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An Iron Will: Empire Iron Works Ltd. Stands Strong for Over 50 Years by Nerissa McNaughton

by Nerissa McNaughton Taken from Business in Edmonton December 2013 Edition

The Art Gallery of Alberta in Downtown Edmonton houses some of Canada's most intriguing works of art, but it is the building itself that is the true showpiece. The structure's unusual shape and curved walls get as much attention as the treasures housed within. Appearing to defy the laws of physics, it is clear the structure required a great deal of creativity, precision, and expertise to create - but thankfully Empire Iron Works Ltd. has creativity, precision and expertise in abundance; and they are the masterminds behind the iron framework of the Art Gallery.

Although Empire Iron Works Ltd. has worked on some of Edmonton's most iconic structures, their story starts two provinces to the east in Winnipeg. Four German gentlemen, Erich Rode, Konrad Messer, Bill Rolke and Arno Swirijuk, opened Empire Iron in 1958 as an ornamental iron company. While the head office remains in Winnipeg, the Edmonton office (and Wabamun fabrication shop) opened in the lat '70s. Today the company is no longer a partnership, but owned by a publicly traded company.

These days Empire Iron operates as a structural and miscellaneous steel fabrication company providing services for the commercial, industrial and institutional sectors, cut they are not far from their ornamental roots.

"We have tended over the years to focus on specialized projects; things others don't take on," explains Andy Boelee general manager.

"Like the Art Gallery of Alberta,"says Jermy Spelsberg, production manager, continuing the thread of his co-worker's train of thought. "You don't get to see the steel, but we did the structure."

To create the look, special equipment and techniques were used. Checks and cross checks were relentless as positions had to be exact. "all the structure had to be matched up with the glazing etc.," says Boelee.

The gallery is jut on of Empire Iron's impressive projects. They have also worked on the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute at the University of Alberta, the Edmonton International Airport, Vancouver Airport's international  terminal, Meadows Community Recreation Center, modules for the Mildred Lake mind replacement project in Fort McMurray, Calgary's Bankers Hall, Target's regional distribution center in Balzac, and the teepee structure at Blackfoot Crossing.

It's not all work and no play for Empire Iron, however. this year marked the 25th Anniversary of their golf tournament - a tournament where they show their customer and vendor appreciation.  The tournament also doubles as a charity event. While many charities have benefited from Empire Iron's generosity, the Firefighters Burn Treatment Society has been the sponsored charity for the past three years. Vendors donate items that are sold in a silent auction or raffled off as prizes. Staff, along with their friends, family and previous employees volunteer their time. the company covers the cost of golf and the meal for all the participants so that 100 percent of the proceeds and donations can go to the charity.

"The golf has actually become secondary," chuckles Spelsberg as he noted the $20,000 the tournament raised this year. The funds are earmarked for the Society's burn camp. The camp cost approximately $65,000 a year to operate. The money recently raised by Empire Iron will cover nearly a third of the operating costs for one year.

Demonstrating an ability to be impressive both inside and outside of the organization, Empire Iron is renowned for attracting and retaining top talent. Spelsberg has been with Empire for 14 years, having started as part of a co-op program. "I came here because I wanted to be involved in building things," says Spelsberg. I saw a posting at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and I chased it. It was one of the few postings I was very interested in. By hard work and a lot of fun, I am still here."

Boelee is a relative newcomer at 10 months, but he could not resist the draw of the company's reputation and challenge of the work. "What really excited me was the chance to be involved in the overall job," says the personable manager who previously ran his own business as a detailer in the steel industry. "This gives me the opportunity to be immersed in the entire steel project."

The dedicated staff has access to some amazing technology that they use to get the job done right each and every time. For example, Tekla Structures.

Tekla Structures is a software program that allows Empire Iron to offer in-house 3D modeling. The program builds an accurate model of a project in 3D, then proceeds to create fabrication and erection drawings from the model. It also provides information for the shop machinery to cut, cope and drill.

"It virtually eliminates the mathematical errors seen in old style detailing," explains Boelee.

"Its' a very accurate detailing system," Spelsberg agrees. "It allows the user to see the finished product and identify any design errors, clashes or dimensional discrepancies." The benefit to the client is that most, if not all, the problems are solved in the model prior to the steel every getting to site, so the time frame to complete the project is greatly reduced.

In the end, that's what it's really all about for Empire Iron Works Ltd. - pleasing the customers. What sets them apart is their expert project management, accuracy of fabrication, accuracy of shop drawings, timely delivery, problem solving skills, qualified field personnel and the ability to handle complex projects with confidence. Add to this excellent quality assurance and safety programs that "gives customers confidence that our document processing is highly accurate and our work will be completed in a safe manner", along with Empire Iron's numerous industry awards, and it is easy to see why companies that need expertise in the field of creative steel readily turn to Empire Iron.

Empire Iron Works Ltd. has been standing strong for over 50 years on a foundation of excellence in the steel fabrication industry. The next 50 years look to be just as promising for this unique company.