On this week's podcast, Marcus sits down with Trey Byrum. Trey is the owner of Alabama Pipe Welders Academy. Listen to this week's podcast and find out more about Alabama Pipe Welders Academy and how they are helping fill a need in our community.
Marcus: You are listening to the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with Marcus Neto. Created by Blue Fish.
Trey: My names Trey Byrum, I'm the owner of Alabama Pipe Welders Academy.
Marcus: Awesome man. Well, welcome to the podcast.
Trey: Yeah, thanks.
Marcus: Yeah. So you come highly recommended by somebody who's a big fan of this podcast, Lyndsey Dixon from Wilkins Miller so I'm glad to finally make the connect and learn a little bit about what it is you have going on. But before we get started why don't you tell us the story of where you're from, where did you go to high school, did you go to college or did you go to a trade school and all that kind of stuff?
Trey: Sure, yeah. I'm from Mobile. I went to Murphy High School. When I graduated I joined the Navy. Somebody asked me the other day, "Did you join the Navy straight out of high school?" I said, "No. I got into trouble straight out of high school then I joined the Navy." That's where I learned how to weld and that's where the welding part comes from. I got of the Navy, came back to mobile, started welding, and became a welding inspector. So they flew me all over the world with that certificate, those credentials. Just a part from being away all the time I decided I needed something to home, I've got five children and wanted to be at home so we decided to come back here. I was welding around town and that's kind of where everything started, trying to be an entrepreneur and start my own business and just looking at things how they can be better.
Marcus: So the thing that I find and I want to dive into this a little bit more, but that thing that I find interesting is that most of the time when we have people on this podcast that are entrepreneurs it's white collar. I mean, just to put it bluntly I don't know if there any ... Jared correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm racking my brain to think of somebody that we've had that was a welder or a tradesman or something like that and we need to fix that, actually. So what drew you? I mean did you have a choice in the Navy to go into welding? Is there something that drew you into it or was it just something that they said, "No. You're going to go and do this."
Trey: I went to [inaudible] I took the test and they gave me two options, they said, "You can either be a medic or a welder, which one is it?" And so I thought about it, called home and discussed it and with everything that was ... Where our location is with the shipyards and the plants I chose welder.
Marcus: Smart choice.
Marcus: Because there is no doubt that welders are in demand in this area. Now go back for me, what was your first job? And I'm talking about your first, first first job like newspaper delivery or ... You're not that old but flipping burgers or something like that and were there any lessons that you still remember from that?
Trey: So my first job was painting the numbers on curbs for addresses around the neighborhood. So I had a little caddy and I'd go out. The ones that were worn down I'd say, "Hey, can I paint the numbers on it for $5?" Or whatever and I was probably eight or nine. So, I was kind of running around the neighborhood doing that-
Marcus: Child labor laws be damned.
Trey: Yeah. So I was doing that and cutting grass and just a good hard work ethic from my parents and my dad is pretty much instilled that in me and just, if I wanted something I could go do it. I could go make the money and come up with something to get people to buy into. It was always a challenge and I had fun with it.
Marcus: So are either of your parents entrepreneurs? Or just ...
Trey: Nope. Just me.
Marcus: This is just something that you kind of climbed into, that's pretty cool. Now tell us a little bit about the academy. What is it that you do and how does it operate and stuff like that?
Trey: Okay. So the story, I need to give a little prelude here. I was welding up at Barry Steam Plant for the local union and my mom was going into get surgery and they called and said, "Hey you can come pick her up anymore. Something went wrong and she was paralyzed from the waist down." I was like, "Oh man. I got to go take care of her so I told the hall, "I need a layoff to go take care of mom." And during that time, that's when I started developing some tools that I had ideas about and things started going really good with that. We took the money from the tool company and put it into the school. During that time I was taking care of my mom, taking her to physical therapy and something happened, it was a back surgery. She can walk now but she still lives with us and everything so it was kind of a blessing that that happened. Some good came out of it because otherwise I'd still be working up at the plant.
Marcus: Now are these tools that you use as part of welding and other people are I guess buying these from you or what ...
