Ellis Steel Co. has been in business for 83 years, the last 30 years under the current management, an impressive record for longevity on both counts.
President and general manager Frank Hopper, who has been with Ellis since 1980, had a simple explanation for why the company has successfully operated for so long. “Our success is attributed to the hard work and dedication of our employees,” he said. “Just serving our customers and doing the job we need to do as a very competitive fabricator.”
That simple, get-the-job-done philosophy also is on display on the company’s website, which lists under its business hours “weekends: as necessary.” That basic work ethic has paid off for Ellis. “It is one of the longest continuing operating steel companies in the South,” Hopper said.
The company founder, E.B. Ellis, was working for a steel company in St. Louis that took on a project in Jackson in 1926. “He came to Jackson and saw there were no fabricators there, so in 1927 he opened that business,” Hopper said.
The office was moved to West Point around 1955, and the present owners bought it in 1980.
Today there are 150 employees. In addition to the corporate office, Ellis Steel has fabricating steel facilities in West Point, Olive Branch and Montgomery, Ala.
“We do the skeleton, the structural steel, for a building,” Hopper said, likening the process to using an erector set.
A major customer since 1999 is retail behemoth Walmart, which is handled by a separate division of Ellis Steel under a national contract. “We do the structural framing for Walmart,” Hopper said. “We don’t do every store but we do a lot of their stores.” Without giving any details, he said Walmart represents “a large percentage of our business.”
Ellis Steel has done the structural steel work on most of Mississippi’s casinos and many other highly visible buildings. Major projects include the Hard Rock Casino Hotel in Biloxi, the Medtronic Office Building in Memphis, the addition to the LSU football stadium in Baton Rouge and the first two phases of Renaissance@ Colony Park.
Hopper estimates the largest project was Beau Rivage Casino in Biloxi. Another project in Biloxi, the Frank Gehry designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art was the most complicated, with its unusual slopes, angles and “pieces of steel going in all different directions,” Hopper said. “It was designed in a 3-D design package, which is relatively new. It was no more than 150 tons but it took the man hours of a 1,000-ton job.”
Ellis does approximately 160 years a year, Hopper said. Current projects include renovations at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport; the Century Link Office Complex in Monroe, La.; and First Baptist Church in Madison.
Hopper said the steel used by Ellis is all domestic mill material mainly from Arkansas and Tennessee. “Nucor is one of our large suppliers,” he said.
Most of the Ellis workforce consists of fabricators and fitters “who put marks on steel beams, cut the beams and drill holes so the steel can be bolted to connections,” Hopper said. Contract engineers are hired to interpret the design work of the engineer of record and subcontractors do the steel erection work. For large projects, they come from Jackson, Mobile and New Orleans.
Hopper said the biggest change in the steel business that he’s seen has been computer aided drafting. “It was all hand done when we started, just computers and slide rules, really. Now everything is input into a detailing software program that generates drawings that we do.
The detailing time has dropped from 12 to 14 weeks to now 6 to 8 weeks.”
When asked about the future for his business and industry, Hopper looks back to the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 and its lingering effects. “The construction industry dropped off about 40 percent, and it’s growing back at 3 or 4 percent a year. You can do the math to see how long it’s going to take us to get back to where we were. So the construction industry is still somewhat depressed,” he said.
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