The rebirth of a metal fabrication business
GT Fabrication fights back the floodwaters
In September 2011, thanks to changing weather patterns and unintended consequences of water management, GT Fabrication was flooded yet again. The family business has been through this before. Why stay in the game? Because the metal fabrication community was there to help.
Most would have thrown up their hands and walked away. On Sept. 8, 2011, for the fourth time in two decades, the shop floor at GT Fabrication was underwater. A little more than 200 yards from the Susquehanna River in northeast Pennsylvania, the fabricator is a monument to tenacity.
Company President Gene Tighe has no particular attachment to the land. He would like nothing more than to move to higher ground, and he hopes to do just that after a potential deal with FEMA to purchase the current property. It’s certainly in FEMA’s interest to do so. The government institution of last resort is the only organization that can give GT Fabrication flood insurance, and over four floods it has paid the fabricator more than $1 million in claims.
This time around the shop received a $100,000 loan through the Luzerne County Flood Recovery Loan Program, plus $500,000 from its FEMA insurance plan, the maximum amount the company was allowed to purchase. Tighe made sure to stretch that money as far as he could. GT may be a small business, employing 22 before the flood and 17 today, but like any fabricator, it is capital-intensive. It can take serious money to get such a business up and running again.
Years ago GT fabricated and assembled lift chair components for a major wheelchair manufacturer. But shop managers soon saw the writing on the wall. They knew OEMs would be sending their higher-volume production work to China. So they transformed the business into a low-volume, high-product-mix job shop serving diverse industries. The company has handled everything from powder-coated benches for Disneyland to aluminum sound panel barriers for Maryland interstates.
“This is my family, my livelihood,” Tighe said.
Tighe’s father purchased the building in the early 1990s. At that time the last major flood had occurred in 1972, and meteorologists called it a once-in-a-century event. Just to be safe, the Tighes added on a second building that was 4 feet higher, an elevation where no flood on record had reached—at least at the time.
“Right now we could pretty much throw that 100-year-flood label out the window,” said Tighe, adding that dikes built in the 1980s on the Susquehanna downstream haven’t helped matters. “They really didn’t think about what was going to happen upstream. [The area around the building] ended up being a pooling area for a lot of the water.”
Authorities first expected the water to crest at 35 ft. As the hours passed, they revised their forecast to 38 ft.—but even that was wrong. Measuring devices on the river broke, and it was found later that the river ultimately crested at 42 ft.
The short notice gave the people at GT no time to get the cranes needed to move heavy machinery. The fork trucks were loaded up and driven to the top of the hill. Family and co-workers dashed into knee-deep water, carrying out what they could, including all the computers. As the river crested, 15 ft. of water engulfed the fabricator’s 30,000-square-foot shop.
“The only thing we could do was watch,” Tighe recalled. “The water was flowing in so fast, it was surreal. We couldn’t believe it. By the next day the river receded until there was about 2 ft. of water in the building. I put on my rubber waders and went in to see the damage, and it wasn’t good. It was like a bomb went off. The offices collapsed, and the bigger machines had been totally covered with water. It was tough to see.
“But we have experience. We’re good at cleaning up after floods. That’s not something you want to be good at when you’re a metal fabricator, but we just started in. Over two months, for 15 hours a day, we cleaned and pressure-washed.”
On the Monday morning after the flood, Tighe bought his first smartphone so he could receive e-mail. He called local fabricators for help with pending orders. They were able to produce the parts for the same price; GT made no money, but it kept its customers happy.
They salvaged the powder-coat system first, because the company has one of the largest lines in the area. It was a dramatic site, with 25,000 pounds of powder sitting there, all of it soaked and useless. The line has an infrared booster oven, and its platinum pads were damaged. So they replaced the pads using a diagram from the system manufacturer.
The flood water covered the electric panel box, which meant the shop had to get new electrical service, per the local utility’s policy. So for several weeks the shop rented a three-phase generator to run lights and some machines. “We bought diesel fuel every day,” Tighe said. “We probably spent $100 a day just to run and rent the thing.”
The company got back in business within weeks, and in about five months everything was up and running completely—a remarkably short time considering the damage. Tighe bought a lightly used laser cutting machine and a press brake to get fabrication operations back online.
They were able to salvage the turret punch press. They removed the power supply before the flood, to save the electronics. Immediately after the water receded, they sprayed down the press drive motors with copious amounts of oil. They ran the punch tooling through a surface grinder, and then with the help of a local machine tech, repaired internal punch press components. Ultimately, the company spent $10,000 to get the machine up and running.
These were heroic efforts, to be sure, but why go through all the trouble? Another flood could happen tomorrow, really. Tighe found his answer on the Monday after the flood, when his new smartphone started ringing. Customers and competitors alike checked in, and before long, workers from competing shops showed up to start sweeping and cleaning up the mess. The local metal fabrication community reached out to help.
“I thank them to this day,” Tighe said. “If they ever need my help, I help them. And they’re there for me. There’s a respect factor there, and there’s not a lot of that in this country anymore.”
A supportive, close business community is a precious thing these days, so precious that company leaders like Tighe fight back the floodwaters to stay in the game.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.