After 50 years of making ladders used by big-box retailers and other companies, Tri-Arc Manufacturing Co. found itself needing a new rung to reach.

Ten years ago, Ron Schwartz and his family, who have long owned Tri-Arc with the Solomon family, could see their core business of making and selling rolling ladders facing the limits of being a commodity item, vulnerable to competition and downturns.

Armed with longtime expertise in fabricating ladders, a large facility in Blawnox and a temp employee with a then-unused degree in industrial design, Schwartz said the company began listening more seriously to customers who needed something extra.

“We had always been requested by our customers to make nonstandard climbing and access products,” said Schwartz, who serves as vice president of marketing. “Around the 9/11 time frame, a lot of changes took place that negatively impacted our business. It was the right time to branch out and diversify our product portfolio.”

Tri-Arc discovered a world of demand for clients with far more specialized needs. That includes different kinds of transportation companies, particularly aviation, whose maintenance employees work high above ground. The same is true for energy companies, the government and military.

Helping drive the custom demands of such clients are a need for safety, productivity and compliance with the standards of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A company until then composed largely of manual laborers, Tri-Arc turned to its administrative temp to become its first sales engineer. It was then the company began to develop a new consulting service. Through working with clients, Tri-Arc developed computer models to help step clients through a design process that would enable them to eventually manufacture a customized solution of ladder platforms specific to their needs.

Since it first started, the company’s custom solution division has doubled in sales every year until 2009, when it still grew by 32 percent in a difficult economy. The custom business has a backlog of 44 assignments and is expected to grow larger than the traditional ladder trade in the next few years.

Schwartz said the company is expecting big things from a strategic alliance started last year with Minnesota-based Capital Safety, which markets Tri-Arc’s custom products, branded as FlexiGuard Custom Access Solutions.

Ann Dugan, executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh, sees the ability to reinvent an everyday product into a new market as a brilliant example of the power of innovation.

“It’s a classic success story — a unique niche with high value added over a standard product,” she said. “Isn’t that Business 101? Find out what the market needs and then make it to fit the market.”