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Omaha Magazine

Forging A Legacy: Drake-Williams & Owen Industries

Jul 24, 2020 08:52AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Derrick Fitton, director of operations Drake-Williams Structural Division

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha isn’t typically associated with the steel industry, but in Drake-Williams Steel and Owen Industries Inc. it claims longtime competitors with century-plus lifespans. 

Drake-Williams has been in continuous operation since 1882—most of that time as a family-owned company—and employs 260 people at its four locations. Owen got its start in 1885 and it’s been family-owned for about 100 years. They employ a workforce of 450 at five locations.

As fabricators, each has contributed to the structural spines of signature Omaha skyline fixtures and streetscape features. Each has survived market upheavals and pressures. Besides savvy leadership in uncertain times, they’ve stayed relevant by adopting state-of-the-art technologies to provide custom products for wide-ranging projects. 

Each recognizes in the other a legacy business forged from steel.

“Good competitors make you a better business, regardless of the industry,” Owen Industries CEO Tyler Owen said. 

“I would say we have mutual respect for one another,” said Derrick Fitton, director of operations for the Drake-Williams Structural Division. 

Drake-Williams began as Wilson Steam Boiler south of downtown. The company became Drake-Williams Steel in 1958. In the 1990s, it invested in a plant at 11th and Jones streets that covers 12 acres. The area’s gained new traction with the North Downtown redevelopment, including the New North Makerhood district. Across town, the South Omaha location today is company headquarters and home to the rebar division. Acquisitions have expanded Drake’s footprint to Iowa and Colorado.

Owen traces its start to Paxton & Vierling Iron Works in Chicago and Omaha. In the 1920s, Fred Owen came from the Windy City to grow the structural fabrication business in Omaha. The enterprising Owen bought the company in 1937. His son Ed opened shops in Carter Lake and Sioux City, Iowa. Ed’s sons, Robert and Richard, entered the fold and new facilities followed in Fargo, North Dakota, and Wichita, Kansas.

All divisions came under the Owen Industries banner in 1986. Today, Robert and his son Tyler Owen lead a company that supplies products to customers nationally and internationally.

Though Drake transitioned from family ownership to an employee stock ownership program in 2014, it retains the core values of its family roots. Many employees go back to when fifth generation owner-brothers John and Dave Williams still ran things.

“‘If you look across our organization today,” said Drake support services director Jon Eden, “you’ll see many if not all our managers have come up through the ranks.”

Jay Stewart started as an estimator before becoming executive vice president, and is now CEO.

Core values and promoting from within also animate Owen Industries, where Tyler takes pride in what his family built before him.

“I’m honored and fortunate to have the opportunity to navigate the business into its second century and possibly its fifth generation,” Tyler said. “It’s humbling to think of the hard work that went into it. My grandfather Ed made critical investments in new equipment, including our first coil line in the 1960s, which led to our now sizable operations. My father, Robert, made sizable investments in laser cutting equipment in the 1990s.”

Products fabricated by Drake-Williams undergird such local landmarks as Baxter Arena, TD Ameritrade Park, TD Ameritrade headquarters, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, and Buffett Cancer Center. It provides railroads with everything from handrails to steel bridge spans.

Owen Industries sells steel parts to original equipment manufactures such as John Deere and Bobcat. Its structural steel fabrication products get used in everything from nuclear power plants and uranium processing facilities to commercial high rises to bridge girders.  

As both companies source steel domestically, they experience few supply issues. A challenge, Tyler said, is “the wild swings in base steel pricing.” He added, “Tariffs have driven the price of steel up, which ultimately leads to a price crash. We’ve recently developed a futures trading mechanism which helps us flatten out the ups and downs. We are able to trade futures contracts on steel that allow us to offset upturns in downturns that may occur in the next six to 12 months. Very few other companies employ this method to flatten the average moving cost of steel in their inventory.”

“Because we’re so closely tied to it, the construction market has a very significant impact on us,” Eden said. “Since our raw materials account for a significant portion of end product’s cost, our prices change relative to the raw material costs. Some tariffs and trade deals issued over the last 12 months have fairly affected the raw material market, making it more volatile. Luckily here in the Midwest we’re sheltered from some of that. We are now back to about an historical average.”

The impact of COVID-19 has been felt.

“The virus has slowed projects consistently throughout all commercial markets, especially in larger markets. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there and uncertainty slows decisions related to capital expenditures,” Tyler said.

“Having the well of knowledge of having managed things for decades upon decades really gives us the foundation to weather these types of storms,” Eden said. “We want to continue to build on that foundation so that when the next crisis comes, and it will come because that’s just the nature of the economic cycle, we’ll be ready to make sure we can keep everyone working and we can have success afterwards.”

“This is a difficult business,” Tyler said, “but we’ve surrounded ourselves with an incredible team to help us weather the good and bad years.”

Diversification is a strategy to leverage risk and tap opportunity across several industries.

“Our business volume follows more of the general construction industry, which is greatly impacted by the overall economic climate. While a significant portion of our business is correlated to the construction industry, we have made progress in diversifying into other industries that have steel requirements,” Eden noted. “Railroads, agriculture, and industrial work continues to be a very important part of our success.”

Investments in new facilities have helped each company grow. Investing in their people through training, professional development, and tuition reimbursement programs has also paid dividends.

Opportunities abound for high salaried skilled labor jobs. Being able to find a ready supply of skilled workers is key in an industry where labor supply shortages have been common since training in the trades took a hit in schools decades ago. 

These two companies are both encouraged by a resurgence in trade programs at high schools and colleges and actively support them, as this resurgence means the ability for the companies to forge greater relationships, and a bigger legacy.

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This article was printed in the August/September 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.