BOONE — Among the most impactful success stories in the High Country’s entrepreneurial world is Tommy Sofield and his U.S. Buildings Corp. The company is headquartered on Industrial Park Drive in Boone, with key manufacturing facilities in Wilkesboro.
A graduate of Appalachian State University, Sofield currently serves on the App State Board of Trustees. His name is also on the Sofield Indoor Practice Facility between the Ricks Athletic Center and the softball stadium, reflecting his ardent support of the university for which he played football in the 1970s.
As a student, Sofield sold sandwiches at night to fellow students at App State and even launched a franchise at N.C. State a year or two later. This was in the mid 1970s.
Then it was to real estate ventures, to selling steel buildings, and finally to starting and developing his own steel building manufacturing, sales and rental company, Sofield has worked hard at every stage of his career with a passion for business. He counsels and invests in other up-and-coming entrepreneurs, too.
Today, many of U.S. Buildings Corp.’s customers are Fortune 500 companies, including still-emerging electric vehicle behemoth, Tesla; oil giant, Exxon, and big pharmaceuticals, as well as all of the U.S. military services.
U.S. Buildings Corp., it turns out, caters primarily to two niche markets: steel buildings for safeguarding hazardous materials and steel buildings for storm protection, both custom designed to meet the demands of specific job requirements.
“We have a division where we rent buildings for hazardous materials. About three years ago, when Tesla was building that huge plant in Arizona, we rented them haz-mat buildings. All of the different chemicals, paints, or any kind of flammables that they might be using on the property, they needed to segregate and store in these buildings. We had 10 or 12 buildings out there for those purposes over the two years they were building that plant,” said Sofield.
Successfully serving a customer’s needs can lead to even more business.
“Since then, Tesla bought a couple of buildings for their plants, long-term, instead of renting them for the short-term. Most of the stuff that they are doing with our buildings is storing batteries, or storing different components for putting the batteries together, such as the acids and corrosives that pose environmental concerns if not managed properly,” Sofield said.
A lot of Sofield’s business is driven by the insurance companies serving the various businesses.
“When we manufacture a building for a specific company, their larger manufacturing facility may cost them $2 billion. That’s a big investment, so they need to segregate various chemicals and flammables outside of the plant. This isn’t just Tesla, but any kind of Fortune 500 company, like big pharmaceuticals,” Sofield said.
“Their insurance companies or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will ask them to segregate those chemicals out so that if there is an explosion or something catches on fire, instead of having major damage inside the larger building, the damage would more likely be contained within the smaller building. It eliminates any kind of huge loss,” he said.
Sofield said that some of the larger customers they serve will have their buildings outside of the larger plant, both coming and going.
“They may have one of our buildings configured to supply product into the manufacturing process that is going on inside the main building,” said Sofield, “then another of our buildings on the other end of the manufacturing process to accept waste that can be stored until transported for disposal.”
The EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, has certain requirements to safeguard a site in the event of a spill and the U.S. Buildings Corp. solutions meet those mandates for the customer.
“Our buildings include a sump that will contain at least 25 percent of the chemicals so that in the event of an accidental spill, the earth is not contaminated,” said Sofield.
“The other concern for our customers are flammables, where they mix and dispense them. We provide explosion relief panels so that if there is an explosion, you wouldn’t blow up the whole building,” Sofield said.
Fire is also a concern of U.S. Buildings Corp.’s customers and, Sofield said, they address those concerns through fire ratings and suppression technologies, bi-directional, so that whether a fire starts outside or inside the building it protects the chemicals or whatever is inside the building.
Different components such as lights, air conditioners, etc. are all explosion-proof.
“Each individual building is designed and built specifically for the application of the user,” said Sofield. “We sell a lot to pharmaceutical companies, Exxon, Tesla, a lot of the Fortune 500 companies are most of our customers, including the government. We sell to all of the armed forces, Army, Navy, Air Force, all of them.”
Sofield indicated that all of his manufacturing is done in the Wilkesboro plant, all of the welding and steel fabrication parts, while the components such as lights, air conditioning units, refrigeration units, explosion proof fans, are purchased from other manufacturers and brought in to be assembled in the final design.
The buildings sold by U.S. Buildings are just wide enough to be transported on a tractor-trailer, “to go down the road,” Sofield said, but can also be modularized to create larger structures. The sweet spot of the company’s product is 14-feet wide and 50-60 feet long, but everything is modularized.
“That single building will handle 40-50 barrels, but if you need a larger building, then we will deliver two buildings and merge them together on-site. For instance, we have designed a solution that includes four of our buildings for one company that manufactures adhesives,” said Sofield. “Each building is 63 feet long and 14 feet wide. To get them down the road on a tractor-trailer, our load cannot exceed 13-feet, six inches high, so they are transported on a drop-down deck trailer.
“The customer will store their chemicals in totes,” said Sofield. “When you pull one tote out with your forklift, the next one drops down. They are 275-gallon totes,” said Sofield.
The modularization works both horizontally as well as vertically in Sofield’s world.
“If you needed, say, a…