Attending sporting events is intricately woven into American society and culture. Diehard fans would never miss the opportunity to see their favorite team or player outshine the competition.
It is an experience that goes beyond the realm of mere entertainment; it is excitement, camaraderie, and concludes in either revelry or dismay. According to a survey by creditcards.com, Americans spend $56 billion each year to cheer their teams on at sporting events.
A significant contributing factor to game attendance is not only the experience itself but the stadium presentation and overall atmosphere. This has a huge impact on creating a memorable experience that may last a lifetime.
Creating that experience, for young and old alike, is what Dant Clayton Corporation has done best since its founding in 1979. This specialty services, design-build construction company, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, employs approximately 180 people who provide turnkey, sports venue construction solutions throughout the nation, both outdoor and indoor. These projects include producing bleachers, arenas, stadiums, and grandstands for professional venues as well as high school and college games, all under one streamlined contract.
The company has two in-house production facilities in Louisville, one for steel and another for aluminum. It acquired Tuttle Aluminum and Bronze in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2015, and this now also serves as a manufacturing facility for Dant Clayton. Tuttle is one of the largest producers of welded and mechanical hand railings in the United States.
Ken Merrick and his son Bruce Merrick “bought a small, early-stage business with a compelling patented bleacher product that was located in Alabama,” explains Dant Clayton Chairman Bruce Merrick. Production was relocated to Louisville, with about twelve employees. “Over the next twenty years, we grew an average of twenty percent per year, moving into more complex products and bigger markets.” Two decades later, revenue was doubled, “driven by product innovation and capability enhancement,” he adds.
“It all starts with our preconstruction services and our design development,” explains President Jonathan O’Leary of the company’s stadium construction capabilities. The company has professional staff members who “are capable of collaborating at a highly technical level with renowned architects in the sports construction world that specialize in large stadiums.” Established relationships have been forged with these specialists both regionally and nationally along with connections to engineering firms, general contractors, construction managers, and stadium owners.
Stadium owners are not often repeat clients from an initial construction standpoint. “They’re building a once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-thirty-year facility. Therefore, we do a lot of collaborative work upfront to understand the overall vision and work collectively with project stakeholders to create a constructible design that can meet the schedule, the budget, and any other specific owner requirements,” O’Leary says. “As the stadia and arena world changes, there’s a different fan experience required.” Understanding these variables has “a tremendous positive impact on the outcome of the project.”
Cost and scheduling are essential concerns, but so too are the considerations of what stadium owners require and what the owner and the architect “are trying to deliver to their fans – an experience to keep them coming back… It’s obviously a very large investment.”
The project, from its very conception, must incorporate owner priorities and the architect’s vision of its look and feel and that has to “remain the constant in the work that we do,” O’Leary adds.
With the company’s pre-construction services, design development, engineering, building information modeling (BIM), in-house manufacturing, and of course, construction, Dant Clayton can do it all. “Customers don’t have to rely on a lot of different suppliers,” explains O’Leary. “We can turnkey the whole thing for them [and] take that arduous process off their plate.”
The company manufactures a long span aluminum product, “which is a proprietary product that only Dant Clayton produces,” O’Leary states. This product is lightweight and has lower support requirements from structural steel and foundations. It is also low maintenance and “very aesthetically pleasing, relevant to some of the other options that are available from a prefabricated grandstand supplier.”
This product has artistic appeal when viewed from below. “Rather than having all of the aluminum and steel supporting it, you have a clean, useable space that the owner can utilize for concessions or merchandise. So, it’s a beautiful aesthetic and functional space that’s created below.”
A hybrid precast product comprised of steel, aluminum, and concrete slab came into production in 2010 and is the first of its kind in the United States. This particular product, “has the look and feel of a precast concrete, but is fifty percent lighter,” notes O’Leary, “and is much quicker from a scheduling standpoint to install and construct.”
The company’s welded deck solution is made from an aluminum extrusion that is manufactured in-house “with multiple finish options for our customers,” adds O’Leary. “We believe that our manufacturing and installation processes produce a much stronger, durable option than what traditional grandstand providers put into the field.”
