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Ed West’s life work is the steel drum — we’re  talking about containers that hold 55 gallons of oil, chemicals and other messy products, not the instruments made famous by West Indies musicians. While lacking glamour, these drums are an essential cog in global commerce. In an industry that has consolidated dramatically over the years, the company West founded, General Steel Drum, has secured a profitable share of the U.S. container market.

He opened the business in 1979 in south Charlotte after working in the steel-drum industry for 15 years in Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans. Starting with a handful of employees, the company now has a staff of about 60, many of whom have worked at the plant for decades.

In 2011, West sold the business to the Stavig family of Portland, Ore.-based Myers Containers Inc., which operates six drum-manufacturing and recycling plants. Family is the right description: The business is owned and run by CEO Kyle Stavig, his brothers Christian and Cody, and brother-in-law Dan Roth. Like West, the Stavigs have a long history in the industry. In 1917, their great-grandfather started washing wood drums, then later moved into steel drums. Wood drums to hold chemicals and oil were common in the early 20th century. But they often leaked, creating an opportunity for famous journalist-turned-manufacturer Nelly Bly to gain a patent for the first industrial steel drum in 1905.

Myers Containers competes against six much larger steel-drum makers, all owned by big industrial conglomerates, Kyle Stavig says. One is Mauser Group, a German arms maker that last year bought Cincinnati-based Berenfield Containers, which owns a plant in Harrisburg, near Charlotte. That plant was previously owned by Florida Steel Drum, where Ed West’s father worked as a salesman for many years.

Aside from Berenfield, Stavig says General Steel’s other closest competitors operate in Florida, Kentucky and New Jersey.

It isn’t quite Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but the plant operates a dizzying assembly line that turns flat steel (mostly made by Charlotte-based Nucor) into cylindrical containers that are painted, washed, plugged and stacked for delivery to clients within a 300-mile radius.

Myers prides itself on state-of-the-art manufacturing processes, but Stavig concluded little change was needed after buying the Charlotte plant. “The plant was already achieving world-class efficiency, which is why they’ve been able to compete so effectively against a $4 billion competitor,” he says, referring to Mauser, which has more than 20 manufacturing sites.

Retaining the name General Steel also reflects West’s success in building a positive industry image. “We want to be a collection of brands and retain a local feel,” Stavig says.

West, 74, hasn’t slowed down much since selling his business. He still calls on key clients in industries such as coatings, chemicals, food products and petroleum. Stains used in furniture and textiles, once his bread-and-butter, no longer take a significant share.

Stavig promised West he could work for two years after the business changed hands. He’s now in his seventh year. A recent week included sales stops in New Orleans, Hickory and Monroe.

“A public corporation concentrates on its stockholders, and a private corporation concentrates on its employees,” West says. “It’s been a pleasure to work with the Stavig family.”

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