When you ask locals about Crystal Steel Fabricators in Delmar, many have a vague knowledge of its existence. It sits at the edge of town, beyond the water plant and feed mill on the west side of railroad tracks it does not use to ship steel. What many people may not know is that Crystal Steel is a premiere manufacturer of steel with a global presence. Headquartered in Delmar, it has offices in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Manila and employs hundreds of people internationally.
The company has supplied steel for one of the most haunting 911 memorials in the country (the Empty Sky memorial at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., the United States Diplomacy Center in Washington, D.C., and many of the new buildings both at Salisbury University and UMES.
A decade ago, the company’s annual income was in the neighborhood of a few million dollars. Today it does about $60 million annually and continues to grow. It’s a massive success story that starts, astoundingly, with a classified advertisement.
Building a Steel Company
John Lo, the company’s founder and one of the top structural steel engineers of his day, had been working for a company brokering billion-dollar construction deals when he saw an ad in the Washington Post announcing that Crystal Steel in Delmar was for sale. The building had been a button factory in the early 20th century and moved to steel fabrication in the later half of it. A Chinese national with a good background in steel production, Lo saw it as an opportunity to strike out into a new approach to doing business, doing specialty and niche steel work.
Square buildings are easy, but increasingly governments, colleges, hospitals and private corporations want buildings with character beyond the rectangular. Providing the steel for a circular building, or one with a sweeping oval roof or, like the Silver Spring Library, one that essentially hangs upside down, takes a fantastic amount of engineering John and eventually his son Bill (who runs the international day to day operations from the Delmar offices) decided to focus on cultivating the growing demand for these types of buildings.
They set up shop in Delmar in 2001 and have grown substantially through the years, even as the construction sector flagged.
Creating Success in the Niche Steel Marker
It wasn’t just that they were good at providing specialized as well as standard steel work, it was that the company employed top structural engineers to bring innovative architectural ideas to life.
For example, the Silver Spring Library called for one of the corners of the building to be suspended without obvious support, with the top four floors above the entrance appearing to float about the street. Using specialized engineering software and creative thinking, the group conceived of a structural solution that put all the weight (essentially) on the top corner of the building.
Although it is an impressive feat to the uninitiated, Emad Mohamed, the structural engineer who is the company’s vice president, is more excited about the less obvious, but more creatively challenging aspects of Crystal Steel’s work. This is particularly true of the sweeping ovals it has employed on buildings like the Dulles Metro stations and the Liberty National Golf Club.
Reaching Out Across the World
Steel manufacturing is a multi level process and isn’t all done at the Delmar site. Crystal Steel, for example, doesn’t work with molten steel in any traditional way. The first step of steel fabrication is either the smelting of ore or the recycling of used steel. The raw steel is then shaped into beams (or sheets or pipes, etc.) and shipped to places like Crystal Steel for what might be called finishing, but is so much more complex than that.
Mohamed explained that the company’s strength isn’t in its ability to put the steel together, although that is a critical part, it is in the ability to envision how the steel should be put together.
It seems as small point, but getting the structural engineering done has been the company’s engine for growth. That and its diversification within the industry.
Imagine you want to build a massive steel building. You want it framed as well as finished out in steel according to the architect’s specifications. Some companies make steel beams, some make specialized steel beams, similarly with stairs and handrails and frames for windows. The different kinds of steel manufacturing are structural, miscellaneous and ornamental respectively. Crystal Steel works in all three of those categories, which is one of the things that makes them very competitive.
Major builders don’t need to hire one structural steel company to provide the frame, another to provide the staircases and a third to provide the handrails. Moreover, because of its structural engineering expertise, Crystal Steel is able to come up with elegant solutions to architectural challenges.
“You have to have the right talent,” Mohamed said. “We have top talent.”
And they’re always looking for more.
Earlier this summer U.S. Senator Chris Coons visited the plant and met with Mohamed, Lo and other top staff. Talking about the challenges they had getting and keeping talented workers, Mohamed said that the company works closely with schools on both sides of the state line to recruit and train welders, pipe fitters and even general laborers.
“We’re always hiring,” he said. “Always looking for good help.”