From cow feed additives and a device for distracted drivers to giant displays and, well a different kind of giant displays, these Roanoke-area companies are making their way far beyond the immediate market.
When Clay Skelton invented a device designed to keep drivers from texting, he turned to the Internet to find the parts and services he would need to build it.
“When you do Google searches, companies across the street don’t pop up,” Skelton says.
Derick Maggard, then the executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, referred Skelton to companies closer to home. “He just started connecting me with all these people, and I used them,” Skelton says.
Ultimately, the product, called ORIGOSafe, would be made almost entirely in the Roanoke area, with the exception of the keypad, which comes from Florida. Corrugated Container Corp., located across the street from Origo’s warehouse in Roanoke County, does the product’s packaging. PlasticsOne, on nearby Merriman Road, makes parts for the device, while Keltech, located near Plantation Road, produces the circuit boards.
“It’s just amazing what we have here in the valley,” Sketlon says
We agree. Here are profiles of five area companies that distribute products across the country and even across the globe.
American Biosystems: Converting CoW Chow to Milk and Meat
Location: Roanoke City, Luck Ave.
Lewis Goyette built his business by knowing what he was talking about.
He began the company in 1978 with an additive for animal feed, particularly for dairy cows. Lewis Goyette’s son Edward compares the product to a probiotic, a good bacteria which helps with digestion and is a popular supplement for humans.
“They are able to convert the food they eat to meat or milk more readily, so there is less waste,” Edward Goyette says of the company’s additive.
The late Lewis Goyette, who had a Ph.D. in microbiology, would get in his car and drive as far as New Hampshire singing the product’s praises.
“Some of those customers we still have today,” says Edward Goyette, now company president.
Folks in agriculture found Lewis Goyette so compelling they began inviting him to speak at agriculture conferences. “He ended up being a real authority on dairy cow nutrition,” Edward Goyette says of his father who died in 2011 at the age of 86.
Today, American Biosystems deals primarily with two products. Additives for animal feed and microorganisms for waste treatment in places like septic tanks and grease traps and in aquaculture. The products are used around the globe, according to Edward Goyette. He declines to name specific countries, but says he primarily ships to North and South America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Lewis Goyette got his son interested in science on his sixth birthday by buying him a microscope. They took soil, mixed in some water and let it set for a few days before looking at it under a slide. “I could see all these amoebas and paramecium swimming around, and I was hooked,” Edward Goyette says.
After graduating with a degree in microbiology from Virginia Tech in 1978, Edward Goyette went to Northern Virginia for a job selling scientific instruments. Some of his colleagues came up with new products that he helped to introduce.
“I got a feeling for entrepreneurship, but really didn’t get to benefit from it,” he explains.
By 1989, Lewis Goyette was doing well enough with his business that he invited his son to come home to work with him.
Around that time, Lewis Goyette invested in another business and Edward Goyette found himself selling trash compactors in addition to biotechnology. That taught both Goyettes a valuable lesson: “Stick to what you know how to do,” Edward Goyette says.
“I’ve learned from the school of hard knocks,” he adds. “Once I started focusing on the agricultural and the waste treatment process, that started to grow and that’s what we do today.”
American Biosystems currently has three full-time employees. Goyette hopes to hire a couple more in the coming months. “We do well,” Goyette answers when asked about profitability.
Biotechnology is a competitive field, he admits. To combat that, American Biosystems’ strategy has been to sell in “places where other people didn’t want to go,” he explains.
“Places that aren’t necessarily the biggest market, but we have a chance to gain business there,” he says. “We have our little niches.”
4DD Studios: 8 Life-Size Rhinoceroses (Maybe)
Location: Roanoke City, Shenandoah Avenue
Product: sculptures, signs, exhibits
Clinton Hatcher claims to have the coolest small business in all of Roanoke.
Hatcher’s 4DD Studios creates custom three-dimensional sculptures ranging from a 40-foot-tall bowling pin to giant replicas of the Congressional Medal of Honor displayed at the Pentagon.
“People have an idea,” Hatcher explains. “They don’t have the means or expertise to produce it. That’s where we come in. We help make it a reality.”
As cool as he considers his business, Hatcher isn’t particularly eager for attention. You won’t find a sign outside his Shenandoah Avenue Northwest studio. He only reluctantly gave this interview. “We’re low profile,” he says. Over and over again, he says it.
Hatcher speaks excitedly about a custom piece made by 4DD Studios, only to then hedge.
“I probably can’t talk about that,” he says.
And so, we can only say the Showtime series “Homeland” may or may not have relied upon Hatcher and his team for a few large props when filming in Charlotte, N.C.
Bud Light staged an exorbitant marketing stunt in September reportedly shelling out $500,000 to rent the town of Crested Butte, Colo. for a giant weekend party. 4DD Studios may or may not have crafted eight life-size rhinoceroses as well as a brilliant blue Brontosaurus — all of which may have eventually ended up being “ridden” by tipsy party goers — for the event.
4DD Studios takes on less showy projects too. The company produces three-dimensional signs and builds pieces for companies, like, say, a 12-foot replica of a loafer.
“A lot of it is trade show stuff,” Hatcher explains. “You’ve got companies investing in something to get people to stop and talk to the people at the booth.”
The studios’ projects use technology like 3D laser scanning and computer-guided cutting machines and are made out of materials like foam, plastic and fiberglass.
Shops that compete with 4DD Studios are mostly located in Florida and California, near tourist attractions, according to Hatcher. The 58-year-old thinks working in Western Virginia gives him an edge — and the cheaper rent isn’t the only reason.
“I believe in the area,” Hatcher says. “There’s a great amount of talent here. It’s underutilized.”
Hatcher currently employs between five and six employees full-time. Over the years, his payroll has included sculptors, painters and industrial designers. Hatcher includes Mark Cline, the crafter of whimsy who gave us Natural Bridge’s Foamhenge, and Roanoke sand sculptor Alan Matsumoto among his occasional collaborators.
Hatcher describes himself as a fabricator and problem solver. In 2005, he sold a Smith Mountain Lake island he owned as well as his dock building business before settling in to think about what came next.
“I didn’t have enough money to retire,” Hatcher explains. “I spent a year thinking, ‘I’ve got to go back to work. What would be the coolest thing I can do?’”
He came up with 4DD Studios.
Keeping the business afloat has sometimes been a struggle. A fire seriously damaged 4DD Studio’s building in Southeast Roanoke in 2011, forcing Hatcher to start over. As this article goes to print, the company’s studio on Shenandoah Ave. has been sold and Hatcher is hunting for a new facility.
“It’s all right,” he says. “Everything we’ve got is on wheels.”
Sometimes, commissions get thin. Other times, employees are so swamped they work round the clock.
“We have slept on the floor,” Hatcher admits.
As for his bottom line, Hatcher says 4DD Studios is “barely” making enough money to stay open. “It’s taken a lot to keep it going,” he explains.
Still, he remains optimistic. “Now that we’ve been here for a while, we’re getting opportunities to look at some really cool stuff.”
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