NEWPORT, Maine — The first thing that strikes visitors to Newport Industrial Fabrication is the silence. The massive buildings, ringed by steel awaiting a purpose, are empty, while two or three men work quietly by themselves.
These rooms should be filled with the screech of steel being bent, cut, welded and shaped. And until the economy collapsed, that was exactly what was going on.
“Until last December, we were running days, nights and weekends for three years,” owner Dan Gerry said last week.
Now, of the 48 employees he had three months ago, fewer than 20 are still at work.
The company’s history is told in color photographs on Gerry’s office wall. Webs of support steel crisscross overhead at Coney Island’s train station, the world’s largest elevated station. Beams create a striking ceiling at a Dorchester, Mass., subway station. Green metal provides the graceful structure at the Rockland ferry termi-nal.
Another photo isn’t quite as pretty but it is as impressive: Steel bases, each weighing 40,000 pounds, were created to support the trusses of the new transportation center at the site of the former World Trade Center in New York.
“This is what we do,” Gerry said. “We make architecturally exposed structural steel. It’s not ornamental, although it can be very attractive. It’s our steel that is holding things up.”
Since December, Newport Industrial Fabrication has lost some very good jobs. “There is plenty of work out there, but there is also a huge number of competitors,” Gerry said. Steel prices have also doubled since he bought the company at a bankruptcy sale in 1997.
During these lean times, Gerry is frustrated that U.S. firms are not being given preference on many of the jobs.
The company was the second-highest bidder on a major New York project. The winner was a company from Spain.
On another job, the new Maine National Guard Armory in Bangor, Gerry said it appears that two Canadian fabrication companies are also bidding and could outbid him.
“It is very frustrating,” he said. “I’m not a protectionist, but we are now competing for U.S. jobs with companies from all over the world.”
But Gerry isn’t the kind of person to see the glass of opportunity as half-empty. As far as he is concerned, it is full steam ahead: He is bidding on new jobs, planning an expansion, and poised to bring 24 workers back on board.
“We are financially solvent. We did make money the first two months of the year,” Gerry said. “And we had three good years.”
He continues to pay 100 percent of the health insurance for his laid-off workers. “We’ll need them back,” he said.
His skeleton crew is painting massive windmill shafts and hubs that are headed for Florida or the St. Lawrence River.
Even though some of his jobs are lost because of high transportation costs, Gerry is committed to staying in Maine.
“I want to live here,” he said simply. “In Maine, we have space and we have high-quality workmanship.”
“There is plenty of work out there and we just keep bidding,” he said. Right now he has his hopes on a mega-crane project that would provide a million-dollar influx and allow him to bring all his workers back on board.
“There are opportunities out there,” he said. “Our contacts are still calling us.”
Since Gerry acquired the company, he has added a two-story office building, a paint building and production and fabrication space. He said he is spending more than $120,000 in consulting and permitting fees to seek an Army Corps of Engineers permit to expand at the rear of the property.
Gerry said his attitude is “build it and they will come. I need to be ready when the time for expansion is ready. It’ll come.”