By Mike Dano | Oct 10, 2013
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Industrial machine maker
A high-profile role at Fukushima’s reactor fire paid dividends, but adaptability and determination drive growth at Tom Neppl’s Colorado Springs manufacturer
Tom Neppl describes the project as "unprecedented."
Neppl, president and CEO of Springs Fabrication in Colorado Springs, said his company completed a component manufacturing project that normally would have taken six months or more in just five weeks. "We did it in record time," he boasts.
Why the rush? It was 2011 and the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant had just suffered a catastrophic failure, and as a result was releasing radioactive seawater into the ocean. As Neppl explained, Fukushima officials found a potential solution from Kurion, a company in California, that had designed a system intended to absorb radiation from seawater. But the solution existed only on a drawing board--it needed to be built and shipped to Fukushima as soon as possible.
Neppl said Springs Fab and its 210 employees took the lead on the project by assembling the design's main components and shipping them to Fukushima in giant Russian Antonov transport planes.
"The system did its job, and within a few months they had something like 80 percent of the radiation filtered out of the water," Neppl said. "It's still operating. They expect it to operate for 10 years."
Springs Fab's work on the Fukushima project is even more impressive considering Neppl's rough road in getting the company off the ground. Neppl said he started the company with manufacturing equipment he and a partner purchased from their failed former employer. However, "we really didn't have any plan or any strategy," Neppl said. The operation, based in Neppl's garage, struggled along on odd jobs for years: "The first three years were extremely challenging," Neppl said, adding that his partner left after just a year.
So why not throw in the towel? "I'm not one to give up on things," Neppl said.
Neppl's break came in the early 1990s, when he began landing solid, long-term customers. After becoming established, Springs Fab recorded relatively steady growth that has so far included the acquisition of around half a dozen other companies. Indeed, Neppl said Springs Fab just completed its most recent acquisition in September, of a Broomfield company that designs and builds high-tech containment devices used in biohazard and nuclear environments.
Now, Neppl expects the company he started in his garage to exceed $30 million in sales next year. Springs Fab is headquartered in Colorado Springs in a 100,000-square-foot facility, with satellite operations in Fort Collins, Loveland and elsewhere.
Challenges: "The primary challenge we have right now is centered around people," Neppl said, explain that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right kind of skilled manufacturers that Springs Fab needs. To address this, Neppl said Springs Fab is actively searching for the right kind of candidates, including in markets outside of the United States, and is also offering aggressive compensation and training programs.
Opportunities: Neppl explained that Springs Fab rides market swells, and that markets including mining and renewable energy are currently on the downswing. As a result, the company is shifting gears toward markets that are on the upsurge: "Right now traditional energy--oil and gas--are very strong in the U.S.," Neppl said. "So we're engaging in a lot of those opportunities." Construction is another area Neppl sees growth in.
"We sort of reinvent the company every couple of years, to whatever markets are hot and wherever the money is being spent and invested," Neppl said.
Needs: Neppl said Springs Fab's needs are directly related to the company's challenges: "We could increase the business if we had access to people," he said, explaining that the firm needs skilled workers to continue expanding.