Vested Metals St. Augustine Raw Materials Leads Florida Small Business

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COMMENT | When Viv Helwig received an unexpected $7,000 check in the mail, he didn’t think it was real. Timing is everything, and the check came 13 months after it launched Vested Metals International in St. Augustine — at the same time it ran out of cash and was ready to close the doors.

Technically, he didn’t even have a door to close, since he was renting a 100 square foot mobile office. It was seven years ago. He was trying to sell raw materials to all kinds of industries, and it wasn’t going well.

“When that check came in the mail, I called the bank and was told the bank owed me a house I owned in St. Augustine. They told me I had overpaid my escrow for five years and they had been trying to contact me for three years,” Helwig said.

“I didn’t understand, since I had dealt with them all the time. What’s crazy is that the check didn’t show up until the right time. I took it as a sign not to give up,” he said. “It’s not luck. It is the providence of God.

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Helwig struggled for the next two years, working as a middleman, selling stainless steel bars, aluminum sheets and titanium to manufacturers who made components for the defense aerospace, industrial and medical markets.

The company was losing money but managed to survive. He gained momentum in the second year when he was able to hire a part-time employee who only worked 10 hours a week. At the end of that year, Helwig and that same employee, Austin Lowe—who remains with the company—joined on a full-time basis. They moved into part of a 1,500 square foot warehouse.

Then in 2018, four years after launching the company, things suddenly changed. Customers started supporting the business like never before and he was able to hire a few more people.

“We just continued to be persistent. We kept calling on people and when they gave us opportunities we performed,” he said. “We just continued to grow our presence in a few markets.”

Vested Metals International in St. Augustine offers custom product sizes and shapes.

Manufacturing touches every aspect of our lives

I met Viv Helwig at a recent awards show where her company was named North Florida and State of Florida Exporter of the Year by the Small Business Development Center. Although he is no stranger to the global supply chain, his company only started exporting products in 2019, a year before the pandemic hit. It was then that they found opportunities to supply hard-to-find metals to other countries.

But what’s most interesting about this company is that Helwig launched it into an industry filled with companies that have been around for decades. He considered the possibility of buying a business, as the industry is small, and he said the last new business was started in 2000.

But at the same time, when Helwig started Vested Metals in 2014, it was just emerging from what felt like a steady streak of bad luck. He had two failed attempts to try and buy a business in the metal distribution business. It was then that he began to question his decision to quit his five-year sales job at a specialty steel mill, a multibillion-dollar publicly traded company.

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When he left Indiana to be closer to his family, he had a wife and an 8-month-old daughter; he felt lost. At one point, he interviewed to be a cashier at Target even though he had never worked in retail. The interviewer was confused after looking at his resume which included a 2008 business administration degree from Flagler College.

“I remember doing an interview at Target and when she asked why I was there, I said, ‘I just need to buy more time’ and she said, ‘OK,'” remembers Helwig.

It didn’t take him long to decide to play with a start-up company.

“There are high barriers to entry into this field, but I figured if I failed at 28, I could still recover,” he said. Even then, when he had only one dream, he didn’t just name the company Vested Metals, he called it “Vested Metals International”.

Obviously, he made the right decision. The company was listed at No. 324 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest growing companies. At the time, Vested Metals had about $2.6 million in revenue in 2018, with three-year growth of 1,424%, according to the listing. Since then, the company has remained on the list every year for the past three years, with $8.5 million in sales in 2021.

“We plan to re-do the roster,” he said. “We’ll find out next month.”

Vested Metals International in St. Augustine supplies aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, brass, copper, bronze and various other types of metals and alloys in challenging grades, sizes and quantities to find.

Tight supply chain drives pandemic growth

Vested Metals has grown tremendously over the past two years, growing from eight employees to 20, at a time when the industries they served were suffering. Even though Helwig said he delayed some opportunities, he remains in a good position.

“It certainly affected our industry because it’s run by the commercial aerospace industry and nobody was flying, so the big manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus stopped building planes,” he said. “Elective surgeries also stopped, and we supply that industry. Demand was down.

But despite these challenges, the tight supply chain has led companies to look for new suppliers. He said they mainly stand out because the industry is so old.

“We get a lot of these calls because we’re newer to the metal distribution industry,” he said. “To my knowledge, 15 years had passed between start-ups when my company started at the end of 2014.”

Viv Helwig, owner and president of Vested Metals International, hangs out with other employees.

Teamwork growth, seeking help

Carlton Robinson, director of innovation at the JAX Chamber, said he met Helwig about five years ago when he participated in an entrepreneurial development program at the chamber.

“We talked about strategies and encouraged him to keep growing,” he said. “Some of the things he learned from our ‘Bridges’ program turned into a lot of growth for him. He’s committed to meeting regularly.”

What started as a mentor relationship turned into two friends.

“I’m happy to call him a friend now,” Robinson said. “We try to impress each other.”

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John Mark Leach, Office Administrator and Quality Assurance Representative, said he enjoys working at Vested Metals because there is a culture that encourages empowerment.

He said that’s especially important when you work in manufacturing, but the company doesn’t manufacture anything. Instead, they sell metals to companies that make specific products and need specific metals.

“Our strength is meeting the needs of our customers. That’s what we do,” he said.

“When people call us, they are looking for something special and we try to find it. It’s a great feeling when you help them achieve their goals.

“It’s an exciting industry. The future is so bright that we need shades,” Leach said. “But it’s only brilliant thanks to teamwork.”

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