A Family Business Celebrating 60 Years

Ben’s Structural Fabrication

Ben’s Structural Fabrication has the in-house resources to provide turnkey structural solutions to architects, contractors, and engineers on large-scale construction projects. These resources include expertise in drafting, detailing, three-dimensional modeling, structural steel fabrication, and miscellaneous metals fabrication.

This family-owned-and-operated business is celebrating its milestone sixtieth anniversary this year. It was founded in 1959 under the name Ben’s Tool and Iron Works by a blacksmith named Benjamin Schwartz who was known for his skills repairing granite tools. By the 1960s, the second generation of the family joined the business, and its product portfolio grew to incorporate railings and stairways for commercial use.

After settling into the structural steel market in the 1970s, the company moved from St. Cloud to Waite Park, Minnesota. Ben’s Structural Fabrication now has a shop filled with modern computer numerical control (CNC) equipment and advanced technology, where it employs roughly forty-five people and is in its third generation of family ownership. Most of its work is done in the Upper Midwest of the United States, although it does have repeat customers that have taken the company as far as Florida, California, and New York.

The company is working on expanding its staff numbers, which will allow its revenue to increase as well. “We have an absolutely outstanding team of personnel here from every shop employee all the way through the office. There’s a sense of teamwork and pride in what we do here,” says Craig Miller, Vice President at Ben’s Structural Fabrication.

The company believes that the work environment should be a place where employees are very productive during the week, but that the weekends are meant for free time to recharge and not for working. “No matter how busy we are, and if we do have to work some overtime during the week, the weekends are meant for family and for whatever you want to do personally.”

Structural fabrication is a dangerous field to operate within, and the safety of the employees is a priority. The company takes great pride in its low injury rate, and at the time of writing, it had gone 365 days without any type of lost-time injury. It uses redundancy procedures that are triple-checked to reduce potential errors and increase the level of safety both during the build and when the completed building is in use. This ensures that there are three separate levels of inspection on any product that leaves the shop.

The main challenge for the company is in adapting to market volatility. The construction industry is predominantly a cyclical market, particularly in the Upper Midwest. The struggle to stay consistently busy during such changes has the company looking for new ways to diversify and develop relationships that can provide steady work.

Most competing companies in structural fabrication have to outsource the drafting and detailing services parts of the project. Ben’s Structural Fabrication provides the convenience of an in-house drafting and detailing department, and this allows the company to control all aspects of the operation. Ben’s is able to get involved with projects in the early stages, so it can quickly adapt to the clients’ needs if any details change along the way.

Using advanced software, the company creates 3-dimensional visual models based on the project’s design to estimate the cost and time that it will need. This technology helps clients make informed decisions about the project’s viability and find solutions for potential problems before they arise. The modeling and drafting software Tekla Structures and the production software FabSuite were both recently purchased by Trimble, Inc. These two pieces of software talk to each other, and together, they make a fully integrated detailing, drafting, and production program to help streamline any construction project.

“Two pieces of software we’ve been utilizing for a long number of years now have been purchased by the Trimble Corporation, kind of rebranded a little bit, but their functionality continues to evolve and get more user-friendly, not only for us but also to pass along to our customers,” says Miller.

The company’s primary goal is open and honest communication that creates partnerships with clients that will add value to projects. The company also knows to ensure that delivery of a high-quality project in the field always occurs at the correct time. “We’re driven by a lot of pride in how our workmanship and quality is respected in the industry,” says Miller.

Ben’s Structural Fabrication has taken on a variety of complicated projects for the commercial, industrial, healthcare, and educational industries. It recently completed several million dollar projects for the St. Cloud School District of Minnesota. The new Technical High School can hold up to 1,500 students, and it is unique because of its highly advanced features and equipment.

Designed with sustainability in mind, the project, at 318,629 square feet on 65 acres, required approximately 1,000 tons of structural steel and a significant amount of miscellaneous metals to create the stairways and railings. “It’s a brand new high school complex that included athletic fields as well as a large pool, a big auditorium, a performing arts center, classroom pods, and a learning kitchen so they can be teaching some culinary skills to students to go into culinary careers,” explains Miller.

Site work on the project included three multi-purpose grass fields, one multi-use athletic facility that includes turf field, concessions building and team rooms, a practice football field, two baseball fields, three softball fields, and eight tennis courts. A DNR trout stream also runs through the project.

The downtown area of Eau Claire, Wisconsin is in a major redevelopment area along the riverfront, and the company worked on a public/private funded project in this location for a new performing arts center, meant to inspire local art and culture. The Confluence Arts Center boasts two large theatres as well as practice rooms and community gathering spaces, providing much-needed rehearsal, teaching and support space for UW-Eau Claire’s theater program and a significantly larger performance venue for its nationally renowned music program. The arts center will also host concerts, performances and Broadway-style touring shows that no current campus or community venue can support.

Spanning 155,000 square feet, The Royal Credit Union Theater will include seats for 1,266 guests. The theater’s walls are 93 feet tall and its stage is three times the size of the stage in Eau Claire’s historic State Theatre. The center’s smaller 400-seat Jamf Theater will have portable, folding theatrical chairs that can be set up in multiple rows for performances or removed for receptions, while Visit Eau Claire offices will occupy part of the building’s first floor. The space will include accordion-style garage doors that can open facing Gibson Street during the warmer months. For this project, Ben’s provided over 866 tons of structural steel.

Other notable projects include the Providence Academy Performing Arts Center, the Stillwater High School, the Nicollet County Health and Human Services Facility, the University of North Dakota Core Library and Law Library, Sanford Imagenetics, and the South Dakota State University Indoor Practice Facility.

“From our standpoint, the steel business itself, structural steel, and miscellaneous metals are inherently sustainable because the vast majority of our product that we fabricate every day has been something else in a previous life,” says Miller. The contents of the steel fabricated and used here are between eighty and ninety percent recycled material. Its steel could have originally been a ship, a car, or a building, and that material is reused to create something new.

“The product we use isn’t depleting any great numbers of natural resources in iron ore out of the ground. It’s not taking mining activity to produce most of the product that we utilize every day. It’s one of the more green products in the construction business.”

Ben’s Structural Fabrication has developed a reputation for taking on projects of any size or complexity. It has been recognized with the certification standard for steel building structures from the AISC (American Institute of Steel Construction) continually since 2009, demonstrating its commitment to quality management. Non-profit AISC promotes the benefits of using structural steel in construction and provides resources and networking opportunities to steel fabrication companies in the United States.

Ben’s Structural Fabrication believes that there can always be room to improve efficiency, and for this reason, it will continue to make the investments in equipment, automation, and personnel. “The long-term goal is continued controlled growth, taking us into the next levels of projects and hopefully fine-tuning and becoming more productive and more efficient at what we do on a daily basis,” Miller said of the vision for the future of the sixty-year-old company.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 22, 2019, 7:14 AM EST