The acquisition of Tuttle Aluminum means Dant Clayton provides railing solutions as well, that can be incorporated into its solutions “to provide an even more robust turnkey package, reducing many of the headaches associated with the design and coordination,” adds O’Leary. This is something that differentiates the company from the competition and a solution that owners and general contractors have come to appreciate.
Many of the company’s long-established relationships are crucial as it strives to understand stakeholder requirements and “what they want to achieve out of the spectator seating projects,” says O’Leary. This comprehension has to be aligned with architectural designs since “the general contractor or the construction manager has to execute it in the field. So, we specialize in collaborating and working with all of those groups to bring out a design that works for everybody.”
Over the course of its forty-year history, the company has secured “a large level of trust, so we appreciate the faith and confidence that our customers have in us.”
There are a few factors to be considered in the company’s consultative role prior to starting any given project. O’Leary explains that in the northeast, there could be large accumulations of snow, meaning that there will be “different engineering requirements,” as opposed to the west where there may be seismic concerns.
Also to be considered are the vast array of sports venues, some being denser in terms of desired seating capacity and others that require different types of construction with more amenities. “Depending on the sport, the region, and what the owners are hoping to achieve out of the fan experience, the project components, products and features selected and ultimately the budget can vary.” For example, a major league soccer stadium with a substantial budget will differ from a minor league stadium such as that of a United Soccer League (USL).
In addition, he says that some schools are building new stadiums as part of talent recruitment to their athletic program. “If you’re a high-end high school football player, you’re likely going to want to go to a college that offers an attractive state of the art facility.”
O’Leary adds that there are several changes taking place currently in the spectator seating venue industry “where the actual seating capacity isn’t the main factor, but rather the actual fan experience. In some cases, such as soccer stadiums, there is interest in creating standing room only supporter sections.” It really comes down to understanding requirements and designing a project “that’s highly customized for our individual owner. We do a deep-dive analysis to uncover those wants and needs… It’s a journey through conceptual to the physical construction, and our team can handle it all.”
“We focus heavily on recruitment of talent here,” Dant Clayton’s Chief Executive Officer Keith Williams says. And this is accompanied by a robust screening process and “programs that support the talent that we have. I think that monitoring quality in today’s day and age in the production phase is one phase too late. We’ve worked very hard over the several years to move that monitoring up into the design process so that quality is designed in rather than inspected in,” Williams explains.
This engineered order company does not run hundreds or thousands of ordered parts. “Our average size is less than one hundred pieces. All of those are assembled in the field. They’re not assembled here. So really that quality is in the design process.”
In the past two years, Dant Clayton has moved from a two-dimensional design process to a three-dimensional one. “We can see interference and other design problems up-front,” Williams adds. “That’s ultimately where the quality has to come to play, because by the time it gets to the field, it’s too late.” This also helps the company be industry compliant “so that we can work with other companies and trades, for example. All the project components can fit in our model so that we can see in advance if we’re coordinating and communicating well with other people on site.”
Technology is also employed such as the company’s angle line and plasma table which are, “high-end, very technical pieces of equipment that require programming and are extremely accurate, improve quality, reduce time, and improve efficiency.”
Additionally, its extensive powder coating line is unique in that the company is the only one in the industry that does so within its facility. “One of the benefits to this is the ease in applying color options to our products,” says O’Leary. “Colors in sports are an excellent way to showcase branding and team spirit… It’s an effective tool for us in providing some real value to our customers.”
Amanda Caufield, Director of Sales and Marketing, expands on how Dant Clayton has been able to bring so much to the spectator seating industry in its forty years. “Innovation is at the very core of what Dant Clayton stands for and is a pillar of our values and beliefs… continuous improvement is our lifeblood.” She says that Dant Clayton has “done very well with identifying existing gaps in the market and predicting the next evolution of stadiums.”
She adds that it is more than its innovative products and services that has propelled the company’s success. “We are excited about our work, driven by our purpose, and passionate about our overall performance. We strive for measurable, proactive improvement in all our processes and business practices. It’s part of our everyday fabric to ask what’s next and what could we be doing better, with ideas coming from all levels of the organization.”
“The millions of seats and thousands of projects we have produced are secondary to the reputation and integrity that we are known for,” Merrick says, reflecting on Dant Clayton’s fortieth anniversary.