Share this article

print logo

AREA COMPANY EXPANDS ITS SKILLS TO SURVIVE IN A CHANGING ECONOMY

It's not everyday that David Hohl gets a request to remove a 400,000-pound generator from storage and cart it off to a waiting Ukrainian cargo jet to be shipped off to U.S. troops in Iraq. But it was up his alley.

Hohl has made his living doing the heavy lifting, installing, and construction that large industrial companies need to run their shop.

He and his company, Hohl Industrial Services, haul heavy equipment and machinery within a plant or over hundreds of miles, install it and hook it up. They rebuild bridges and machinery. And they provide steel parts and beams for construction work, including ladders and railings for catwalks.

Based in Tonawanda, Hohl Industrial Services is a 54-year-old, family-owned company that has already developed a hefty clientele and reputation among heavy industry in Western New York. Customers include General Motors Corp., DuPont Co., Ford Motor Corp., American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings, American Brass, Curtis Screw Co., Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America and the New York Power Authority, among others.

"Everything that has to do with heavy industry, we're interested in," said Hohl, 45.

As the economy slowed in the region and the industrial sector has declined, Hohl Industrial has expanded its geographic reach and services to boost revenue and continue its growth. Most recently, it introduced a new line of business to target clients the company hasn't reached in the past: developers, construction managers and general contractors.

It now has an automated production line to fabricate structural steel beams. That means taking basic steel beams purchased from a mill, cutting them to the desired size, welding baseplates, drilling holes used to link them together, and even painting them for clients.

The company used to do that by hand, taking hours at a time. With the new technology, drilling a steel beam takes 10 minutes. And it can handle 1,000 tons of steel per month.

It's counting on the new division, called "Steel Beams for Less," to draw business in school and commercial building construction. Already, it won the bidding to provide 120 tons of steel for a utility building alongside the new 26-floor hotel being built in Niagara Falls by the Seneca Nation.

"The new machine makes us faster, more efficient and more accurate," said Hohl, whose rough hands reveal the time he has spent on the manufacturing floor of his company. "We consider this a growth area for us."

Hohl's success demonstrates the success old-line industrial companies can have if they are able to make changes in their business model in response to changing economic conditions and demand. But it also shows the value of knowing when you're ready for such a change.

"They're at a maturity stage in a number of areas of their business. They've got the market sewn up for the other activities they do," said Mike Parnell, president of Wire Rope and Rigging Consultants in Woodland, Wash. "They know what it takes to grow a business, and it doesn't scare them to throw some money into this other thing and see if it will work."

The hauling, millwrighting, and rigging company was founded by Hohl's oldest uncle as a materials handler before adding equipment installation, field services, hauling, and metals fabrication. Hohl and his father bought the company from his father's brother 15 years ago, and Hohl became the sole owner more than seven years ago.

The company employs about 125 workers, as well as 50 to 75 subcontracted employees to handle jobs Hohl doesn't normally do itself. It owns an array of equipment -- forklifts, tractor-trailers, cranes, hydraulic trailers, four-post lift systems -- stored in the vehicle bay of the Tonawanda plant.

Last year, Hohl Industrial -- which is technically two companies -- took in $27 million in sales. That's been flat for the last few years, both because of and despite the recession and a lackluster economic recovery.

But the struggling Western New York economy has made Hohl recognize the need to broaden its reach and expand its skills. Two years ago, the company bought rival Gibraltar Industrial Services, a rigging contractor unrelated to Gibraltar Steel. The deal included Gibraltar's assets, contracts and customers.

At the same time, the company moved into its current facility, more than doubling its capacity. Hohl doubled again when the other tenant in the building later moved out, giving it room for the new steel beam line.

It recently earned the ISO 9001:2000 certification from the International Standards Organization, which means its work procedures adhere to consistent guidelines. And it now has certification from the American Institute of Steel Construction to fabricate steel for any purpose, including bridges. In particular, it earned a "fracture critical endorsement" that says it can make the critical parts that keep bridges up.

The company has also been expanding its geographic reach, seeking contracts throughout the eastern United States. It's done jobs in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, New England, Alabama and South Carolina. It's even making plans to open a "field services" facility in Ohio, although the steel fabrication work would remain in Tonawanda.

"We've basically worked all over the East Coast at some time," Hohl said. "In order to grow a company, you have to look outside this area."

But the most unique task was the request from the U.S. Army to move the generator and turbine sitting in storage. The Army even asked Hohl to speed up the process, citing "national defense."

Hohl worked with a freight company from Texas, state transportation officials, state troopers and local permitting offices to quickly get the parts of the generator to Niagara Falls Airport, where a pair ofAntonov An-124-100 cargo planes flew in for the pickup. Hohl's crews worked 24 hours a day for two weeks to crate, block and sort the pieces, and ultimately had just 14 hours to load each of the aircraft without incurring significant extra charges.

"This was certainly something we had never experienced before," Hohl said. "It was very fast-track. We were hauling these components in the middle of the night."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com