Alpha Iron, part of the Alliance Industrial Group, Inc., specializes in steel erection, fabrication, steel painting, and coatings for a variety of industries including high-tech, commercial, marine, bulk handling, primary metals, energy, and chemical.
Armed with his experience as a tradesman, Jim Buchan founded his own business—which would eventually become a group of companies—in 2001. His wife, Lisa, came on board in 2003. In 2007, the team launched a new entity to support their existing Ridgefield, Washington-based company.
“When the recession hit, we decided to start a steel fabrication company, and that’s when Alpha Iron was created,” he says. The new company solved a practical problem; because Buchan was not in the fabrication business before launching it, he had to rely on others to meet his standards. “I was buying a lot of fabrications from other sources, and the quality, the speed—I had no control of it. So we went ahead and started Alpha Iron.”
The team hit the ground running. “We started quickly, got into automation and robotics in 2008,” he explains. There are multiple advantages to adopting this advanced technology. “First of all, it improves the quality of the work. It improves the speed of the work, and then also, you can deploy the price of the work.”
Workers also benefit. “For the employee, it basically takes away all the dangerous tools,” Buchan says. Cutting torches, heavy lifting, and even some of the grinding are taken out of the employees’ hands.
“It basically gets those heavy pieces away from somebody,” says Safety Manager Morgan La Ville. “The machine can do the work. It also keeps the environment around it stable, where there’s just lifting with the crane in one section of that area, instead of all over the shop, and it also reduces foot traffic as well, because we have sectioned off areas that people are not allowed to be in. They have to go around and it keeps those areas controlled.”
The accuracy of the robotics can be immediately seen during installation. “We have a field crew that erects the iron or installs the iron,” Buchan says. “We follow industry standards specified in the American Institute of Steel Construction, and we actually have reduced those tolerances by half. So our steel that goes on the job site just fits.”
This does not just save time and money; it also protects workers on site, just as in the shop. “We’re removing the dangerous tools on the job sites too,” he says. Traditionally, workers on site would be “using large sledgehammers. They’re banging steel together, trying to get it to join, and because of our reduced tolerances, the steel just fits.”
This also dramatically reduces the noise on site. “We run a really quiet job site because we’ve taken away the dangerous tools on the job site as a result of how we fabricate our steel in our shop.”
In 2011, management realized they needed to add yet another company to the group. “So we went ahead and made the plunge,” Buchan says. “We had a need to increase and improve our schedules. One of the constraints was our coatings. We were outsourcing our coatings, our painting systems. So we bought Vancouver Steel Painters.” The acquisition has proven successful, with previous and new team members coming together and “taking on some challenging projects. It’s all worked out well.”
Throughout all the growth and success, a positive internal culture has remained a hallmark of Buchan’s companies. As the owners of the family business, he and his wife Lisa are an active presence, always ready to lend a hand. “We participate every single day. [We] are interested in our employees. We love our employees.”
This interest does not end with strictly work-related issues. “We’re interested in the health and the safety and the quality of life of our employees. I think it’s a great culture.”
The company also supports career advancement among the staff. “We encourage upward mobility in this company,” says Buchan. “We’re creating opportunities.” Take La Ville for instance. He started in the shop, demonstrated a passion for people and safety, and worked his way up to Safety Manager.
This supportive culture is clearly demonstrated in the company’s commitment to safety. In addition to La Ville’s monthly, company-wide safety meetings, employees start each week with a video covering whatever safety topic might be most applicable at the moment, from adverse weather conditions to fall protection and forklift safety.
Spearheading this safety training is important to Buchan. “Safety has to start with leadership,” he says. Leading the effort is “just part of being a good employer, providing a safe work environment, and investing in it. We invest a lot of time and money and energy into ensuring our people are safe.”
The team adopted a safety philosophy of ‘go on five,’ several years ago, with resounding success. “It’s a critical philosophy,” La Ville says. “We allow our employees to stop and take five seconds before they start. It first started with machine operation and crane operation, and then it moved over toward using grinders, using hand tools, and things like that.”
The idea is to “basically get people to stop what they’re doing, take five seconds, evaluate your work area, what you’re doing, what you’re working on, who’s working around you, and that’s really made a huge impact in our safety record. About eighty percent of your incidents are all related to the employee, and twenty percent of them are related to the work environment itself. So by getting people to stop and look at your work area, what’s going on around you, who’s moving steel around you, it’s really caused people to have a good idea what’s going on around them.”
‘Go on five’ has proved so successful that team members are using the concept outside of the workplace. “It’s also spilled into our personal lives as well,” says La Ville. “You do things at home with your kids like [saying], ‘Hey, let’s take five seconds and consider the issue that this [action] could cause.’”
‘Go on five’ may be a simple concept, but La Ville points out that it is at the heart of most safety procedures. “When you boil down all safety regulations and rules and requirements, they all basically do that,” he says. They all require workers to “stop and take time out of what their task is to look at the possible hazards and the risks and consider how it could affect somebody else and take action.”
The team plans to keep expanding the business. “We have growth plans,” Buchan says. “We have prepared some property. We’ve got future plans to build a new facility.” This will provide plenty of space to accommodate new markets. “There are new marketplaces coming up right now with a lot of government spending,” he says. “We’ve got bridgeworks coming up. There’s military work, the EV market. The forecast for steel is very, very good.”
The forecast for the long-term future of this family-owned business is also very good. Two of the Buchans’ three sons have joined the company as an integral part of the team—and of the future of the business. “They’re extremely hardworking, and they are very passionate about the employees here,” Buchan says. “So the future looks extremely bright to keep this a family-owned business I’m passing on to the next generation. That’s the goal.”