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Rock Hill plant has cooked up specialty chemicals for 25 years

Rock Hill business owner Dave Oxendine describes his operation as a "large kitchen."

"We could make cakes, oyster stew - anything you would like," Oxendine said.

Oxendine's market is not culinary. It's the oil industry, textile plants, places that make rubber and metal products. If he's into food, it's the food-grade lubricant, made for the poultry processing industry.

The portions from Oxendine's kitchen come not in bite-sized portions, but in 55-gallon drums. Production is measured in thousands of pounds, not ounces.

Oxendine is the second generation of his family to help lead Red-Line, a speciality chemical plant on Burkett Road. His mother, Maggie Oxendine, is the company president and sole owner.

Dave Oxendine is in charge of operations and business development. His sister, Denise Moore, tracks everything that comes in and goes out the door.

James "Jim" Oxendine started the company, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. He died in 2009. He is still missed at the company where one-third of the workforce is family.

"He'd be proud," Maggie Oxendine said Friday of her husband, and her children's work. "Nothing has changed. I don't have to say anything and they do great work."

Working for the family business wasn't Dave Oxendine's first choice. He served in the Marine Corps, retiring after becoming an aviation supply officer. He was responsible for $180 million inventory of parts for everything from fighter jets to cargo planes. His service took him to Beaufort, to El Toro Marine Air Station outside San Diego, and to Japan.

After retiring from the Marine Corps, he worked for Boeing as a technical representative for a year before deciding to retire once and for all.

Five months later, he was back in Rock Hill, asking his dad what he could do.

His dad pointed to a filing cabinet stuffed with papers and said, "Straighten it up."

It was the first of many tasks to take the business beyond the "level of a fruit stand," Oxendine said. While his father was a shrewd businessman, he left the technological sophistication of the office to others.

Oxendine helped modernize operations, bringing in computers and spreadsheets. The change made it easier for Red-Line to work with large chemical plants. Operations such as Dow Chemical rely on operations such as Red-Line, called tolling plants, to meet the demand for speciality and smaller orders.

But, as Oxendine points out, what is small to Dow, is big for Red-Line.

He also pursued certification as a woman-owned, minority business. The Oxendines are Lumbee Indians.

What Oxendine didn't change was Red-Line's success in duplicating what is formulated in the lab on a larger scale.

Red-Line operators are good cooks, working from a company's recipe.

Mixing a formula in a small lab beaker is one thing; replicating it in vats that hold thousands of pounds of chemicals is another. While it's sometimes science - knowing how chemicals blend, what temperature they need to be at to mix - it often comes down to feel.

What might take 30 minutes in the lab can take 45 minutes on the production floor.

Work on the production floor can be hectic, especially if several different blends are being poured into drums. There is not a lot of room for forklifts to move drums around.

The space limitations have Oxendine thinking expansion. Plans for extending the building were drawn several years ago. They are now sandwiched between those filing cabinets Oxendine once straightened out.

They could be coming out soon. Red-Line's business has been steady.

Expansion could mean all sorts of new customers for Red-Line, maybe even one that got away.

Recently, a firm approached Red-Line about a specialty mix. The desired output would have required Red-Line to add more equipment and more workers. Oxendine decided the time wasn't right to take on the task.

But he still wishes he could have. After all, there are not many people who get to say, "I make sunblock for plants."

The customer who got away wanted to market a product for "plants that were under solar stress," providing SPF-45 protection.

"When the next person like that comes along," Oxendine said, "I want to be ready."