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Universal Tank and Fabrication

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Universal Tank & Fabrication, a division of Vestek Industries, specializes in the fabrication of pressure vessels, industrial tanks and fabrications. The Dubuque, Iowa based company delivers a complete, end-to-end solution from the initial collaboration and engineering through fabrication, testing, blasting, and painting, all the way to the final assembly. The team also takes care of all the related components, such as skids, ladders, platforms and piping.
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Universal Tank & Fabrication handles virtually any kind of tank, but specializes in pressure vessels as well as vacuum tanks and above ground storage tanks. These tanks could be used for any number of purposes and industries. Water filtration plants, wastewater management facilities, bottling plants, chemical processing plants, fertilizer plants, and the oil industry are just a few customers served. Many of these customers are household names that use the company’s products to produce major brands across all of North America.

Whatever the project or the customer, the team prides themselves in producing the best product at the best price. “One of our biggest selling points is that we flat out save our customers money,” says President Dan Davis. The team works closely with customers to tailor make a solution that fits their needs. During the process, they suggest options that will keep the cost down without sacrificing quality. “It’s less money, better quality.”

Each build becomes a partnership. “We are not a company where somebody comes to us and says, ‘build this’ and we just say ‘okay.’” Instead, the team will sit down with the customer and advise them on each component and additional options. “We can be a one-stop shop for anyone.” From the ladders, platforms, and piping to the electricals and installation, Universal covers it all.

In addition to making the process hassle-free for its customers, Universal’s one-stop shop approach creates substantial cost savings. “Doing that all in-house saves our customers money,” Mr. Davis says. “They don’t have to ship their projects all over the country to different locations to have the individual processes done by [different] experts. It can all happen in one place. They can get a turnkey product in our shops.”

Universal did not always specialize in a customized solution, but the savvy company knew how to evolve with the market. “As times change, markets change. Oil used to be $100 dollars a barrel and it’s not anymore. One market might turn off [and] a lot of companies die at that point. A lot of companies don’t know how or are simply not willing to reinvent themselves.”

To stay ahead, the team shifted the company’s focus from heavy production to customized solutions. “[We recognized that] we had two options here: we learn from this and we change what we are doing, or we die. And the dying part really isn’t an option for us, so we changed who we are.”

Mr. Davis credits Universal’s employees for that successful transition. “We have an amazing crew top to bottom, office to shop, and anywhere in between.” Loyalty to this talented staff drove management to make the changes that needed to be made in order to preserve the company. “It is our responsibility as managers to make sure that our people have jobs and the comfort of knowing that they have a place to call home.”

Delivering a custom build creates unique challenges, especially when switching from heavy production. The estimating process changes and the engineering department must be strong enough to create one-off designs. Quality control becomes far more rigorous because the department must learn how to inspect one-of-a-kind products. “You can’t have somebody that’s good at checking off the same old thing every time off a checklist,” Mr. Davis says. “We have to know how to check something that we’re never going to build ever again. And the customer has to be happy every single time. There is no room for errors.”

The company has come a long way since Mr. Davis and Mark Klausner founded it in 2007. The motivation for the launch was simple yet powerful. “We just wanted a nice life for us and all our coworkers and to just treat people the way people want to be treated. That was our push and our motivation. And when we started our company, that’s exactly what we did. It grew into what it did because of the way we treated people.”

Universal began small, but had big dreams. “In 2007 we had four empty walls. We had a big building with nothing in it.” But the team’s ‘do unto others’ philosophy quickly drew customers. “Customers truly have to believe in what you are saying, and who you are, in order to jump ship and come [to you],” Mr. Davis says. “And they did.”

In 2012, the founders made the decision to sell a majority of their stock to a private equity group that would help Universal keep up with its rapid growth. “We needed to do that to get to the next level. We were hitting a ceiling to some extent.” Universal became a division of Vestek Industries after the sale. The original team still manages the business from day-to-day, so Universal remains a Christ-centered company that puts customers first. “The people here are still the same people,” Mr. Davis says. “[Company] culture is a big thing in our opinions. You can’t just talk it—you have to show it. You have to live it every day.”

Universal’s next step is to expand geographically. The company has opened a new fabrication facility in Texas. “This is exciting news for us from a logistics standpoint. We now have more control over the jobs we get due to the logistics. Our tanks are big, so shipping that product across the country can be the difference in winning or losing a job.” Manufacturing in Texas as well as in Iowa will expand the company’s reach substantially.

As Universal expands, it will need more skilled workers, and the company is meeting the challenge head on with its own welder-training program. The five-level program brings in new hires at level one and gives them the opportunity to work all the way up to level five, which opens the door to become a group leader or supervisor.

“It is near and dear to me because, when I started out, I was a welder,” Mr. Davis says. “I worked my way through quality and plant management to where I am as an owner. That is what I’d like to see more of and I think that is one of the things that makes our company a little different.”

The program helps Universal overcome the industry’s labor shortage while simultaneously creating opportunities and encouraging success. “We are pushing people to be better because you can see that they have it in them,” Mr. Davis says. “And let’s face it, a lot of people don’t live up to their true potential. Just think, if everybody lived up to their God-given talents, how impressive this world could be. That’s a lot of what upper level management likes to focus on here – let’s remove the roadblocks and let’s make individuals better. Let’s push for more.”

With a decade of growth and success under their belt, the team is planning for the next phase. “We are a very goal oriented company,” Mr. Davis says. “We set one year goals, three year goals, and a ten year target.” The ten-year target is likely to evolve over time, “but why not think big and long term?”

Upcoming goals include an increased focus on automation. The team wants to be sure that they are utilizing the latest, most effective technologies on the shop floor. “New technology comes out every day,” and some of this new technology could increase efficiencies and drive down costs. The team is also looking into creating a separate manufacturing area for stainless steel projects. “We do a lot of stainless now, but if we were segregated we could get a lot more.”

The team will continue to set goals and work to meet them. This philosophy of constant improvement drives the company forward. “I don’t like the old saying that if ‘it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’” Mr. Davis says. “Just because it’s not broken doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement.”

October 23, 2017, 7:25 AM EDT

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