These are the people who craft the infrastructure that we typically take for granted.
The familiar backdrop of a bridge’s curved steel trusses on our morning commutes. The steel gate that holds back thousands of gallons of water at a canal lock. The striking natural light let in by a glass-covered steel oculus. Or just a simple, rustic steel frame that signals a new school, hospital or business is about to go up.
Fabricating steel, the backbone of our infrastructure, for so many different uses is no easy task. It requires skill of the mind just as much as it requires skill of the hand.
Engineers gather and pore over drawings, measurements and architectural designs. From inside a manufacturing facility, workers cut and burn raw steel, form and weld it, and assemble it into a final product. Finally, they erect the steel out in the field.
Here is an inside look at STS Steel, one of Schenectady’s own longtime steel fabrication companies.
Labor of love
“I just love everything about this so much,” says STS president Glenn Tabolt.
He’s walking the length of STS Steel’s 62,000-square-foot warehouse, explaining various projects the company is working on when the heartfelt exclamation slips out.
Until then, Tabolt had stuck to the technical side of things. That worker is shaving a steel sphere for a Niskayuna science project. This guy (“He’s the best”) is operating that crane (“It lifts 75 tons”) to drop these steel beams in place. This guy (“He can figure anything out”) is drilling holes. This guy (“He’s the quietest guy ever”) is using oxy-fuel cutting equipment to melt steel for a bridge project.
But the professional engineer and Clarkson University graduate needed to get it out: “I love my job. I love this company.”
STS Steel, which employs 60 inside Building 304 at the Nott Street Industrial Park, has spent the last 28 years quietly earning a reputation as one of the best in its field. To the outside world, they’ve gone largely unnoticed, a steel plant in an industrial park off Erie Boulevard.
And just as its reputation is starting to pay off, the future is looking less certain for the company that sits right next door to a major redevelopment project.
“I think because we’ve been so quiet for so long, nobody really knows what we’re doing,” he said. “But we do these very impressive projects, and I think when people see them, they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize you guys did that.’ ”
Tabolt and co-founder Jim Stori started STS Steel in 1984 in a small Troy warehouse — 7,000 square feet that was affordable but had no bathrooms, let alone room to grow a business. They did the welding and fabricating during the day and accounting at night. By 1988, they had grown to 10 employees and run out of space.
“People had actually asked us about projects that were bigger, and we couldn’t do them over in Troy,” said Tabolt. “So when we saw this building, we thought, ‘Gee, well, some of those projects we could do in this building. It was nine times as big. That’s a huge step.”
The big space allowed them to do the complex projects other fabricators didn’t have the square footage for: curved trusses, complex cluster columns and large towers, among others.
They moved in January 1989, as General Electric was moving out. At the time, they also leased other buildings inside the industrial park, formerly the site where American Locomotive Company manufactured its trains. Several of those buildings were demolished when the Galesi Group began clearing the park out for a massive riverside redevelopment project expected to spur economic development.
Today, STS Steel has its warehouse on the site and a nearby facility where coats of paint are applied to finished products.
One Friday in June, employees are working on about five different projects, ranging from that steel sphere for Niskayuna High School students to use in science labs to a complex steel facade for the Fulton Street Transit Center in lower Manhattan.
“It’s just cool to build stuff,” said Tabolt.
The employees in the warehouse are fully decked out in safety gear — gloves, steel-toed boots, face shields and ear plugs. The work they’re doing can be rough and rudimentary (smacking a sledge hammer into a chisel) or intricate and analytical (trial assembling a girder bridge).
They’re all mentally prepping for the “it” project — the $29 million state-led overhaul of the Twin Bridges. The project was announced under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NY Works program, a $1.2 billion statewide infrastructure initiative that includes replacing the decks on the Thaddeus Kosciusko bridges over the Mohawk River.
STS Steel will fabricate the steel frame of the decks, and the Fort Miller Co. of Schuylerville will fill them with concrete slabs. The two Capital Region manufacturers formed a “strategic alliance” a while ago, combining forces for projects that require a close steel-concrete partnership.
When Tabolt describes anyone who works with or for STS Steel, he describes them like family.
“They’re great people,” he said of Fort Miller. “They’re honest, they work hard, their quality is good. They’re just really good people to work with, and we feel like we’re the same way.”
The attention that comes along with a project like the Twin Bridges is exciting, said Tabolt, but also creates pressure on his employees. Both STS Steel and Fort Miller have to have their components ready to go by Labor Day, when the decks will be replaced on the northbound bridge. They will be out in the field for six weekends, erecting the steel until it’s finished.
“It’s very exciting, sure,” he said, “but we’re generally a kind of quiet company. We don’t go out and look for publicity or things like that. I think we are kind of humble. Even though I think we do a good job at things, we don’t go around bragging about it.”
These are the people whose work was used for the University at Albany’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Technology Management building, the Times Union Center, Albany International Airport, St. Peter’s and Glens Falls hospitals and Proctors.
The company’s canal gates, which required years of experience to perfectly craft, have been used for 54 of the 55 locks that make up the state’s canal system.
They fabricated their first one in 1990, and struggled. Lock gates are doors that need to line up “pretty precisely” in order not to leak. This is a difficult task because welding steel tends to distort it, said Tabolt. If the steel ships with a gap in one spot, a contractor has to spend a lot of time on scene custom-fitting a piece of wood that locks into a casting.
“They are definitely difficult,” said Tabolt, “but it went in, and everything went well, and then we started doing another one and another one, and we got better and better at it. We take a lot of time and effort into figuring out the manufacturing process to get them straight. So it’s from experience, observation and adjustment, and we use a little bit of theoretical knowledge to try to predict what’s going to happen.”
Over the years and with refined techniques, STS Steel has shown a craftsmanship in its work that landed it bigger and more profitable projects. These are the qualities that allow a business to expand.
Except STS Steel has run out of space. It’s now landlocked.
The company filed a summons in early June in state Supreme Court against the developer of the former Alco site for allegedly blocking access to property it’s had access to for 23 years. The Gazette wrote about the dispute, and Tabolt declined to discuss the lawsuit for this story.
But he did address the steel fabrication company’s future.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to expand here,” he said from his second-story office inside of Building 304.
It overlooks an expanse of industrial land that’s used up. Construction vehicles sit on the property, and random steel components lie on dirt patches. After its other building was demolished, it had to pull the steel from that building out. Some of it is finished product that needs to be shipped; some is raw material coming in for the next job.
“It created a little bit of a mess in the backyard,” said Tabolt.
After 23 years in the community, STS Steel wants to stick around. Work is steady as usual, if not more abundant.
“You can see right now that things have developed to where we’re not going to be able to expand,” he said, looking out the window from his office, “so that concern has actually become a reality now. Whatever we could buy or lease, we’re already doing.”
As the mounds of fill next door are leveled off in the coming year and a multistory hotel and riverside apartment complex go up, Tabolt is hoping for the best.
“I’m hoping that we can work together to achieve the development that they would like to see, while preserving our company’s strong history that we’ve had here,” he said. “And part of that strong history is not just the good jobs that we’ve created, but we’ve been good citizens here, as well. I feel like we’re part of the community, and more than just a job count.”