Tacoma’s Jesse Co. rocks heavy metal
If it’s big, complex, and made of metal, Tacoma’s Jesse Co. will take it on
Tacoma-based metal fabricator and machinery producer Jesse Co. recently delivered the superstructure of a 144-car ferry by loading the 1,600-ton component on a barge and shipping it to Vigor Industrial’s Harbor Island Shipyard in Seattle.
That in a nutshell is the model for many of the high-profile projects handled by the relatively low-profile company: Fabricating and assembling big, unwieldy metal structures, often delivered by water to customers because they’re too big to travel by land.
Jesse itself may not be well known to the general populace, but its handiwork is everywhere. The pedestrian bridge of looping metal circles at the Museum of Flight in Tukwila, and the structure of the tilted metal cone at Tacoma’s Museum of Class were both made by Jesse. Ferry docks throughout Washington and Alaska are outfitted with components fabricated by Jesse.
The company is also putting together the connectors that will allow light-rail tracks and trains to move from land to the I-90 floating bridge. And it’s done scores of aerospace projects including a Boeing wind tunnel and a satellite shipping container for Lockheed Martin and the Air Force.
The market for major metal fabrication projects is both regional and global and veers from feast to famine and back, says Gust Erickson, manager of sales and estimating at Jesse. Right now the 150-employee company is enjoying a backlog of work, even with one of its markets – Alaska – still feeling the effects of the swoon in oil prices (the company not only does projects for that sector but for state-sponsored projects such as ferry docks that are financed in large part by oil dollars). “Just about every ferry terminal in Alaska has our steel in front of it,” Erickson says.
Jesse doesn’t do a lot of fabricating structural steel for buildings unless there’s some complexity involved, he says, “What we sell is high-skilled labor” with the experience in taking on big and complex projects. On the Museum of Flight Bridge, for example, “There [are] not a lot of like pieces on that job.”
Jesse, which is located on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, also has a niche in building things that can be shipped by water to the point of installation. The Boeing wind tunnel was originally ordered as sub-assemblies; Jesse proposed building it in one piece to make sure everything fit, then disassembling it for shipment by water. That, Erickson says, wound up saving the contractor months.
“What’s how we get a lot of our jobs,” he adds. Customers come in asking for a project in parts, but Jesse will propose shipping it whole or in large units. “Anything we can do here in the shop is a lot more efficient than doing it on the field,” he says.
The company was founded in 1976 by Darrell Jesse who, wanting to try his own approach to customer service and running a shop, struck out on his own. “We didn’t even have the machine tools when we got the first job,” Erickson says. And age 79, Darrell Jesse is still involved in the company; his son Phil is general manager.
Phil Jesse has added another line of business to the company: machine tools such as pipe benders, cutter and clamping devices. Erickson says the tooling side of the business can represent 10 percent to as much as 25 percent of annual sales, with Jesse tooling found in markets from China to Egypt.
Metal fabrication and assembly tends to be more localized to Washington and Alaska. To the south are such Portland-area companies as Greenberry, Thompson Metal Fab and the former Oregon Iron Works (now part of Vigor). Go far enough east and there’s competition from Utah shops. Gulf Coast companies sometimes compete for water-delivery jobs, and the foreign firms are a concern if price is the primary factor in choosing a winning bid. “If we find out someone is shopping overseas we don’t’ even waste time to do the estimate” because labor costs are so much lower, Erickson says.
Global factors like trade disputes also affect Jesse’s business. Just the treat of tariffs on imported steel has sent domestic-steel prices up, Erickson adds.
But even with those factors, Jesse is optimistic about its outlook. “We just came off a bust time and we currently have a lot of backlog,” Erickson says. Major projects in that backlog include Sound Transit and the rebuilding of Colman Dock for the state ferry system. There hasn’t been a lot of Alaska ferry terminal work in recent years, “but that sounds like it’s coming back,” Erickson says.