Trey: Yeah it's welders tools. I've got a few patents that we've been going on and its been growing and we sell them all over the world. We're in, I don't know, 20 something countries with really no advertisement. So people are picking them up from Switzerland, Norway, these big countries and it just grew. We were making so much money from it extra, other than paying the bills. There was a lot of times I was out there ... I started the business in my kitchen, we were making the tools there and once that was kind of a success then I started building these welding boots in the garage and my wife's like, "What are you doing? You need to go get a real job." And I was like, "No. I've got a plan. I've got a vision here." And so I was down at the scrap yard, Royal Street Junk, and they were asking me too, "What are you doing out here?" I said, "I'm getting parts to build this booth and this school and I need this part, I need that part." And just be easier for me to come buy it from you. And they said, "Well, where's your school at? And I said, "Well, I really don't know yet." And they said, "Well, where's your school at?" I said, "I really don't know yet." And they said, "You know somebody that's got a building for ease or rent?" Or so on and so forth, and I said, "Well, I might know somebody." And the next day I came back and they handed me a card and that's how I got into the building I'm at now. And I was just written a 20x20 foot section, now we're buying it. So we started out with five students a year, or five students a class for the whole first year. And now we have over 40. And two locations, it's just going really well.
Marcus: I love it.
Trey: To say the least.
Marcus: Such an unassuming person in all the success. And I love hearing these stories. So, the school teaches welding.
Trey: It's pipe welding. Only pipe welding right now.
Marcus: Okay. And so these people are just coming to you ... I mean, how are they finding out about you first of all?
Trey: So, at first it was just kind of word of mouth. We had to really drum up some business and it was slow. But then as our name starts getting out, I've got welders all over the country right now. And they're wearing my stickers and they say, "Oh, yeah we've heard about that school." And then they're good welders and then more people want to come. So I've got people from Nebraska in my school right now and Florida and Mississippi and they're coming down here to stay and we're working on getting housing for them. And so I think things are ... it's just kind of word of mouth at first, we do a little bit of Facebook. But I try to do some YouTube videos, some instructional videos. And then filter them to my tools and then also to the school. So the people coming there wanting to learn, just the free lesson on YouTube and then they get filtered to me and the school and we get publicity that way.
Marcus: Very cool. So, I mean they're going all over so they're kind of filling all kinds of jobs. It's not like this is something that Mobilians are coming and learning pipe welding and staying in Mobile. I mean, this is literally across the country.
Trey: Right. And it's so good, there's such a shortage of welders. And the more Mobile people that do it, the less we're calling in people from Georgia and Mississippi and Tennessee. And it's just gonna make Mobile more money.
Trey: We're gonna be more self-sufficient and do more as far as the plants. And when all the plants have shut-downs or when [inaudible] gets a new contract or whatever, we'll be able to supply this from Alabama.
Marcus: Yeah. Now, so I'm gonna go on a slight tangent, but it pertains still. So I've been a fan of Mike Rowe for years and years, since the time he was on Dirty Jobs. And he has a foundation called mikeroweWORKS, that really is geared towards people that don't necessarily wanna go to a four year institution but want to learn the trade, then they can apply for a scholarship and they can go to a school like yours or a mechanic school or a diesel mechanic school, or whatever, and they get scholarship through mikeroweWORKS. But part of what his purpose is right now is kind of educating people that there is an opportunity to make a good living as a trades person. And the more I talk to trades people, and the more my eyes are open to that, because, I mean, I don't know what the current going rate so for a welder in Mobile, but at one point in time, they were offering them close to six figures, starting.
Trey: Oh, yeah.
Marcus: I mean, it's just insane.
Trey: The guys coming out of our school, instead of going to four years of college, they go to four months of trade school, it's a little over $10,000. And I've got where the guys clock in and out, the students clock in and out every day, I have a wall that actually says all the past students. They got me shaking their hand and then their first paycheck. And most of them are right around three grand a week. So they're making their money back in their first month they spend on school. And that just changes their lives.
Marcus: Jared and I are looking at each other like, "Hey, maybe it's time to switch careers." Bye, Marcus.
Trey: Yeah. They love it, they get to travel or they can stay home. You know, once you learn this school, you can't take it away from them. It's hard to do, not everybody can do it. So there's a big demand.
Marcus: I was talking to a guy the other day. He was a recruiter and he had just gotten off the phone with an underwater welder. And he was like, "This guy works six months out of the year and makes a quarter of a million dollars a year." And I was like, "Yeah, but under water." I'm like, that's gotta be one of the scariest jobs.
Trey: Yeah, it's definitely one of the most dangerous. I guess because of the diving aspect of it and all the variables in your life is pretty much in the hands of your line handler. And so much can go wrong with under water welding. And by no means am I an under water welder, but I know enough not to go under water.
Marcus: Yeah. Smart enough to know that that's not something that you wanna do.
