Andrew Maykuth, Inquirer Staff Writer POSTED: Sunday, September 1, 2013, 1:10 AM MONTOURSVILLE, Pa.
Ralph S. Alberts Co., a custom-plastics manufacturer that got its start 50 years ago making plane parts for a now-defunct local aircraft factory, has survived the decades by embracing new markets. Early on, it built devices to shepherd products along RCA Victor’s assembly lines, a business that disappeared with RCA. In the 1970s, Hersheypark asked the firm to rebuild the padded seats and harnesses for its amusement-park thrill rides, a specialty business that has expanded handsomely. It now makes up half the company’s $13 million in annual revenue.
The firm’s newest venture was inspired by the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom. Alberts Co. has adapted the plastic upholstery that cushions bodies in carnival rides into a sprayable, impermeable barrier for gas-well sites, designed to protect the environment from spills. “All of these operators are taking every precaution to prevent reportable spills, which is great for our business,” said Seth Alberts, 30, the third generation in the family firm. He heads Alberts Spray Solutions L.L.C., the subsidiary he and his father, Edward, formed to work with the shale gas industry. It now accounts for about 20 percent of the company’s revenue. The Albertses are frequently cited by business leaders as the type of local entrepreneurs who evolved with the shale gas boom. This year, the company, which employs 95 people, was among the first recipients of the Governor’s Impact Awards from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. Edward Alberts, 66, said the family’s strategy has been to focus on higher-margin, custom-built niche products. They build the prototypes that are used in assembly lines, rather than mass-produce the parts themselves. The company’s experience molding plastics has led it into some curious side businesses. Its medical products include lifelike mannequins used in medical schools. Some of the custom-made models depict gruesome battlefield or accident injuries to help train medics and first responders. Alberts Co. was established in 1963 by Edward’s father, Ralph. He was a plastic-materials salesman when Piper Aircraft Inc., which assembled planes in nearby Lock Haven, asked whether he could create the tools to build plane door panels. The amusement-park business came about just as serendipitously. Hersheypark heard of the firm’s work with Piper and RCA and asked the company to replace the foam seats and padding on roller coasters. They experimented with materials and bought foam-molding machinery to reupholster the rides. More theme parks began sending them worn seats and harnesses for reconditioning. Their customers now include some of the biggest parks in the country – Disney, Six Flags, and Universal Studios. “There is not an amusement park in America that we don’t have a relationship with,” Edward Alberts said. Seth Alberts began to explore opportunities in natural gas development about five years ago, when local business associations were gearing up for the shale boom. “The majority of people here in central Pennsylvania are huge proponents of the Marcellus,” said Seth Alberts, who, like many business people in the region, is sensitive about efforts to slow the natural gas industry. “We are big believers in what is going on here.” He acknowledged his company benefited from the tighter drilling regulations government devised in response to environmentalists’ outcry. When shale gas drilling began in Pennsylvania, the graded areas where drill rigs operated were covered only with gravel. But after a few big spills forced operators into costly cleanups, regulators embraced the practice of lining well pads with plastic to capture chemicals or wastewater that might spill during drilling or hydraulic-fracturing operations. The Albertses thought a sprayed polyurea foam would make a better leakproof liner than the heavy sheets of plastic operators were using. So they reformulated the material used in the amusement-park rides to create a barrier similar to the plastic lining of a pickup truck bed. The coating forms quickly when the ingredients are heated and mixed, so the Albertses had to design a truck that contained a generator, compressor, and application equipment to work in the field. Their durable material – it’s guaranteed for 25 years – was better suited as long-term leakproof containment for well sites, the Albertses learned, than as a temporary barrier used only in the few months of drilling. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the largest drilling company operating in the state’s forests, now uses the Alberts system at all its Marcellus well sites to surround the batteries of tanks that remain after wells are drilled. The tanks contain the wastewater that flows out of wells during production, which must be collected periodically by trucks for disposal. The containment systems, which are about 60 feet long with three-foot walls, act like big plastic saucers and make sure no fluids hit the ground. “This creates a higher level of containment that goes above and beyond the regulatory requirements,” said Mary Wolfe, a spokeswoman for Anadarko’s Williamsport office. Seth Alberts believes his family’s system has promise. The company recently expanded operations into eastern Ohio to work with drillers exploring the Utica Shale. It’s also looking to set up shop in Western states as regulators pressure drillers to improve their operations. “I think we could see a lot of growth,” Seth Alberts said. “The question is how to manage it.”