A Century and a Half of Success

Champion Bridge Company

The history of Champion Bridge Company stretches all the way back to the mid-1800s when founder Zimri Wall began work on a range of construction projects in Ohio. In 1871 he partnered with his brother Jonathan to build the picturesque Martinsville Covered Bridge, which is still used to this day. The brothers went on to develop a new iron truss bridge they patented as the “Champion Wrought Iron Arch Bridge,” which led to the company’s current name.

After passing through several different hands and business models over the decades, Champion landed with the Randy Dell family; he and his wife have been sole owners of the company since 2016. Remarkably, the family operates the business out of the same Wilmington, Ohio facility that the company built in 1893.

Champion has evolved and expanded over its 150-year history and today the 16-person team primarily supplies structural steel to general contractors in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus. The company is also active in surrounding states and has sent steel as far as Hawaii, Yugoslavia, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Pakistan, Kuwait, Mexico, and Thailand. Wherever the customer, Champion is equipped to supply all of their metal needs, providing custom steel fabrication from large structures to small farm implements. In addition, the team manufactures and rents Strong Haulers heavy duty trailers and provides delivery, pickup, and dumping services.

How does a company flourish for a century and a half? Developing strong relationships has been key, as has delivering a quality product on time. Estimator/Project Manager Noah M. Dell uses Jim Collins’ Flywheel model to explain how the company has continued to move forward while maintaining these key qualities since his family took the helm. “If you get a set number of things in order and if you do those things repeatedly and do them well then it’s just like trying to build momentum on a flywheel,” he says. “It’s a lot of effort to get the wheel going in the beginning, but if you continually push in the same direction and do it for a long period of time, eventually that wheel gains its own momentum and will almost start spinning itself. And so we’ve really been working on building that momentum.”

The first component on the Champion flywheel is relationships, which set the ball rolling for much more. “It starts with the relationships,” Dell says. “But once we get the opportunity to work with someone, the next step is just being as proactive as we can as far as managing the jobs that we are doing with them – just making those extra efforts to do everything we can to service the job well, to help the customer get the job done.”

This includes delivering a product that lives up to expectations. “The next step in that flywheel is fabricating our steel accurately. It doesn’t do anybody good if we deliver steel that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t serve the purpose that it needs to. So we put a lot of emphasis on the quality.” Employees are highly trained and have extensive experience to ensure every job is carried out to the highest standards.

The next step on that flywheel is on time delivery. “We are in the construction industry and the construction industry is very much driven by schedules,” Dell says. Champion’s work is particularly time critical. “The job can’t proceed until we get our frame in place,” he says. “So being able to devote the resources that we need, to be willing to work the overtime, and using suppliers at our disposal to make sure we’re meeting project schedules is just another big step in the process.”

All of these elements work together to bring overall, lasting success. “We know if we do those things – if we are proactively managing the job and fabricating accurately and delivering on time – then that’s just going to strengthen the relationships that we built,” Dell says. “So that’s where the wheel comes back to the top and strengthens those relationships, which gives us the opportunity to do it again.”

This multi-step business strategy has worked so well that the company achieved 100 percent growth in 2018-2019. Dell points out that the phenomenal recent growth is because, after several years of building a solid foundation with the flywheel business model, the wheel’s momentum picked up. “It appears to be an overnight success, but behind the scenes it is really just constantly pushing on that wheel in that same direction for a long period of time. And you just build enough relationships with enough people that things seem to take off.”

The company values are another key component of Champion’s lasting success. “We’ve got three main, core values for the company,” Dell shares. “Our aim is to serve others and to work hard and to give thanks. We try to base all of our hiring decisions and all of our people decisions on whether everyone’s living up to our core values. We know that the better we can do that, the stronger the culture we have, the more it sets us apart from other companies, so we think that’s definitely a competitive advantage.”

Giving thanks stands out from the typical list of company values. “It has been said many times that gratitude is the mother of all virtues,” Dell says. “If you go about life with an attitude of entitlement or always whining about how difficult a job is, or how someone’s not looking out for your interests, then it can just really sour an entire culture. We know the answer to that is just recognizing all the things that we do have to give thanks for – and there’s always something to be thankful for.”

This attitude of gratitude extends throughout the company to make a positive impact through the entire operation. “If you are able to frame your mindset with gratitude then the next step is it opens up your mind to proactive thinking – what can we do to improve the situation rather than just whine about it?”

The company’s values have created a warm, family culture that keeps employees with Champion for the long term. Owner Randy Dell has been with Champion for 44 years and before retiring, his partner was with the company for 43 years. Another employee just retired after nearly 42 years, and others have been working for the company for 20 or 30 years and are still going strong.

Naturally, the team is eager to keep the 150-year success story going. “Our goal is definitely to continue pushing on that flywheel,” Dell says. And, if they keep that flywheel going, Champion can fully live up to the first company value – serving others. “Our mission statement, if you will, is to build enduring relationships in our family, community, and industry so that we can better serve. So we know that we want as many opportunities as we can to serve the families that work here in our local community and the industry.”

The team plans to continue expanding the company in order to meet these goals, and this will require a major change in the next few years. After 127 years in its current building, Champion needs more space. “[We are] reaching some physical limitations with the building so, in order to keep growing, it will require building a new shop,” says Dell. With a new shop in the works, a résumé that stretches back to the 19th century, a solid business model, and strong company values, Champion Bridge is all set to make its mark in the 21st century – and beyond.

From Here to There

Throughout history, humans have been limited by simple logistics – how to get from here to there? For thousands of years, venturing out of one’s village required braving wild and rugged terrain. Travel was inherently dangerous. Roads were rough and rudimentary, if there were any at all.

September 30, 2020, 9:33 PM EDT