Trey: I can make plenty money above water welding.
Marcus: So go back to the ... I mean you had the situation with your mom where you were staying home and you were working on these products and stuff. Do you remember the first time that either you sold a product or maybe it was when you had the idea for the school? And there was kind of this tipping point, like do you remember that first thing that happened that made you think that there might be something to this?
Trey: Yeah. It was, I guess, just the sales. The name of the tool company is Scottsman Tools. And once we started, I think it was like the first Black Friday, we had a whole kitchen table just full of orders. And I'm thinking, "This is turning out good, and maybe I should try to complement the tools with something else." And just basically from being in the field and my Navy training, I said, "Some of the trade schools around here, I'm not saying they're bad, I just know that I can do it better." And that's what I do. We have the lowest student-teacher ratio in the country. For every five students we have one instructor, and nobody can touch us on that. And that shows the quality over the quantity. Instead of trying to get as many students as we can, we try to keep as many instructors as we can. And keep it profitable. And it shows, you know, the guys, they get done early out of the school. They go straight to work, they make $40 an hour, and they're not even finishing the class. We're recommending the students to these double time companies, they're going to Minnesota or wherever. And they're just killing it.
Trey: You know, I guess it was kind of like a do or die, at first, with Mom and everything. You know, 'cause I was on unemployment, pretty much, trying to make ends meet, five kids.
Marcus: And it turned out to be a good thing though.
Trey: Oh yeah. Blessing in disguise.
Marcus: So what drives, I mean I get like selling the products, you know selling the product is a pretty straight forward thing, but what drives you with the school? I mean, why the school? Why did you go into teaching other people how to do this?
Trey: Well, it's helping people, it's changing lives.
Marcus: Yeah. That's pretty cool. Now, if you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in learning their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Trey: Don't listen to anybody that tells you it can't be done.
Trey: I think for every one person that said it was a good idea for the tools and the stuff that I was making, there was probably 10 that just totally bombed it. And people that I respected said, "Man, that is the dumbest thing, or this and this and this and this." You can't do that. How many times I heard, "You can't," over encouragement.
Marcus: Yeah. Ow, it's amazing the discouragement. It's almost like people want to pull you back because they're afraid ... it's almost like they're afraid of you being successful. I don't know, maybe that's unfair, maybe they are truly looking out for you and wanting you to not fail. But at the same time, it's almost like there's some other reason why they're trying to pull you back to where they're at.
Trey: Well, I'll tell you, to be honest, it probably helped me. I remember when I was making my first molds for that first tool, I was making them out of silicone instead of getting the machine, plastic mold injection thing. They're like $10,000 a piece. I called every mold maker in America and they were saying, "You can't make it like that 'cause it has threads and it can't be silicone because it's gonna tear and do that." And just so everyone is like it's just impossible. So about two days later, you know, I had one sitting on my kitchen table that I had made that we used for the first year. And basically people telling me that it couldn't be done when I knew that it could, just they didn't wanna mess with it. So I guess it was more of the challenge of people saying, "No, you can't." And discouragement, just to prove them wrong. And it kind of helped me, because if everybody would've just been like, "Oh, yeah, that's a good idea."
Marcus: Yeah, it wouldn't of driven you to the point that it was.
Marcus: So is there anything that you're currently working on for the business that you can talk about?
Trey: Yeah. Well, I wanted to mention that we work with the Career Center in Alabama. So if you wanna come to the school, you can go there and get funding. There's a grant. We also have two finance companies that are funding our students to help them get through the school. Because not everybody has got $10,000 to come to a trade school. The things that we're working on, what's really cool about Mobile is we've been working with some of the local businesses. And the whole vision was, when I had the school, was to have the school and then have the other half of like a sister company. And that company's name is Mob Town Fabrication. And then they can actually transfer over, like if they're just not ready yet, or if they've got cold feet or something, we can kind of build their confidence. And we're starting to get into some piping jobs. Sprinkler systems or heater tubes and different things in our sister company, which shares the same building but they're separate. And then the students can go from school to kind of an apprenticeship and then go out for the ones that are ready. So that was the original vision and it's coming together. And we're getting some support from local fabrication businesses.
Marcus: I mean, there's a huge push locally between the steel plant and [inaudible] and some of the other things that are going on. There's a huge need for people that can weld just in general. And I know pipe welding is kind of an art from in and of itself. And so I can see how your students would be in high demand. But are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward in this business?
Trey: Yes, the Chamber of Commerce, here locally.
