By Kevin Kutz
If someone were to ask you to write a great American story, how would you begin? This one traces through Washington’s Yakima Valley across the last half of the 20th century, but it really finds its turning point at a moment of loss.
Jeff Carter’s grandfather joined many others in a growing community of metal fabrication shops throughout the valley in the 1940s, and his — Buren Sheet Metal — grew to be one of the largest. After a tour in the Army, Jeff’s dad, Gary Carter, joined his father, starting from the ground and working his way up to general manager.
In 1983, after a few twists and turns, Gary found himself the general manager of FarWest Fabricators, answering to an owner based in Syracuse, New York, but with a dream to own it outright himself one day.
It was a dream that wouldn’t go away. And just as metal working framed the identity of the Carter family, so the dream spurred them onward. Gary managed the business well. He transitioned it out of a dying market around wood stoves to more stable opportunities in sheet metal fabrication, grew revenues and moved the company to six acres of land in Moxee, southeast of Yakima.
Each year, the owner of FarWest Fabricators would travel from Syracuse to visit his business. Each year, Gary would ask about ownership. Each year, the owner would reply, “But Gary, you have no money.”
Meanwhile, son Jeff was living the somewhat carefree and aimless life of a typical Yakima teenager, working after high school as the clean-up guy for a different Yakima metal shop. Upon graduating, he joined his dad at FarWest Fabricators, where perhaps his real education began in earnest at the new Moxee headquarters.
“I was one of the first four employees,” recalls Jeff. “We moved into a building that had been vacant for 15 years, except for birds. I was the one who cleaned all the floors.”
After Jeff turned 21, Gary made him responsible for outside sales, and turned him loose to go find business in Seattle by driving his 1979 Ford F250 to visit prospects three days a week.
Does Jeff look back on the memory fondly?
“That was the most miserable experience.
“I had no idea, no training,” Jeff recalls. “I just got in the truck and left to go knock on doors. I was young, and I looked young. I learned a lot, often the hard way. My first win — a company building basketball backboards in South Park — it felt like the biggest victory ever.”
A 21-year-old kid driving three hours each way to cold-call manufacturers in and around Seattle. It was trial by fire. And he kept coming back, setting his jaw, setting his alarm for 5 a.m. to be in front of prospects by 8:30, learning as he went, getting better by the day.
Sometimes he’d make his regular 9 a.m. check-in call to the home office, Dad would tell him, “We just got a big order and we need you to come back and help!” and he’d get back in his truck, make the drive to Yakima, change clothes and work in the shop.
Jeff’s dad, Gary, was known and respected throughout the valley, and he led the business well. The team grew from the original four to 25 by 1993 to accommodate the steady surge of orders and revenues. Jeff had worked his way up to shop foreman and for the first time, after years learning everything about the business from top to bottom, he felt like he knew what he was doing. He would one day reflect on those years and how there wasn’t a job at FarWest Fabricators he hadn’t done, including cleaning the bathrooms.
Then came heart bypass surgery for Gary. Then complications. Then: Jeff’s dad was gone.
There is impact both sudden and slow, when life speeds up and stops cold. Jeff retells the aftermath in a low-key, self-deprecatory fashion, but the memories are still sharp.
The owner flew in from Syracuse, interviewed everyone and tapped Jeff as the next general manager. Jeff, who would recall himself as “your typical young, dumb guy,” was 28.
Then the funeral, the “single biggest turning point in my life,” as Jeff recalls. There was a moment — a seemingly ordinary moment, when the actual words said are almost mundane after so many years — when death gave life to something new, and simple words had a powerful effect.
“At the reception, I’m standing there in the greeting line, still in shock, and a guy comes up to me. I recognize him as the owner of a business — our largest customer at the time. I look at him, and he looks at me.
“And he says, ‘Jeff, your dad was a fair and honest man.’
“And something hit me, with just those words: a fair and honest man.
“I decided then and there, I wanted to be known as a fair and honest man.
“That was my defining moment. That changed who I was, who I became and who I am. With those simple words.”
As Jeff took the reins as the new general manager, he carried a challenge: “Dad died never realizing his dream. Am I going to do the same thing?”
Jeff reached out to the owner and asked to buy the company. The owner agreed with Jeff and his mother to a plan based on reinvesting profits into ownership shares over time.It took everything they had. Recalls Jeff: “I sold my house and we moved into an apartment. I downgraded my cars. I sold tools. And Dad really never had much. All my mom had was his life insurance, and she put that up.”
The pressure was enormous. “What was on my mind, day in and day out? If this fails, my kids won’t go to college and my mom will live in poverty. Everyone around me loses. It wasn’t fun,” said Jeff.
It took more than four years of toil, savings and pressure to earn enough for Jeff and his mom to take full ownership of FarWest Fabricators in 1998.
And there was no time to step back and celebrate. As Jeff recalls, it was just on to the next challenge — the next debt payment, the next new investment in tools, the next customer, the next delivery. “It was only about five years ago that I stopped working out of fear,” said Jeff recently. “I’d paid down a lot of debt, our kids made it through college. I still had the fire to keep growing and going.”
What has driven Jeff and the FarWest Fabricators team is a foundational focus on the customer. “I hope our customers would say we’re service-oriented — we’ll listen to you, we’ll have a conversation. I want them to feel like we’ll take care of them, that we’re a ‘can do’ company,” said Jeff.
As a result, over the years FarWest Fabricators has served hundreds of customers, with several relationships dating back 15 to 20 years, and the longest more than 30.
