“You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you have been.” – Maya Angelou
Aluminum is the third most common substance in the earth’s crust and was first identified in the early 1800’s. It was not until the work of Charles Martin Hall that it could be separated from bauxite and widely used in manufacturing. Years after his discovery, Hall went on to co-found the Pittsburgh Reduction Company that would later become Alcoa. It is in that Pennsylvania plant that a young Sam Carbis was presented with an opportunity to change the lives of firefighters and future generations.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930, Sam Carbis was a master mechanic with Alcoa in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. In those days, aluminum was a new material that no one knew quite what to do with yet. Alcoa had this great new mill, but it did not know exactly how to use all the material it was producing. So, one of the projects that everyone had was to try and think of ways to use this wondrous new material. Out of groups like that and the Alcoa R & D Group came the early beginnings for things that today are commonplace — cookware, aluminum foil, etc.
As the various ideas were thought up, Alcoa examined them and either decided it was a promising idea and started producing that product; or said it was not an effective use of material; or, as in our case, said that is an innovative idea for the material, but it is not something that fits our corporate picture. You see, Sam Carbis, came up with the idea of making ladders for fire departments out of this wondrous new material. Once the idea was blessed, but Alcoa decided not to do it, Sam decided to do it on his own, and thus Aluminum Ladder Company was founded. Up until that time, fire departments used wooden ladders which become heavy and unwieldy when wet or could catch on fire and burn themselves if dry.
The first ladder was developed for the local fire chief where Sam lived in Tarentum, Pennsylvania and was still on the active-duty rosters when last we checked in the late ‘90s.
Sam Carbis, ever the out-of-the-box thinker, named his new company the Aluminum Ladder Company and their brand name became Alco-Lite. (Aluminum Ladder Company – lightweight). At some point, Sam Carbis was told he only had six months left to live. Rather than spending his remaining days hard at work, he ran off to Mexico leaving his wife Nell and daughter Helen to run the company. Sam Carbis passed away in 1951.
Sam’s eldest daughter, Helen, worked for the company from the time she was thirteen, doing bookkeeping and office work for her parents. In 1943, she met a young man by the name of Darrel Cramer who was working for Sears and the two fell quickly in love. They married in 1944 and it took her three weeks to confess her marriage to her father. Darrel joined the company soon after.
Darrell was called to serve in the Army during World War II leaving his beloved Helen at home to manage the business. At that time, women were not considered to be business savvy, so all contracts were negotiated by bringing in the plant manager, Herman Mudd and putting him in a suit to act as company spokesperson. During World War II, aluminum was rationed for the war effort; and thus, Aluminum Ladder Company, to survive, started manufacturing products for the war effort. This led us into the many varieties of aluminum cuts and fabrication which we produce today. During World War II, we did such things as mine detection equipment, radar towers, etc. Helen passed notes to Mudd who spoke on behalf of the business.
Darrel was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge and was allowed to return home in 1946. By spring of 1948, their only child Samuel was born prematurely, and was club footed. Helen began handling the bookkeeping from home while raising their son. By the time he began school, young Samuel walked without a limp, and few would ever know how close he came to never walking.
In 1959, union issues began rearing their head in that portion of Pennsylvania and a threat was made to kidnap Samuel. That was all it took to start looking for locations to move the family and the business. The government was setting up an interstate system that was set to intersect in a small railroad town in South Carolina and that would be where they set up shop.
When the family made the decision to move south, they brought with them a young man by the name of Hilton Williams. At the time, Hilton was a mere 17 years old. He went by the name of Skip. In his time with the company, Skip Williams helped to design, draw, and build many of the ladders that became synonymous with the Alco-Lite brand. Skip, sadly, passed away in 2018 after serving with us for almost 60 years.
Darrel passed away in 1968 leaving the company in the hands of his beloved Helen who ran it as President and Chairman of the Board until her retirement from daily tasks in 1995. She handed the reigns over to her son Sam. Helen passed away in February 2001.