Trey: Innovation Portal.
Marcus: Now, okay, so that's interesting. Because I would not have thought Innovation Portal. So how are they helping you with this?
Trey: So, I reached out to Innovation Portal and kind of told them about the tools. I already had the school but I was coming up with new prototypes and getting new patents. And so I kind of told them all about the story, about what I just told you, and we got involved with the Alabama Launch Pad competition. Which I won last year, the startup.
Marcus: You kill me.
Trey: We won this competition for entrepreneurs. It was the concept track and it was for $50,000 and we were able to inject that into the school and grow it that way. But I pitched them the tools and the school. Because it's all together, I mean, they complement each other. All my students, they get a tool list. And on that tool list is my tools. So they're going out and using them and they work, they beg for them. I'll take them away and they'll say, "Hey, can I just buy one?" Because at first we provided them and now we make them purchase them. And we work with some of the local welding supply stores. When I first was pitching them the tools, they were like, "Okay, yeah we'll think about getting that on our shelf," or this or that. And now we're spending half a million dollars in welding equipment for our students and I said, ,"Well, hey, if you want to supply my students with their tools, you got to supply everything on that tool list." And guess what's on the tool list?
Marcus: Your tools.
Marcus: Yeah. No, that's very cool.
Trey: So now I got some leverage over them.
Marcus: I'm glad to hear that the Innovation Portal was helpful in that. Because I think a lot of people when they think of Innovation Portal, they think of software technology and stuff like that. And it's not, it's meant to be innovation just in general. Like if you're even a trade and go through Innovation, like how long has welding been around and you're still coming up with stuff that can be useful, that's pretty awesome.
Trey: It's definitely ... Hailey, she says, "Begging for disruption," because they're old school, welders are old school. They do it how their grand-daddy did it. And they did it how their grand-daddy did it. To have some new eyes come in and some new ideas, it's just really wreaking the whole ... "You can't do that," "Well, he's doing it. It's working."
Marcus: "Watch me." What's the most important thing that you've learned in running a business?
Trey: Planning. Just to work your plan and plan your work.
Trey: And have vision, look forward and don't let anybody ... just have new vision on things and go with your gut instinct. Because if you don't ad you just do what everybody else thinks you should do, then you're not really living your dream.
Marcus: That gut instinct, that is something I think a lot of people overlook, right? So us entrepreneurs, I think there's something inside of us that kind of drives us and moves us in directions. And sometimes we can't really explain why it is we feel that we need to do something, whatever it is. Like create a new product or invest ... like we're investing in some of our processes and stuff like that, like we don't necessarily know. But at the same time, like that gut feeling of, "No, I need to do this because I can see in the future where this, this, and this are gonna happen." I think if I was to say something to somebody that's listening to this, I would just say, if you are an entrepreneur and you're bent that way, then listen to your gut. 'Cause oftentimes it's right. How do you like to unwind?
Marcus: You've got five kids and a couple of businesses. You've gotta have some way.
Trey: So what we do about twice a year is me and my wife will go off on a vacation. We just got back from Breckenridge. So that was nice just to get away and release and just be away from all the every day stress. And do that twice a year and that works pretty good, 'cause every other day is just non-stop. You know, you're always trying to make things better, more efficient. And, you know, that's always on the forefront of my mind, is how can I do things better? Even the things that I've come up with, which a lot of other schools aren't doing, I'm still always progressing. If you're not moving forward, you're moving back.
Marcus: Right. No, that's very good. So tell people where they can find you.
Trey: 715 St. Emmanuel Street. So we're right off the Texas Street exit. And we have a big building there.
Marcus: And when you get off the Texas exit, making a left there? Well, depending, I guess, south.
Trey: Well if you're coming through the tunnel from Bowen County, get off on the Texas Street exit. You'll take a left, go into the interstate and the next stop sign you come to, we're on that corner.
Marcus: Okay. I think I drive by there quite a bit. So I'll have to stop by and see what's going on. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?
Trey: Just a thanks to all the people in Mobile that have helped me out. Wall Tech Valve, Dale Roberts, and Jack over at the Wall Street Junk. And Hailey, Hailey [inaudible], and Cory James, and of course my wife.
Marcus: Better get that in there, man.
Trey: She's been a big supporter. And even though some of the stuff that I've done was out there and maybe she didn't see the end game, that she stuck with me and supported me through it.
Marcus: Yeah. That's really cool. Well, Trey, I appreciate you willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you.