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Profit comes in empty steel drums

Where do steel drums go when they die? Many of Florida's containers end up at little but fast-growing Drums Inc. in Tampa's port district.

Everything from citrus to vitamins to flavorings is carried in fiber, plastic and steel drums. But once they're empty, drums are unwanted.

Drums Inc. gives them a home.

Trash bills are high for even the smallest of industrial companies, and empty drums also take up valuable space. Years ago, when Marc Wahlquist searched for free fiber drums in trash bins, most of the companies didn't mind that he was hanging out in their garbage. In fact, some of them asked that he take their plastic and steel drums as well.

No problem there. Wahlquist took them all, using the fiber drums for a cleaning product business he was running in Hialeah and selling the rest.

Eventually, the buying and selling of drums outgrew his initial business and in 1983, Wahlquist created Drums Inc. The company is one of only four or five drum dealers in the state.

Wahlquist, 54, and son Leif, 26, recondition steel and plastic food drums that arrive at the company from all over Florida, as well as from other states along the East Coast.

In his cleaning product days, Wahlquist sold the drums "as is" or cleaned them out using a hose. Now they are cleaned and dried by machines, and the steel drums are then painted. The time it takes to recondition a drum varies according to the type of product it contained. After reconditioning, Drums Inc. makes about a $2 profit on each drum.

The company, located inside an 86-year-old warehouse, has an average inventory of about 30,000 drums. The company won't release revenue figures, but its 15 employees handle 100 to 600 drums coming in and out of the business each day.

Clients range from the citrus industry _ 20 to 30 percent of the business _ to major beverage and pharmaceutical companies and even a steel-drum musician.

Wahlquist, a self-described ex-hippie who pulls back his gray hair in a ponytail and prefers to go sockless, sees Drums Inc. as a simple, low-profile business.

"I love drums. People in the drum business have "drumitis,'

" Wahlquist said. "You just get the fever."

And the heat is starting to spread. Within five years, Wahlquist plans to take the small company public. And reconditioned drums are in such demand that Wahlquist and his son are considering a move to six acres near the railroad tracks in Ybor City.

There are also plans for a second business based in Bradenton that would deal in recycled plastic. Currently, plastic grinding makes up 10 percent of the business at Drums Inc.

"There's so much waste of plastic that this could probably be much more profitable than the drum business," Wahlquist said.