Shaping Skylines

Owen Steel influences the nation’s cityscapes



David Zalesne, president of Owen Steel, helps to preserve the company’s rich 80-year history while leading them into the future.

Photography by Robert Clark

From its humble home in peaceful Columbia, Owen Steel has helped shape the most recognizable skylines in bustling East Coast cities for 80 years. And with nowhere to go but up, one of the nation’s leaders in structural steel fabrication has no plans to slow down.

“We are very proud of our rich history and excited about the future,” says David Zalesne, who has served as president of Owen Steel for the past 12 years. “We love having our home base in Columbia — it’s been the perfect launching pad for expansion.”

 

Columbia and Beyond 

Owen Steel’s Columbia plant sits on 27 acres with 500,000 square feet housed under building cranes. “It would be virtually impossible to replicate this setup anywhere else and attract the quality of labor and skill we have in Columbia,” David says. The company’s local plant employs about 225 workers who have helped fabricate steel for hundreds of projects throughout the city. “The efforts of our Columbia team have allowed us to expand to another fabrication plant in Delaware to better reach our markets in the Northeast,” David says. “We tend to work along the Interstate 95 corridor, from New York to south Florida, though we’re certainly not limited to that area.”

Many of Owen Steel’s clients are major general contractors and developers in America’s most prominent cities, including New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. A majority of its work is centered on fabricating for large, complex structural steel projects. “Steel is such a critical path of a major construction project; our clients want a company with the experience and resources to deliver on time and on budget,” David says. “We’re challenged to live up to our reputation on every project.” 

Owen Steel is an American Institute of Steel Construction Certified Fabricator, and since 2006, David has served on the AISC board, helping boost the company’s national presence. Starting in September 2015, David also took on the appointment of AISC vice chair, a role he will serve for two years before he steps into the chair position for an additional two years. Owen Steel also sends its employees to annual gatherings like the North American Steel Construction Conference to network with national industry peers. 

While the Owen Steel name often warrants bid requests from contractors, its leadership team is always on the hunt for projects that might take the company to the next level. “We don’t chase every job that’s out there –– we try hard to focus on jobs that make sense for us,” David says. This means getting to know a project intimately at the bidding stage and ensuring it can perfectly blend the company’s expertise with its desire for new challenges.

While their primary niche is in high-rise work, Owen Steel has also done six major projects at the World Trade Center site in the past 10 years. They did fabrication for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and, in 2006, were the first to bring steel onto the site after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the original World Trade Center towers.

“It was a tremendous honor and challenge to build such an important project,” David says. “We had several people in our company who were directly impacted by 9/11, so it was somewhat emotional, which only reflected the emotions throughout the country.” Owen Steel is fabricating Three Tower World Trade Center on the World Trade Center site; David estimates the building will be completed by the end of the year. After that, there are still one or two more major projects planned for the site, and they hope to be a part of building them as well.

Owen Steel’s portfolio also includes the Bank of America Tower in New York City, the United States Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C., and most recently in Columbia, the Darla Moore School of Business building on the University of South Carolina campus. “It’s great when our guys can see a building we built on their drive home from work,” David says.

Though many of Owen Steel’s contracts come from out-of-state clients, David finds local projects and community outreach to be invaluable to his company. 

“Our primary engagement with Columbia is on quality-of-life issues and supporting events and institutions that make this an attractive place for our people to live and work,” he says. “Our guys get the best of both worlds: they get to travel and take on big ticket projects in larger markets while living in a smaller, quieter city with an affordable, yet high, standard of living. This will be our home for a long time.”

 

A Strong History 

In 1936, Franklyn Owen founded Owen Steel, building the company into a powerhouse steel fabricator with Southern roots. The business was turned over to Frank Owen, his son, in the early 1980s, and it continued to grow significantly throughout the Southeast, expanding to include steel fabrication plants in a handful of states. When Frank passed away, Dottie, his widow, was at the helm of Owen Steel until the early 1990s. The company then changed hands several times until 2004, when it came under private ownership. 

“The Owen family is still active in Columbia,” David says. “I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them, and our kids even go to the same school.” David has served on the school board with Frank’s son, Bill Owen, at Hammond School where their children attend classes.

