial and industrial work.
Industry estimates put the company’s annual revenue north of $700 million.
AFCO Steel’s lengthy resume encompasses much of the high-rise skyline of Little Rock as well as bridges around the region. Current work on the 30 Crossing project proved fortuitous in resolving an interstate crisis this summer.
The company was able to provide a quick response to help fix the Hernando de Soto Bridge linking Arkansas and downtown Memphis. The plate steel needed to brace a cracked 900-foot beam on the Interstate 40 bridge was already in the AFCO fabrication plants.
The material was on hand because of the company’s work on bridge girders to build new Interstate 30 spans across the Arkansas River. The company retasked high-performance steel, with a tensile strength of 70,000 pounds per square inch, for the 30 Crossing project to repair the I-40 Mississippi River bridge.
Closed to traffic on May 11, the Hernando de Soto Bridge reopened on Aug. 2.
“It saved weeks if not months,” Harvell said of avoiding an order of HPS 70 from a COVID-disrupted supply chain. “You really don’t stock that kind of material. But we had it sitting on the shelf here and in our Van Buren facility.”
The pandemic effects that turned the break room into a potential safety hazard and led to workstation dining and staggered times of clocking in and out has extended to maintaining a full staff.
“We have 17 plants, and we could hire people at every one of them,” Harvell said. “Until the last year and a half, we never had trouble filling positions. Now, we struggle to get applications. And it’s not just us. It seems to be everywhere.
“On any given day, we may have as many as 10-15 employees out at a time because of COVID exposure, not here but from family members or somewhere else outside of work.”
Harvell is less than five months away from his golden anniversary with AFCO Steel and is among a group of 15 who have been with the company at least 40 years.
“We want people to be part of the family,” said Harvell, a civil engineer who joined the company after graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
“If you get a job with us, you’ve got it for life if you want to work.”