By Jennie L. Ilustre
Crystal Steel Fabricators, Inc., an Asian American-owned Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), landed a major contract last May, besting five other bidding companies and joining dozens of sub-contractors for the $1.2 billion-MGM National Harbor project.
The Baltimore Sun quoted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan as saying that the resort complex in Prince George’s County is “one of the most important economic development projects in Maryland history.” The Washington Post noted Prince George’s County and Maryland would both benefit from the project. The county alone stands to receive $40 million to $45 million a year, according to officials.
“This is a terrific high-profile project for our company and our employees,” said Crystal Steel Fabricators President William Lo, obviously elated, his feet not quite touching the ground. “This is huge – we promise to do our best, and we will. We are excited to be working at National Harbor, and we are especially pleased that MGM National Harbor is making MBEs a priority,” his enthusiastic remarks and his confident but humble demeanor spoke volumes. Here is someone who is passionate about his company, and also deeply values his employees. These qualities likewise fairly shimmered when he talked about his company, using a computer, during the one-hour interview. No wonder he’s super successful.
Lo’s firm will provide miscellaneous metals, mostly from the company’s plant in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. “We expect to wrap up work on the project in June next year,” he said. The entire MGM project, which started construction in September 2014, is scheduled to open in the second half of next year.
In its website, MGM Resorts describes the building complex as “a world-class Destination Resort Casino at National Harbor,” touting benefits such as thousands of local jobs and economic benefits to the region. The posh gaming facility will have a 300-room glass-tower hotel, 3,600 slot machines, 140 gaming tables, a concert theater, several celebrity chef-driven restaurants, a spa and high-end retail stores, according to the Post.
“We were invited to bid for the project by Whiting-Turner,” said Bill. This is not surprising, given Crystal Steel Fabricators excellent track record in the industry. Last year, it posted over $60 million in revenue. It has grown from a single site in Delaware and gone global. In addition to its US-based Miscellaneous and Ornamental shop, Crystal Steel Philippines-Victoria Wave provides additional capacity, as well as value “for jobs that require intensive labor and relentless quality.”
Crystal Steel is an AISC Certified Fabricator, and carries Fracture Critical, Bridge Component Standard and Sophisticated Paint Endorsements, aside from Steel Building Structures certification. It boasts of the largest and most sophisticated clients in the industry. Among them: Bechtel, Bovis Lend Lease, Gilbane, Skanska, Holder, HESS, Turner, Clark, Jacobs, CAM, Hensel-Phelps and Whiting-Turner.
In a large measure, Lo’s family and his company add to the major contributions of Americans of Asian ancestry to this great nation through the years. Indeed, the design and construction of Crystal Steel Fabricators, Inc. – with its top-flight architects, engineers, welders and other workers under Lo’s leadership – are both tangible and intangible.
One can point to a landmark, hospital and school buildings, and feel a sense of pride. Or find his company had a hand in easing the daily lives of Americans, by helping build Tyson Corner’s Silver Metro Station in Virginia, and also the canopy at Foggy Bottom Metro in the nation’s capital, combining utility and beauty. And then there are enduring projects that promote the preservation of a historic edifice, or help heal national wounds, such as “Empty Sky,” New Jersey’s memorial to 911 victims.
Lo received the good news in a phone call from Whiting-Turner, the general contractor for the project. Asked if he broke out the champagne to celebrate, Lo, popularly known as Bill, laughed and replied, “No, we didn’t – but there was great joy and the resolve to give our usual best to the project.”
He said, “We worked really hard on our bidding proposal. We spent a lot of time on minority participation, including substantial participation from Prince George’s county sub-contractors, and we met several times with the clients. We came up with a well-thought of plan and a budget that we worked out with our experts. I think it helped that we had a good track record with Whiting-Turner Contracting Company. We have worked on several projects with them.”
Since it was founded in 1992, Crystal Steel Fabricators, Inc. has built a solid reputation for excellent work and for delivering projects on time. It is a success story in a field not usually associated with Asian Americans. Bill recalled that once, when he attended a structural steel conference, “I was the only one in the conference who was Asian American.”
In 1992, the idea of a sub-contractor being part of the entire team with a shared goal of getting the job done on time and under budget was revolutionary. Crystal Steel’s website, www.crystalsteel.com, notes that from the start, the company used its engineering skills and technological understanding “to build relationships of trust, and processes that reduced the paperwork” endemic in the construction industry. Crystal Steel is “a leader in digital records management, using Cloud storage rather than mailing drawings back and forth,” going offshore to find the engineering and detailing capacity required for best results.
Crystal Steel produces on-time, quality job “by controlling the engineering and shop drawing process,” said Bill. It has created one of the largest steel detailing firms in the industry with 125 detailers, engineers, estimators and support staff in its 12,000-square foot Engineering Center. A highly-skilled workforce is complemented by state-of-the-art technology and technological integration of fabrication shops and the variety of automated equipment onsite. “Your project will be in good hands,” Bill stressed.
Father Key to Success
The company was an idea of his father, John Lo, who also provided the $350,000 starting capital. John was a structural engineer who worked on large-scale, fast-track building projects. As the Chief Structural Engineer for Catalytic, Inc. (later merged with United Engineers), John was an expert at managing steel fabricators production that often led to completing projects ahead of deadline, resulting in savings to clients.
Bill and his father, working part time, were the only employees at first. Bill went to Stanford University in California and earned his MBA from the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania. But he faced a tough learning curve, losing a hefty $600,000 in the first three years.
He recalled: “We started the business without any experience in manufacturing and construction. We had to learn everything. We were fortunate to start at the depth of a construction recession because the expansion from this trough allowed us to make mistakes and eventually to prosper in the industry. We also, of course, worked hard and tried to be smart when building our business.”
The turn-around came with Bill absorbing lessons on construction essentials, networking and business contracting, coupled with his dad coming aboard full-time in 1995. In 2004, the company acquired Fairhill Fabricators. This acquisition allowed Crystal Steel to offer miscellaneous metals and ornamental metals in addition to its core business of structural steel. These business lines now “make up 40 per cent” of the annual revenue.
“My father served as my mentor in the business – he taught me the structural engineering required in the business,” explained Bill. “He also encouraged me to trust myself in making decisions affecting the company,” he said, adding his father is the chief role model in his life. He himself endeavors to be an ideal husband and father of three young children, coming home for dinner every day and spending three hours of quality time with the kids. Currently, his dad works as a consultant in the company. Bill’s younger brother is a silent partner.
The company has received several awards for excellence. Among these are: National Ornament and Miscellaneous Metals Association Silver Award for Crystal Steel’s work on “Empty Sky,” the State of New Jersey’s 9/11 Memorial; Gilbane Mid-Atlantic Regional Office award for Subcontractor of the Year, for work on the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Complex, and Forrester Subcontractor of the Year for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Food Sciences Building.