Commitment to customers has driven growth into new lines of business. Jeff originally wanted to stay focused on sheet metal, and avoid machining. But in response to an opportunity, he bought FarWest Fabricators’ first machining center in 2000. Six months later, they needed to buy another to meet demand. They kept winning more complicated projects and larger orders, so they bought a third machine. Today FarWest Fabricators has ten machining centers and two lathes, to offer customers blended, one-stop-shop service.
It is not in Jeff’s nature to take time to congratulate himself on building FarWest Fabricators. Far from it.
“I’ve gotten to where I am by doing everything wrong — once,” Jeff said. “I don’t have time to reflect on how far we’ve come. But there are times I’m walking through the shop, kind of look around, and it dawns on me. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it, because I still feel like just one guy on the team trying to get things done.”
By 2017, Jeff was ready for the next chapter. With more than 80 people on the FarWest Fabricators team, and visible opportunities to take the company to another level, Jeff was convinced that he had taken it as far as he could. It was time to pass the baton.
Meeting Scott Smith for the first time gave Jeff confidence he’d found the right fit. Scott is the president, chief executive officer and co-founder of Solomons Fund, the OneAccord Capital company that ultimately acquired FarWest Fabricators. Scott built his career leading and growing companies in manufacturing and metals fabrication, and he knows his way around a metal shop.
“The way Scott came in and immediately started seeing things to improve, the questions he asked—I could tell right away he knew what he was talking about,” said Jeff. “Others just didn’t have the same vision or know-how or commitment to our people.”
“For me it was about finishing life correctly, and being fair and honest meant taking care of your people here, so I chose Solomons Fund based on the future my people would have. I recognize the company has more levels to get to, and it needs more than me to get there. My employees will be better off, in a better environment, with more organization and direction,” said Jeff.
They reached an agreement, and the acquisition was announced August 1, 2017. Commenting on the announcement, Scott said: “FarWest Fabricators is a great company today and a model for business success based on values. They are an excellent fit for Solomons Fund. We believe we have the right operational experience and resources to help FarWest Fabricators grow, and we are excited to get going.”
Jeff is hopeful and excited for what’s to come.
“All the things that I wanted to come true, that I knew were possible, will actually happen. To get to watch this place change and grow, that will be super cool.”
FarWest Fabricators’ new CEO, Norm Thomas, brings deep experience in manufacturing at Pacific Northwest industry leaders Intalco Aluminum, Fatigue Technology and GM Nameplate, and executive experience at Microsoft and other software companies. Norm will tap the collective insights and talents of Solomons Fund investors, who bring more than a century of successful entrepreneurial, corporate and operational leadership experience and an aligned set of values centering on stewardship and long-term vision.
Norm shows great admiration for the legacy Jeff Carter has built at FarWest Fabricators.
“Over almost 25 years, Jeff has created a culture of people who are there for the long haul and there for each other, and yet open to innovation,” said Norm. “They’re excited about new ways of doing things, they’re excited about automation and they love the challenge of every day being different.”
Norm’s initial focus is two-fold: to sustain and extend FarWest Fabricators’ strong company culture, and to build on Jeff’s customer-first approach.
“What we will do is essentially cut and polish this diamond and make it everything we believe it can be. We’re going to build on what is indeed an amazing foundation,” said Norm.
Norm is keen to make sure the right values are prominent throughout the company and not just talked about, to make them live and breathe whether the changes are incremental (July 3 as a paid day off to accompany Independence Day) or profound (paid maternity leave, a first for the company). This means coming alongside employees with family and medical issues to work with them on scheduling. It also means a simple willingness to listen from Norm and his direct reports to anyone in the organization.
As he extends the company’s values-based culture, Norm is also leading a long-term effort to incorporate state-of-the-art manufacturing and supply chain processes with the Kaizen approach.
“The team is bought in, excited and ready to move fast, which is outstanding, but this effort is about evolution, not revolution,” said Norm. “As we codify processes, we need to make sure we harness those processes so they don’t ride roughshod over people. Process needs to serve people, not the other way around.”
Norm also observes that FarWest Fabricators’ Moxee location is a “tremendous advantage,” because there is plenty of real estate for the company to grow into, which it already owns. “We can double the physical plant without making major capital investments, or change our delivery routes,” said Norm.
All of this reinforces and energizes FarWest Fabricators’ longstanding customer-centric heritage, and will translate into deeper relationships based on trust and built for growth.
“The one-stop-shop capabilities Jeff built over the years gives us another advantage in sustaining and extending our relationships with our customers,” said Norm. “We’re proud of our history and we’re aware that trust is a matter of delivering every day, so we’re eager to keep finding new ways to prove ourselves, to be a great provider to our customers and a great partner for our suppliers. We see tremendous opportunity out there, and we’ll do what it takes to earn it.”
In all the complexity in any successful business, there is almost always something profoundly simple at its core. For FarWest Fabricators, it is this:
“I achieved my Dad’s dream, which is really something.” – Jeff Carter
FarWest Fabricators is a story of straightforward, no-frills inspiration translated into day-in, day-out integrity. A legacy for his grandfather, his dad—and now Jeff, well-known and respected as a fair and honest man. There are no more genuine examples of the American dream than that.
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Kevin Kutz is Principal of KK Strategies LLC, a communications strategy firm based in Redmond, WA. Drawing from a career that extends from the political realm to Fortune 500 companies, startups, nonprofits and most recently Microsoft, he builds and implements communications campaigns that help organizations of all sizes achieve their goals.