Sam Cramer had grown up around the ladder business his entire life. He was present at the ribbon cutting of the new South Carolina plant when he was just 11 years old. The sudden death of his father, however, pulled him into the company in a larger and more active role as sales manager at just 21 years old. That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Darlene.
Sam and Darlene had three children, Samantha, Scott, and Shawn. They all grew up much as the generations before them working in the company. Whether stickering catalogs, answering phones, or working in the shop – each child understood that the company was a family member and an important part of their heritage.
In 1976, Sam Cramer saw an opportunity to expand the company’s product offerings by adding aligned products and began a distribution firm named after his grandfather. Carbis Ladders and Fabrications was born. When his mother retired in 1995, Sam stepped into the role of President and CEO of both Carbis and Aluminum Ladder. By this point Carbis had moved past its role as a simple distribution firm and was now a leading designer and manufacturer of not only fire ladders but fall protection equipment and bulk loading equipment for the industrial market.
In 1984, Aluminum Ladder Company, in conjunction with its largest distributor, Carbis, began noticing a niche that they felt needed concentration. That niche is safe access for tank cars and rail cars in the process industry. Today, that happens to be the largest niche in which we participate, but we are also involved in such things as aviation ground support equipment, marine access systems, flatbed fall protection systems, and many others. Because of their work on the ANSI Committees on ladder safety, they were involved early in the formation of OSHA as it was formed in 1971. Today, many of the products and services they offer are aimed at fall protection arising out of companies’ concerns with providing safe environments for their workers; and, as such, we participate in organizations such as VPPPA and other safety related organizations around the country.
Also, while working on the ANSI ladder safety committee, Sam Cramer became actively involved in the tie-in between ANSI and NFPA fire ladder standards. It was his work that brought the annual ladder testing to the forefront. Many departments at the time feared testing their ladders due to the fear of destroying them. To assuage that fear, Sam created a ladder testing warranty that was at the time unheard of. Should a fire ladder pass visual inspection but fail the load tests, they would replace it. Sam received a lifetime achievement award for his work with the NFPA.
With the Carbis organization of professional application specialists, coupled with the Aluminum Ladder Engineering Department, it gave them the ability to provide focused, safety related solutions for their customers here and around the world. With so many of their products so deeply interwoven, Sam the CEO of both companies and Shawn Cramer Mizell, his youngest daughter and COO made the decision to merge the companies together under the Sam Carbis Solutions Group banner. Thus, on November 1, 2014, Sam Carbis Solutions Group was born with Shawn Cramer Mizell as president.
With the newly formed company, suddenly siloed departments were better integrated allowing for fresh ideas and perspectives. The business flourished as the two businesses became one allowing for better integration of ideas and technologies.
Like her father before her, Shawn had grown up in the ladder business and understood the challenges facing the fire customers. In her journey through the company, she had worked in every facet of production and management, giving her a broad understanding of the strengths and weaknesses, they faced.
In 2015, fire sales were placed under the responsibility of David Williamson, a retired fire chief from nearby Darlington, SC who brought with him a wealth of field experience as well as a desire to help his fellow firefighters. It was under his guidance that the DRL (double ended roof ladder), PWL-6 (first floor access ladder), and the new and improved combination ladder were designed to make firefighting tasks easier and safer.
Under Shawn’s leadership, the company has faced a great many challenges as well. The pandemic of 2020 dealt a crippling blow to many of their industrial customers and created supply chain issues that further crippled the manufacturing side of the business. By thinking laterally, Shawn reimagined her business structure, realizing that production workers could not manufacture from home, she sent office staff away to keep production safer. In the process, she also implemented across the board raises for hourly staff, further helping them get through the financial impacts of the pandemic.
The upper management staff began meeting daily via Microsoft Teams to keep communication channels open and maneuver any challenges that came along in this unique business climate. Even as the offices began reopening, it was this “steering committee” that helped strengthen Alco-Lite and the Sam Carbis Solutions Groups place in the market, keeping lead times shorter and ensuring that their customers had the equipment that they needed to save lives.