If West Point ever suffers another economic blow, you can bet it won’t be coming from longtime construction company Ellis Steel. No, Ellis Steel President Frank Hopper said Wednesday that Ellis Steel is going strong and Ellis Steel is here to stay.
But how has the manufacturer of steel structures been able to thrive nearly 90 years, especially in today’s tough economic situation? Well, Hopper said, the biggest reason the company is doing so well is the dedicated, hard working team of 175 people, who continue daily to give the company all they have.
Ellis Steel opened its doors in 1927 in Jackson but was relocated to West Point in the 1950s. About 30 years ago the company, which is perhaps the oldest, continuance steel operating company in the Southeast, was bought out but continued to operate under the same name.
For years Ellis Steel workers have busied themselves manufacturing the skeleton of office complexes, stadiums, museums, malls and more. In its peak year of 2006 it employed about 200 people, mostly natives of the Golden Triangle, Hopper said. And even though the construction industry plummeted 40 percent in recent years Ellis Steel fortunately did not have to let go of 40 percent of its workers. Instead the company only lost about 15 percent of its employee through attrition, meaning the employees who made up that 15 percent either retired or left for another reason and were not replaced.
“We haven’t had any layoffs since we had the business,” Hopper said. “Our workload right now is sufficient.”
On top of the dozens of construction projects Ellis Steel works on the company also takes care of all steel structures for all Walmart stores. At any given time Ellis Steel’s main structural division undertakes an average of 25 projects while working on about 25 Walmart projects at the same time.
Hopper said in order to stay afloat in today’s economy every company, not only Ellis Steel, must maintain its costs in order to be competitive in its market place. That means at certain times the company has to change up the way it does things to keep the costs in line with its competitors. Keeping an eye on things like shop supplies and decreasing waste is always a good strategy, he noted.
“If you take care of the little things generally the big things will take care of themselves,” Hopper said.
It’s a difficult time to be in the construction industry, he said, but Ellis Steel is hanging tough. The 40 percent construction industry decrease has proven quite devastating, and when the industry grows along with the economy at a two percent rate per year it may take 30 years for the construction industry to get back to the thriving point it was years ago.
Now, people always ask why industries are leaving West Point. The truth is, Hopper said, it had nothing to do with our local workforce and it had nothing to do with management. It was all due to things out of West Point’s control; things like corporate decision making, and, of course, a changing economy.
“But the Golden Triangle really has survived this economic downturn a lot better than other regions,” Hopper said.
That’s partially due to the arrival of Serverstal, Eurocopter, Peterbuilt and other companies in the Golden Triangle. Even though these companies are helping local people pay the bills the overall number of jobs in the area remains low.
One of the biggest fears for some manufacturing employees is that one day there boss may come to them and say, “The company is packing up and moving elsewhere.” But Hopper said those words will likely never be spoken from the leaders of Ellis Steel of West Point, as the company has no intention of leaving.
“We’re perfectly happy right here in West Point,” Hopper said.
Some concerns for business leaders tie into the national debt issue, and Hopper feels the United States currently has a non-functioning federal government that isn’t really sure what decisions to make.
“Generally in business if they would just make the rules and leave the rules alone we can compete with each other, survive and grow our business,” he said. “They just need to resolve some things and let us know where we are.”
The construction industry has been around since the Industrial Revolution and isn’t going anywhere, he said, and once the economy turns and more people are put to work more construction projects will come along.
But for now Hopper is focusing on the present and is pleased that Ellis Steel offers locals one more place to work thanks to the continuous labor of the skilled workers already there.
“We’re just like any business; our employees are what make our business work,” he said. “Basically all our people are Golden Triangle people, and most of them have been trained right here to do it the right way – the Ellis way. It doesn’t matter if it starts with me or the guy who puts the last piece on the truck. Still, the commitment to getting the job done and making on-time deliveries with our budget is all accomplished with the people you have.”