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Need an I-Beam? Call the Metal Supermarket

EVER try to buy a small I-beam? What about a tiny bar of aluminum or that elusive strip of titanium. If so, then the Metal Supermarket is the place for you.

The Metal Supermarket is a retail chain that supplies odd pieces of metal to people who need them fast. You won't find this supermarket downtown, or in upscale suburban malls. Its stores are mostly located in industrial strip malls, close to customers.

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Customers include machine shops, giant auto plants, and handymen who remodel basements. About 5 percent are individual putterers, most customers are companies desperate for a piece of bronze or specialty alloy they can't find anywhere else. Nothing big. The average order is $100.

"In the metal world we are at the very bottom," says John Angus, who runs the company along with founder Bill Mair. Both are veterans of Alcan, the Canadian aluminum giant. "We're like a flounder. We only have to have eyes on the top of our head because there's no one beneath us. You can't buy less than we sell."

The first Metal Supermarket shop opened north of the Toronto airport 10 years ago. Now the company has 30 stores, 28 of them franchises. Most are in Canada, but three are in the United States and one in Britain.

"There are close to 400 opportunities for us in the United States. We plan to own about a third and franchise the rest," Mr. Angus says. "We plan a push in Europe this year." Stores will open soon in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Seattle, adding to current US stores in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Reading, Pa.

A walk through the store shows an array of items never thought of by the non-manufacturing mind. Bars of brass and copper, pieces of aluminum, stainless steel hinges, exotic alloys, and lots and lots of plain old steel in different shapes.

Mr. Mair got the idea for the business after he was let go by Alcan, where he worked for 20 years. "One of the suppliers I used to sell aluminum to ... told me he had a problem servicing these small quantities. A lot of big operations have a $250 minimum [order] and can't deliver right away."

Although General Motors Corp. buys its regular supplies in large quantities, the automaker is Metal Supermarkets biggest customer. The store's niche: being able to meet unexpected needs on short notice at any hour of the day, Mair says.

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The two entrepreneurs see the business as recession-proof. Mair says: "We grew all through that last recession."

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