By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Mar 29, 2016
Enclosure and equipment fabrication
A decade after Dave's father, William Easter, and Al Owens started their namesake manufacturer in 1955, Easter-Owens faced a crisis.
Then located a stone's throw from the South Platte River in Denver, the company took a big hit from the storm of the century. "The '65 flood pretty much wiped us out," Dave says.
William steadfastly rebuilt -- turning down government loans -- on the same site. Then 10, Dave says his post-flood initiation to the company involved a shovel, mud, and chewing gum. "There was all of this bubble gum," he says, thanks to a gum factory that had been deluged. "I started selling the gum at school."
Following that first business foray, Dave joined Easter-Owens full-time in the early 1970s and moved the company to Arvada in the early 1980s.
The company now fabricates and finishes a wide range of electrical enclosures, industrial control panels, metal structures, and other equipment at its 55,000-square-foot facility in Arvada.
As much have things have changed over the decades, they've also stayed the same. "We've built for the same customers for a long time," he says.
Since day one, Easter-Owens has focused on metal fabrication for electrical installations. "My dad and Al were familiar with that kind of work," says Dave.
The customer roster has grown to include utilities, OEMs, electrical contractors, and other companies, as Easter-Owens now supplies products for electrical grids all over the world.
About 85 percent of its orders are custom. "We have a handful of standard products," says Dave, reciting the company's tagline: "If you can think it, we can build it."
Transportation is a big market, as Easter-Owens made numerous enclosures for Denver Union Station and other RTD FasTracks projects in metro Denver.
"Energy has been big for us: oil and gas, anything for coal, solar, wind -- anything with energy," says Dave. As fossil fuels’ prices have skidded, those kind of sales "have slowed down," he says. "There's still activity there -- new pipelines, redoing pipelines, storage. At least we're not on the drilling side."
But the company has enjoyed growth in the 2010s thanks in large part to a contract to supply new electrical infrastructure for the Minuteman missile silos dotting the Great Plains. "The government chose Siemens and Siemens chose us," says Dave of the "big break."
Before that, Easter-Owens diversified into automated electronic controls for the correctional industry. "In the 1990s, half of our work was jails and prisons," he says.
While correctional accounts now account for about 10 percent of sales, Easter-Owens now supplies a much wider range of customers, ranging from Lockheed Martin to Costco.
Easter-Owens is nimbler than large manufacturers, Dave notes. "If it's not in their catalog, they're lost. We don't need a catalog number, we just need a little guidance."
While custom work has remained a company specialty over the decades, the methods have changed. "Back in the day, we would hand-fab everything," says Dave, describing a migration to high-tech punching, machining, and laser-cutting. "It's all been automated today. It's hard to be competitive when you're hand-fabbing everything."
Diversification and automation have helped catalyze steady growth. Revenue has topped $16 million in recent years as Dave's daughter, Erica Easter, has ascended to vice president. "Our growth curve has been very good," he says.
Challenges: "To find the next new market," answers Dave. "We're looking at some interesting markets that might be good for us. We're really trying to enhance our product offerings."
Adds Erica: "It's very hard to find young people who are qualified and have an interest in this sort of craft." A resurgence in relevant programs in high schools is helping, she adds, "but they went away for a long time."
"We have a fairly aged workforce," he notes. "That's our challenge now -- bringing new guys in. We need to rebuild that talent and that trade."
Opportunities: "I think there's a lot of opportunity in transportation," says Dave, citing light rail as a prime target. "We're trying to get into more cities."
Smaller data centers represent another sector with growth potential, he adds.
Needs: "What we really need is less regulation," says Dave. "It's one thing after another. If it's not healthcare, it's something else."
Says Erica of regulations in oil and gas: "Every state has a different set of requirements."
Dave says he finds over-regulation insulting. "It almost gets under your skin when they're questioning your products," he explains. "We haven't been in business for 61 years putting out shoddy products."