Men of Steel: Forging a Brand New Company
Men of Steel: Forging a Brand New Company
Yeah, that’s kind of like the story of the two guys who started Integra Steel Truss: Jon Moore and Rick Ponce. Both of them fell into the cold-formed steel (CFS) component industry (that’s the raw ore part), struggled through the collapse and slow recovery of the light-frame construction industry (residential, multi-family and commercial) in Southern California from 2008 to present (i.e., fires of hell), and emerged with their own CFS start-up company that recently delivered its first big steel job.
Their tale is one part luck, one part bravado and three parts hard work. What component manufacturers can take away from their story is that, if you have a good idea, good people and a strong work ethic, anything is possible in this industry (for another example, just read the tribute to Bill McAlpine). To see what they accomplished and how they did it, we’ll first look at the journey Jon and Rick took, the challenges they faced in starting their own company, and how their first project revealed a great deal about the character of their company.
Men of Ore
Jon Moore’s journey into the CFS component industry started with several large flat sheets of aluminum. He was tasked with designing and building an athletic scoreboard made from these sheets—from scratch. “We didn’t have 3D software back when I started designing,” remembered Jon. “So everything was done by hand. It’s probably no surprise it was the truss design and layout software that most intrigued me about the components industry.” As Jon continued his career building scoreboards, he began working on the structural framework designed to hold them up.
“I had an engineering background, so it was just a natural extension of my skills,” said Jon. “Becoming a truss design manager wasn’t much of a leap from there.” Jon started working for a steel component manufacturer in 2003. In 2007, the housing market began to tank. “It was hard watching our industry unravel in waves. The first wave was layoffs, then the second wave had some closings and further contraction,” said Jon. “The third wave saw a bunch of competitors just disappear.”
Yet, while residential was falling off, the commercial market was still strong. Hence, the CFS component side of the business had opportunities for success. That’s where Rick enters the story.
Rick Ponce had an architectural degree, but didn’t know much about trusses. “I remember when I found out about an open truss designer position. I thought to myself, ‘I think we spent 15 minutes talking about those in class one time,’” said Rick. Disregarding the failings of the educational system to adequately prepare him for his future career, he started designing wood trusses. Unfortunately, when the residential market dried up, so did his employer. While it was unusual for anyone to be hiring during the downturn, Rick had already made a name for himself in the market and landed on his feet with a different job.
“Rick is just that kind of guy,” said Jon. “His attitude differentiates him from most other people. I can understand why someone would go out on a limb and hire him at that time. You couldn’t afford to lose him.”
Then one day, management at Rick’s new job approached him and asked him if he wanted to start a CFS component line at their plant in Southern California. “I didn’t know anything about steel or that part of the market,” said Rick. “But I thought, why not?” He started doing research and figured he needed $5,000 to build his production line. He was also given a sales guy to help, but quickly it was determined he was too expensive, so essentially Rick had to do it all on his own.
Fires of Hell
“The wood truss side of the business was really struggling, so when I landed a few jobs, the company asked what else I needed to succeed,” said Rick. “Then I landed a big military barracks job at Camp Pendleton, which really got the company’s attention.” Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse (it was late 2009), and shortly after they produced and delivered the CFS components for the first barracks, the company decided to close the entire Southern California plant.
“I still had the Pendleton Contract, so I quickly wrote up a business plan to successfully continue building steel components in the Southern California market,” said Rick. “I shopped it around to a few companies, and one of them agreed to invest in it.” That company happened to be Jon’s employer.
“We got involved in the Southern California market in 2007,” said Jon. “And while the residential market fell apart, commercial was still strong. So we ended up having a lot of success offering complete designs, which our competitors weren’t doing.” However, as the commercial market began to dry up in 2009, it was evident there wasn’t enough work for multiple CFS component manufacturers. Rick’s proposal couldn’t have come at a better time, and so the two steel operations became one entity.
Had the construction market improved more swiftly, Integra Steel Truss might never have been born. However, as we all know, from late 2009 through 2011, conditions got steadily worse. The company Jon and Rick worked for struggled along with everyone else to survive the economic downturn. By early 2012, both Jon and Rick, who by then had a strong working relationship, both felt it was time to try something different.
“I started interviewing at different companies,” said Jon. “But it quickly became evident that moving into another industry facing the same struggles wasn’t really what I was looking for.” Jon decided to forge out on his own, but he knew the only way he could succeed would be to have Rick start the journey with him.
Fortunately, Rick was more than willing. “I had joked with Jon earlier that we should parachute together when we left,” remembered Rick. “The funniest part was that he took me seriously.”
“What we really needed for Integra to get off the ground was one big contract,” said Jon. “Throughout my career, we had made a number of contacts and built relationships with builder clients across the country.” It was one of those companies that Jon turned to when the time came to pitch Integra. The builder had a large military barracks project in Washington and they were finally bidding it out after months of delay. “I went to them and essentially asked them to be our first customer,” said Jon.
Rick put his own two-cents in and practically promised they could deliver the CFS components in four weeks, even though they didn’t have a production facility or any employees at the time. How’s that for bravado? “
So, while Jon focused on securing financing and worked with their new client on all the design work, Rick once again figured out the bare minimum he needed to start a CFS component production line. “This time, I had the benefit of knowing I could do it,” said Rick.
Beyond the four-week timeframe, there were some significant challenges Jon and Rick faced. On the design side, Jon found out from the builder they needed to do what was called a “blast load” analysis. “Because one side of the building fronted along a road, we had to design the trusses to withstand a potential explosion,” said Jon. “Even our CFS supplier hadn’t done it before, so there was a lot coordination that needed to happen, including a top secret computer modeling computation the government supplied.” Essentially, they had to model the truss stiffness, and eventually had to modify the truss design to accommodate the blast load.
In addition, the builder decided to construct the entire roof system on the ground and hoist it as a single unit for installation. “So we ended up working with a specialty engineer of theirs to identify the pick points and then we modified the truss and bracing design to accommodate those loads,” said Jon. Finally, this job had a series of Building Information Management (BIM) requirements. To help in that regard, Integra’s designer created the 3D computer model of the building for the builder to use.
The production side was not without its challenges either. “First off, we didn’t have a production facility,” said Rick. “We ended up leasing a building simply because I drove past it one day and noticed the ‘for lease’ sign.” Rick also had to design and set up the production lines at the new facility, a task that included several trips to Home Depot.
In the end, their suppliers were the heroes. “If it hadn’t been for the support of our suppliers, I don’t know if we would have pulled it off,” admitted Rick. From their CFS supplier to the screw fastener supplier, they worked with the vendors they had known from their previous employer. “All of them went the extra mile to help ensure this first job was a success,” agreed Rick and Jon.
A First Step on a (Hopefully) Long Journey
“Our first delivery of components had to fit on eight trucks; that’s all the room we had,” said Rick. Fortunately, they all fit, and with that delivery, Integra Steel Truss was officially in business.
With that project delivered, Integra has already turned its sights onto another large military contract. “That’s one cool aspect of steel jobs: you get to approach each job with a new design,” said Jon. Fortunately, both Jon and Rick have the design experience to make it work. “I envision we will both be doing our fair share of design on the jobs we each bring in,” agreed Rick.
“Ultimately, with the help of the state-of-the art software and a trusted, tested design team, we are limited only by our creativity,” commented Jon. “That’s one of the best things about the components industry.”
Indeed, these two “men of steel” are proving a new company can be forged out of the ashes of the past years of struggle and succeed in this industry.