QB Fabrication & Welding isn’t a household name. In fact, the company doesn’t even have a marketing department. But its work is hiding in plain view throughout the Pacific Northwest, where it helps power everything from toasters to Teslas.
The family owned business fabricates electrical transmission infrastructure, including substation components and towers that can support up to 500 kV of capacity, which is enough electricity to power more than 1 million homes. The company can produce more than 500,000 pounds of fabricated steel monthly at its 5-acre facility in Clackamas. Even so, QB Fabrication & Welding would like to expand its footprint and its workforce to support a long list of projects related to the expansion of the region’s transmission network.
QB Fabrication & Welding is a large operation now. But it originated only a few decades ago in the Vancouver back yard of Ben Quach (above), whose family escaped Vietnam in 1976 following the withdrawal of American troops. The upheaval cost Quach his welding and machine shop in Vietnam, but his skill followed him to Washington state, where he worked on Navy ships while going to school to learn new welding techniques.
Determined to work for himself, Quach started a portable-welding business, borrowing against the family home to buy the necessary equipment. His search for work – and a fascination with transmission towers – took him to the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the electricity produced by federal dams in the Columbia River Basin.
Eventually, the BPA gave Quach a job. The agency called him one day at 3 p.m., he recalls, and asked if he could produce a critical part for a big project on a quick turnaround. He immediately cut and welded the piece himself, then drove it to a nearby shop to have it galvanized. He stayed up all night to finish the $500 project and even lost money doing it. But he delivered the part on time and established a relationship with the BPA as an emergency contract fabricator.
This relationship led to a succession of ever-larger projects. By 1995, QB Fabrication & Welding had outbid several companies for a roughly $300,000 contract to refurbish parts of the Umatilla Fish Hatchery. It was a big job for QB Fabrication, says Quach, who rented an apartment nearby for five weeks to oversee the work and borrowed to procure material. But it was a success, and the company soon began to bid on transmission towers and transitioned away from emergency contract work.
To accommodate its growth, QB Fabrication & Welding leased a facility in Portland, where increasing costs eventually led in 2015 to the purchase of its current location east of I-205 in Clackamas.
QB Fabrication & Welding is now the largest producer of steel lattice towers in the Northwest, employing 25 people at its 130,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. In addition to the BPA, it has completed projects for Portland General Electric, NorthWestern Energy, PacifiCorp, BC Hydro, Ampjack Industries and many other companies. Its current pipeline includes a $7.3 million project for utility supply chain manager Wesco and more than two dozen towers for an upgraded transmission line crossing the Hanford site near Richland, Wash.
Along with its success, the company faces challenges. Some of these involve the transition to a second generation of family management, says Ivy Quach, Ben’s daughter and the company’s chief financial officer. Ivy and brother James, the current general manager, are working to restructure the business for the next generation in order to allow Ben to retire soon.
Ben is still actively involved with the company, however, and his role underscores another challenge: finding employees qualified to do highly specialized work. This includes not only people who can operate sophisticated machinery and weld, but also those who, like Ben, can estimate and buy the structural steel needed for the kinds of large projects QB Fabrication & Welding does. To mitigate workforce challenges, the company invests in its employees by providing a competitive salary and benefits, abundant training and tuition reimbursement, among other things, says human resources specialist Fred Wannesson. Still, finding qualified applicants is difficult, and replacing Ben’s estimating and purchasing expertise is nearly impossible.
As problems go, though, accommodating growth is a good one to have. Given the region’s rapid shift to electrification and integration of renewable generation sites – all of which require infrastructure – QB Fabrication & Welding may have plenty of growth to accommodate in the coming years. Perhaps now more than ever, Ben Quach’s decision to lose money and a night of sleep to fabricate a $500 part looks like a great one.