Chattanooga's Steward Advanced Materials reinvents itself to stay in business 141 years
Serving in the U.S. Navy on a submarine stinks — literally.
That's because a submarine's ventilation system uses a chemical compound called amine that smells like a cross between sulfur and diesel fuel to "scrub" the carbon dioxide out of the recirculated air that the crew breathes over and over again when the submarine's submerged.
The stink of amine permeates everything on board, including sailor's uniforms.
But a fix for that is in the works thanks to an innovative Chattanooga company that's been around for 141 years — yet keeps a low profile.
"We're a technical company with unique capabilities," said Scott Smith, senior vice president at Steward Advanced Materials, which is headquartered in a nondescript, 130,000-square-foot industrial plant on E. 38th Street near Rossville Boulevard.
It's developed a high-surface-area material that's been selected to scrub the CO2 from the air in the Navy's next class of submarine, the Columbia, slated to be built in 2021.
"The Navy wanted to get a system that is cleaner and safer," company President Tim Armstrong said. "This is an emerging product for us that has a real-world application."
The material, technically known as self-assembled monolayers on mesoporous supports (SAMMS), is the latest example of how Steward has adapted over the years.
Slate pencils and soapstone metal worker's crayons were some of the first products sold by the company, which was founded in 1876 in Cincinnati, Ohio, by Col. Demetrius M. Steward.
Steward moved his business in 1888 to Chattanooga, a place he knew because he had healed here from wounds he got fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Apple, Zenith and Ricoh were customers
The company's evolution reads like a history of the industrial revolution.
A display inside the lobby of Steward's headquarters highlights the various products Steward made as it reinvented itself over the decades:
When gas lighting was the norm, D.M. Steward Co. made gaslight burner tips.
As electric lighting took over, Steward made ceramic insulators for Thomas Edison's General Electric Co.
Later, the company built its own line of Stewardyne Radios. The radios had vacuum tubes inside and a horn-shaped speaker. Steward has one of the antiques on display in its lobby that was purchased on eBay from a radio enthusiast in Australia.
As television took the fore, Steward manufactured deflection yoke cores, doughnut-shaped magnets at the rear of the cathode ray tubes in yesteryear's TV sets.
"Every Zenith TV had one of our products in it," Armstrong said.
Steward built parts to shield electromagnetic interference for the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer giant.
The toner in Ricoh copy machines used a powder made in Chattanooga by Steward and transported to Japan in giant shipping containers.
Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard also were Steward customers.
Steward family sold business to private equity firm
Steward Advanced Materials, which focuses on research and development, is the latest iteration of the 141-year-old Steward company, which was family-owned until 2015.
The advanced materials division is spinoff of Steward Inc., a company with $60 million in annual revenues that manufactured materials at the Chattanooga plant and two plants in Mexico.
The Steward family decided to sell its electromagnetic interference part manufacturing business in 2006 for $52.5 million to Laird Technologies.
Then in 2015, the family sold Steward Advanced Materials to Andlinger & Company, a boutique private equity group with offices in New York, Florida, Brussels and Vienna.
Now, Steward Advanced Materials is in growth mode.
"We'll double in revenue in the next three to five years," Armstrong said.
He declined to say what the company's annual revenue is.
Steward is adding equipment and increasing the work the work it does for military. The company, which has 45 employees, expects to add five employees by the year's end.
Most of Steward Advanced Materials's business has been word-of-mouth.
For example, the submarine ventilation system work came through Steward's relationship with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., that's run by Battelle, a private, nonprofit applied science and technology development company.
But Steward has increased its online profile through a new website launched in August that's helped draw in three new customers, Armstrong said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.