E & L Enterprises operates a global carbon fiber business out of Oakdale, TN
The company is E & L Enterprises, Inc., founded by Eldon (Bud) Helton and his wife, Laura, and now including his two daughters – Karen McDonald, who oversees quality control, and Kim Clark, who handles the accounting and business operations – as well as Kim’s husband, Gerald, who is the Plant Manager.
While they have their specific roles in the company, “We do whatever it takes,” McDonald says.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the family shared the history of the company and how they have been successful serving customers around the world from their rural location in Morgan County. Like many East Tennessee companies, the story starts when Helton was working for legendary entrepreneur and businessman Sam Weaver.
“I was working for one of Sam’s companies that made insulation parts intended for guidance systems for Patriot missiles,” Helton said. Through that job, he met another East Tennessee legend – Jack Cook – who at the time was working for Exxon building high temperature furnaces.
Helton says that the discussions with Cook “kept coming back to rayon work and carbonizing” a product that he described as “pretty sensitive” and yielding only 17 percent versus pan fiber that yields 50 percent.
The discussions led Helton to found E & L in 1985 to “start grinding rayon rags” that could be carbonized, made into powder and used to make dense insulation parts. Today, E & L serves a global market, with many customers in the United Kingdom and Asia. The company’s tagline is “carbon fiber milling specialist,” and its approach is customization to meet the customer’s needs.
“We’ve had some of these (international) customers for 15 years and never met them,” Helton says. When asked how he maintains the relationships, he says 90 percent of the communications is by email and phone.
McDonald adds that E & L’s marketing approach is mostly “word of mouth” or referrals from existing customers. As the interview progressed, it was clear that a major factor in E & L’s success is the family’s commitment to meeting customer needs. This philosophy was underscored with two different examples.
Noting that E & L serves niche markets, Helton cited, a California-based company wanting to mill carbon fiber on bobbins into a granulated form rather than simply continue shipping the bobbins to a landfill.
“It (the carbon fiber) had an epoxy resin that is tough to mill,” Helton explained. E & L developed a method to meet their needs, resulting in a waste material becoming a revenue generator. That was 20 years ago, and this company is still an E & L customer.
McDonald said that “we rarely miss a deadline,” and Helton added that “we are able to accept a shipment, chop it and send it back in a day.” The manner in which E & L achieves both of those accomplishments is a testament to its customer service philosophy.
Helton explained that the United Parcel Service (UPS) truck does not arrive in Oakdale until late in the afternoon, so one of the family members frequently meets the vehicle in Roane County in the morning to pick-up shipments. E & L will process the shipments during the day and usually have them ready for the UPS driver when he arrives at the company about 4 p.m.
Like so many companies, finding qualified workers is always a challenge. Helton noted that E & L “has a terrible time finding people who can pass drug tests.” That challenge is on top of another – working in carbon fiber is “dirty and itchy.”
Helton is clearly proud of the company that he founded and has grown with the help of his family. That respect is shared by his two daughters and son-in-law.
“The love and respect of my family is worth more than the business,” Helton said.
He sees a bright future, has already invested in new testing equipment, and is working with Tech 20/20 to explore new opportunities.
The E & L story underscores the fact that technology-based entrepreneurship is not limited to urban areas.