For David, moving to Columbia to lead Owen Steel more than 12 years ago was a welcome change of pace from his upbringing in the Northeast. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and later attended Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. “I practiced law in Philly for 17 years and spent time as a federal prosecutor, so this was a bit of a career switch for me. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and am grateful to help lead a company with such a rich history and reputable name.” Two months after relocating to Columbia to assist with the legalities of the Owen Steel acquisition, David was appointed president and says he has found great satisfaction in working in the steel industry.

“From the very technical work of our talented engineers down to the dedicated guys working in the plant, there is something interesting and different going on every day,” he says. “At the end of each project, you can stand back and see you’ve helped build a great building, and that’s attractive.” David knows he is not the only one drawn to this line of work. 

During the company’s annual Christmas lunch, Owen Steel leaders present awards to employees who have served the company in varying increments of five years. “Almost every year, we have 40- and 45-year service awards to hand out,” David says. “Some employees represent different generations of the same family. That just doesn’t happen at too many places.” 

Both office and plant employees maintain a standard of excellence at Owen Steel that is passed down through the ranks and years. “We get young guys coming in who are excited about the kind of work we do, but we have to train them and show new employees the way we’ve been successful for 80 years,” he says.

It can be challenging to find skilled workers in the steel industry, which is why Owen Steel implemented an in-house education program for younger and newer employees. “We have a retired supervisor who comes back to help train groups of employees who want to improve their skill sets and income potential,” David says. Company engineers also earn continuing education credits to keep with design trends and best practices.

Walking around the floor of the fabrication plant, David says even visitors can pick up on the culture of quality craftsmanship and camaraderie the team at Owen Steel has created.

“I’m personally proud of our safety record at the Columbia plant,” David says. The company has gone more than a million shop hours without a lost-time incident, equaling more than three years worth of work without any major injuries. “This is difficult work, but our guys take a lot of pride in what they do. We have to remind ourselves to sit back from the day-to-day stresses, look at the big picture and appreciate the good things we’ve gotten out of the company over the decades looking out for each other.”

 

Sticking to Core Values 

Owen Steel has seen its share of industry and company changes over the past eight decades, but the business has maintained its integrity by focusing on important core values: remaining people-centered and client-driven in its relationships, with a demand for quality and excellence in its work.

“We try not to operate as a big bureaucracy,” David says. “We always have a small number of points of contact on projects so all are clear on impacts, schedules and design changes. We also try to clearly communicate expectations so they match up with a project’s realities.”

Owen Steel’s demand for quality comes not only in its finished products, but also in working with instinctive foresight. “Every project has an issue somewhere along the way, but I believe the way we handle problems is what represents our core values,” David says. “As a company, if an issue arises, we acknowledge it with the client and work to deal with it fairly. The most important thing we do is avoid problems from the get-go. Having worked 17 years as a lawyer, I take pride in the fact that we’ve had no litigation over any of our work in the past 12 years.” 

From the engineer’s drawing table to client communication to the welders on the plant floor sparking company growth, David has confidence in his employees’ abilities to make complex projects come together.

“We’re always looking for ways to build the skill levels of our employees, to help them be more productive and successful,” he says. “In the markets in which we work, mistakes are expensive, so there is a built-in economic incentive to make sure the steel fits right, is delivered properly and doesn’t create problems. If you can’t do that, you can’t work long-term in places like New York City.” 

In addition to quality employees, Owen Steel has invested more than $6 million in capital improvements in its Columbia plant in the past six years. “We are always looking at the equipment we’re using to make sure it is as efficient as possible,” David says, though he emphasizes even state-of-the-art machinery will never replace quality employees. “A lot of this can never be automated, it has to be a true mix of modern equipment and classic craftsmanship.”

Fabrication is different than traditional manufacturing, as every piece is custom built. Plant managers have to create an environment of creativity while moving projects along. “At Owen Steel, efficiency is a function of planning. That’s where the experience of our top guys comes into play, because they are able to help us make budgets while keeping the work right and saving time,” David says. “Our work is complex and heavy. Every aspect requires skill and courage. It’s not a business for someone who doesn’t have the courage to deal with heavy steel hanging from cranes.”

A rigorous quality control process, cutting-edge equipment and well-trained and trustworthy employees have helped shape Owen Steel from the beginning. “It’s been a great business for 80 years,” David says. “Part of our goal is stewarding the company for the next generations of the Owen Steel family.”