Muscatine company's compassion may lead to seawall project

Pending New Jersey legislation will bar Fabricators Plus' labor

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An act of kindness by an Eastern Iowa company in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy may lead to a contract to build a seawall on Staten Island and potentially other storm-related construction projects.

The New Jersey Senate has passed a bill that would bar nonunion contractors such as Fabricators Plus of Muscatine from receiving Hurricane Sandy-related reconstruction projects. The New Jersey Assembly will consider the bill, and if passed by that chamber, it would go to Gov. Chris Christie for either his signature or veto.

Doug Buster, president and co-owner of Fabricators Plus, never hesitated when team manager Nick Chrisopulos asked if he could send a team of employees to the East Coast to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.

"I said, 'Sure, go ahead,' and Nick said, 'That's good, because I already did it,'" Buster said. "We sent several employees and a pickup truck and trailer with a generator and saws.

"We weren't looking to make any money. We just wanted to help people who needed it."

Chrisopulos has experience in hurricane relief efforts. When he was employed by a Chicago-area company, he used eight weeks of his vacation to help New Orleans residents clean up after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

"Nick said the destruction he saw after Katrina was life changing," Buster recalled. "His daughter told him, 'Dad, we have to do something for these people.' Nick went into a McDonald's and ordered 500 hamburgers to feed people who were devastated and starving.

"Five hundred hamburgers wasn't enough, but it was something."

Chrisopulos's employer sent him back to New Orleans with a crew to work on the repair of Harrah’s Casino on the edge of the historic French Quarter. A similar situation led to Fabricators Plus being considered to provide welders to construct a 1.5-mile steel seawall on Staten Island.

"Nick and another of our team members have experience building a seawall," Buster said. "He was approached by a guy that he met the first day they were out there and asked if we knew how to build a steel seawall. He told the guy that we could, and that's how we got the job."

Fabricators Plus has been constructing products from steel for the past 10 years such as oil and gas tanks, grain elevators, conveyors, racks, carts and steel buildings. Buster said the seawall construction would involve stitch welding steel panels together before they are pile-driven into the ground along the shoreline.

"The steel panels have been delivered and we have a crew there ready to start the project," Buster said.

Buster, who owns Fabricators Plus with his wife, Theresa, who is chief financial officer, also has been approached about repairing a metal shelter for oil barges that was battered when empty vessels were thrown about by Sandy. That project, along with rebuilding amusement park rides in Atlantic City, also could be affected by the nonunion labor ban.

Buster launched Fabricators Plus in 2003 with an extruded aluminum products business that supplies appliance, office furniture, satellite and other industries. That business segment, which ships out about 17,000 parts each day, still pays the bills, according to Buster.

Fabricators Plus has been expanded in recent years to include anodizing and powder coating and custom metal fabrication. Buster said the company, which enjoys financial support from banks in Muscatine and the Quad Cities, will need to expand its work force of 135 employees to continue growing and taking on additional projects.

"We are having a very difficult time finding millwrights and welders, and that's costing this company business," Buster said. "I'm literally anywhere from 25 to 50 people short, depending on the size of the project, and I can't take on new business.

"I'm completely booked for 2013, and I have projects booked into the first half of 2014."

Fabricators Plus has diversified its business over the years in terms of the industries it supplies, which helped when the economic downturn hit in 2008.

"We lost 40 percent of our business," Buster said. "Our work force dropped to around 90. We figure if we could survive 2008 and 2009, we can survive just about anything.

"If we continue to see the level of business that we've seen so far in late 2012 and early 2013, I would think we could be double in size by the middle of 2014. It all depends on whether we can get the welders and millwrights that we will need." 

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