Midwest Success: From Small Sales Operation to U.S. Manufacturer
For years, many in America declared that U.S. manufacturing was dead, with refrains of “Asia can do it cheaper” and “no one wants to invest in manufacturing anyway.”
However, as the reshoring movement is showing us, the reality is quite different, with innovative companies building and growing across the country. A great example is Minnesota-based Legacy Building Solutions, a maker of engineered fabric-tension industrial and commercial structures. Founded by Ben and Ellie Fox in 2010, the company began as many do—by selling and servicing products manufactured by others.
“I was born here in central Minnesota and grew up on a family farm,” declares Ben Fox. “We started a business selling and installing fabric structures and grew the fabric structure installation business very rapidly to the point where we added over ten crews scattered around the world, installing fabric structures. In 2010, we founded Legacy and began manufacturing, designing and selling our product.”
From Sales and Service to U.S. Manufacturer
Beginning as a sales and service provider before venturing into manufacturing was the key to the success of Legacy’s enterprise. A major reason why so many start-up manufacturers struggle is due to the product-centric way that many companies operate: first they build a product, then they look for ways to sell and service it.
For Legacy, the manufacturing operation grew out of the need to support and serve their customers, explains COO Ellie Fox.
“When you’re installing and selling another company’s products, you don’t have the control of quality and timing. You’re at their mercy and you’re the middleman between your customer and the supplier,” Ellie says. “So, we initially began manufacturing our fabric for frames that were sourced from a supplier, and then we slowly evolved to manufacturing our steel frames. This year we expanded our production to include epoxy painting of our frames.”
It’s a customer-centric business model: if outside suppliers can’t create the product quality and customer experience necessary, then it’s time to bring production in-house.
Ben and Ellie Fox started simply, with the fabric wall panel coverings.
“We had quite a large facility at that point in time, but it was our maintenance building,” Ellie relates. “We modified that building to accommodate the large fabric panels because there is some sewing involved, but the majority of it is welded with hot air. The key was that we needed a large floor space. We could manufacture the panels with four to five people. It is labor intensive, but doesn’t require a lot of personnel for that part.”
Legacy fabric structures are built around structural steel skeletons, and are permanent structures with durability comparable to conventional construction. (Image courtesy of Legacy Building Solutions.)
Unlike simple temporary or tent structures, however, Legacy’s fabric panels are tensioned in two axes on rigid frames. Mistakes in the hot welding process are difficult or impossible to correct—so they have to be right the first time to make a durable outer shell for a long-lasting structure.
Ben had gathered considerable knowledge during his time with another company, which meant the basic knowledge base was already in place. And once the basic technology was set, Legacy went all-in and skipped the component-supplier phase of business development and went straight to offering complete, turn-key buildings.
The structural skeleton of a Legacy building is made of steel, which is fabricated using industry-standard techniques. Plasma cutting, machining, welding, fitting and finishing are all done in Legacy facilities. This vertical integration gives the company better control of quality, component delivery, lowers costs and minimizes inventory and work-in-process.
Fully Customized Turnkey Solutions
A natural way forward for a company growing into turnkey engineering solutions would be to offer stock products from standardized designs. Here, again, Legacydifferentiated itself by selling fully customized solutions.
Customization is demanding from an engineering perspective, but Legacy uses modern technology in the design office to keep costs and timelines under control.
“We use advanced software to design and render everything. It’s an intense amount of drafting. All those shapes and sizes are sent to the plant where the plasma tables cut the many pieces. Then, all of the pieces are welded together,” Ben says.
It sounds simple, but there are no off-the-shelf engineering software packages for fabric building design. Legacy engineers had to develop custom solutions in-house to solve this problem. The combination of computer aided design (CAD) with computer numerical control (CNC) production equipment lets Legacy design and build custom buildings with little difference in cost compared to standardized designs. The benefits to the customer are obvious: specialized buildings that fit precise requirements at costs similar to standard designs.
For simple storage or warehousing applications, the benefits are similarly simple: exactly the required amount of floor space, clear span and overhead height in a footprint optimized for the building site.
When it comes to more demanding users, however, the customization of a Legacy building is a major advantage. Structures that enclose special-purpose manufacturing equipment, highly corrosive materials such as fertilizers or chemicals, or specialized high-value assets such as airplanes—these all benefit from customized designs.
Legacy had one unique advantage in developing their business: they were their customer. With rapid growth after start-up in 2010, the company moved from their original building—one previously intended for maintenance—into their custom fabric building with attached offices. This was the fabric plant, and two years later the operation expanded with the addition of structural steel part production.
Ultimate Durability and Longevity Comes Down to the Fabric
Starting with fabric was essential to the business, as it is the key aspect of building durability and longevity.
Snow load, wind load, temperature extremes and UV exposure are all factors, says Ben. “All those factors come down to the quality of the fabric. The high weight PVC fabrics that we use, they’re the ultimate. They provide the ultimate longevity for intense UV, heavy snow loads and other extreme conditions. It’s about the quality of the fabric and also how the fabric is attached to the frames. You can have the best fabric in the world, but if it’s not attached, installed or tensioned correctly, it doesn’t work,” Ben says.
“Getting it all correct has been the key that’s worked for us. In the fabric building industry, there is a very wide gap between the high-quality structures and low-quality structures. That comes down to how well the fabric looks. A very well-installed fabric structure is hard to tell apart from a solid wall building, because it is so clean and crisp,” he adds.
Custom design allows Legacy structures to be tailored for specific needs, such as clear span storage or corrosion resistance. (Image courtesy of Legacy Building Solutions.)
Engineering and building the right products at the right price is fundamental to business success. However, sales are the fuel for any corporate machine, and for a company starting in the Midwest it would have been natural for Legacy to start small, serving local markets.
Once again, Legacy went all-in, leveraging the Internet and quickly building an international sales presence.
Ellie describes it simply. “After a year or two, we were able to reach into a global network. There were recessions here and not a lot of people were growing and expanding in the U.S., so there were years that the majority of our work was international. We have installers that travel through those various countries to either install buildings themselves or to serve as a tech representative and help the customer’s team install.”
This flexible strategy allows Legacy to handle installations in conditions as diverse as overseas U.S. military bases, remote mining or oil production sites, in deserts, or on mountaintops. It’s an organizational challenge to get teams, tools and materials to some of the remotest places in the world, from Africa to the Andes.
Lessons learned from field installations are fed back into the engineering process to refine future designs, notes Ben.
“Not everything works as drawn on paper. You have to test it, build it, make sure it works. It’s easy to manufacture, but it’s more difficult to manufacture things so that they install efficiently and correctly,” he says. “And that’s the key. I think that’s one of our successes: that we’ve always been a construction company, so when we started manufacturing and designing, we could engineer for the end goal that it installs efficiently and with a perfect finish.”
One Decade Down, With Many More to Come
Ten years is a short time to grow from a Midwest installer of fabric buildings into a global manufacturing and construction business, but Ben and Ellie Fox see more growth ahead.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that fabric structure market is growing and will continue to grow, especially with the higher quality buildings like ourselves,” says Ben. “I foresee that market to always continue to grow.”
Ellie is equally enthusiastic. “A lot of our focus over the past ten years has been on educating consumers about what we can do and to think outside the box with a fabric structure,” she declares. “Even for us, things that we didn’t think of ten years ago with our structures, we’re able to easily do now. We’re always going to continue to push the envelope in terms of R&D and product improvement. That will never stop.”