June 27, 2014
Springs Fabrication has humble beginnings, stereotypical of many successful American businesses. As it turns out, there's a reason that's a stereotype.
Tom Neppl’s story wasn’t covered in Who Owns the Ice House?, a popular book on entrepreneurship, but it could have been. In April the president of Springs Fabrication spoke at Innovate Colorado Springs, an event organized by the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, of which Neppl is chairman of the board.
“To my knowledge, it’s the first time that the chair position has gone to someone in the manufacturing community,” he said.
Neppl said he stays involved with local business organizations to help foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the community. “It’s an organic process,” he said. “We want to attract good employees to the area, for sure. But more than that, we want to attract people who will start businesses. They in turn provide more employment, help build a local talent base, which builds community and culture—and if you don’t have that, it becomes very difficult to attract people to an area.”
Also speaking at the event was Gary Schoeniger, co-author of Who Owns the Ice House? and founder of The Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, an organization that debunks a lot of popular misconceptions about how people start businesses.
Business schools and media tend to focus on breakthrough, often high-tech ideas. But as Schoeniger explained, this isn’t the norm. Most entrepreneurs don’t have entirely new ideas. They don’t form formal business plans, and they don’t perform comprehensive research. Start-up capital is usually minimal, often funded by family and friends.
A company’s humble beginnings are usually improvised and unstructured. The only common thread, in fact, is that most successful entrepreneurs keenly perceive customer needs and aim to fill them. The pursuit isn’t grandiose. People just cobble together the resources to provide products and services others want or need to buy. From these humble beginnings they scale up, hire people, and build a brand. At some point—be it because of changes in market demands, technology, or anything else—the business approach becomes obsolete. So the owner needs to look inward and reinvent the business, this time dedicating staff and resources to the effort. It’s a continual cycle of renewal.
This could describe numerous people who start job shops and custom fabricators across the country. They don’t have proprietary machinery or technology. They simply identify a need and work to fulfill it, and Spring Fabrication’s Neppl did just that. In 1986 he and a business partner founded the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based industrial fabricator with no large investors backing them.
“We actually had less than no money,” he said, “but that provided the motivation. When you hit rock bottom, you face your demons and go do something about it.”
They had no breakthrough technology to offer anyone, just technical know-how and a few old machine tools in a garage. The shop launched during the tail end of a construction boom in Colorado, and work was scarce for the first few years, during which Neppl’s business partner left to pursue other opportunities.
But by the end of the 1980s Neppl got his first big break when a water purification company asked for his fabrication expertise. He then landed a few more projects in the same business, and the work grew from there to jobs in the energy markets, oil and gas, alternative energy, pressure vessels, and more. He now runs one of the largest industrial fabricators in the region, with 186 employees and three locations. It has evolved into a company with national and even global reach. In April, for instance, the shop was working on a large fabricated assembly that was part of a biofuels project destined for India.
Like Schoeniger described, Springs Fabrication—No. 19 on this year's FAB 40—has reinvented itself over the years by serving new markets. Being a project-based shop, the fabricator’s product mix is forever evolving. Opportunities in oil and gas have really driven growth over the past few years. Meanwhile, water purification projects—work similar to those that helped the shop grow in the late 1980s—are nowhere to be seen.
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