Metal fabrication is intricate, specialized work requiring an exacting skill set. “We’re really good at it,” says Ronda Cross, CEO of Big C Industries (Big C). The company’s office and fabrication shop are in Longview, Washington.
Big C performs miscellaneous steel fabrication, custom fabrication and structural fabrication primarily in the Portland area for general contractors including Turner Construction, Howard S. Wright and Skanska. The company designs and makes stairs, handrails and guardrails, bollards, ledger angles, steel concrete supports (embeds), brackets, shims, plates and parts, building frames, moment frames, columns and beam supports.
Ronda, a certified welder and journeyman ironworker, has more than 15 years of construction and steel fabrication experience. She co-founded the company in 2015 with industry veteran Tom Ball, who continues to work for the company as an estimator.
Ronda is now the sole owner of the 32-person business. Big C is a certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) in Washington and Oregon and is also certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). The company is an American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) certified fabricator and accredited with an A+ rating by the Better Business Bureau, Longview, Washington.
The work Big C produces is often highly visible and exposed to the public. An example is the stairway with blackened finish the company designed and built for a major renovation of the 1320 SW Broadway building in Portland.
“There’s no wiggle room on the quality of miscellaneous metals production; for example, a pretty metal railing,” Ronda says. “People touch it, so it has to be safe to handle. The welds have to look good and everything has to be sealed.”
After working for a general contractor in California, Ronda returned to her native Washington to be closer to family. She took a job as receptionist for a fabricator where she met Tom, who became her mentor. “Tom had worked in the industry for more than 20 years. He provided me with a strong foundation in steel and taught me everything I could soak up and learn, including how to weld and cut materials.”
She came to love the industry and love what fabricators do. She was recognized for her commitment and achievements by the Daily Journal of Commerce with a Women of Vision award in 2016.
The “C” in Big C stands for communication—with customers and employees. The company’s name came out of a hunting trip. During a conversation between Tom and his hunting buddies, they agreed that communication, or the lack of it, is the root cause of every business success—and every failure.
When employees take the time to walk over from the shop to Ronda’s office, her priority instantly becomes that person. “We stop, listen and take care of that employee,” she says. “To remain productive, it’s essential that we are meeting their needs.”
It’s equally important to her that employees always listen to each other.
Big C and its employees are committed to providing excellent customer service at job sites. “We hear through the grapevine, and from customers, that our field crew has a reputation for a can-do attitude,” Ronda says. For example, one day, the masonry contractor was running behind schedule so the Big C team jumped in and gave him a hand. In another instance, a contractor was lacking proper equipment for solving a problem, so the Big C crew shared their own equipment for the day.
“We are always going to help and act as an extension of the team on the job site,” Ronda says.
“Our goal was to flip the traditional steel fabrication workshop model upside down: shop employees should come first, not last,” Ronda says. “They perform the hard, physical work that makes or breaks a business. When they care greatly about what they are doing, they produce quality work for customers.”
She is also committed to giving employees ownership of their individual processes and encouraging them to share ideas. “The path to completing a project may differ from one employee to another. If an employee wants to try something new and different, as long as it’s safe and costs are controlled, we say ‘yes.’ ” Ronda jokes that she doesn’t care how the baby is made; she just wants to see the baby!
Safety is always top of mind. All employees, no matter how experienced, go through full safety training on company equipment. “Even if someone has driven a forklift for 20 years, I want them to understand the way I want them to operate our forklift,” Ronda explains.
The company pays 100% of the cost of medical, dental and vision insurance for its employees and their dependents. Big C also provides employees with work boots, coveralls, welding helmets and even healthy snacks.
The company expanded to fieldwork in 2018. Ronda completed superintendent training for ironworkers and has been out in the field on several of the company’s projects.
The largest project to date was the 9North building in Portland for Howard S. Wright Construction Co. Big C completed all of the structural steel work for the project.
Big C’s field employees are union ironworkers. Just as in the fab shop, “these guys are our priority,” Ronda says. “I can give them boots, but I can’t give them a controlled environment in the field. However, I can do everything in my power to make their environment safe.”
The company provides employees with a stretch and flex program with an industrial therapist to address physical issues, whether work-related or not. “By the time ironworkers retire, they’re often dealing with wear and tear on their knees and backs. I want to make sure they can still play with their grandkids,” she adds.
When new hires join Big C, they are paired with experienced employees. “We encourage our seasoned team members to consider ideas from their mentees; sometimes they bring fresh new perspective that changes the way we do things.”
Experienced crews will eventually retire. Workforce sustainability in construction trades includes managing employees from multiple generations, from Baby Boomers to Generation Z.
“Big C is always looking for men and women who are excited about learning and succeeding in this field. By design, our system is coed in every way. It’s a comfortable work environment for both men and women,” Ronda says. She is encouraged to see more young women in trades programs in the schools today.
Shop Superintendent Matt Montgomery prepares students to enter the real world of steel fabrication work. He shares his nearly 30 years of steel fabrication wisdom by teaching at the Lower Columbia College in Longview and local high school trades classes. As part of their education, students tour the Big C shop, touch and feel the steel, and learn what it takes to become a team member.
Ronda is committed to supporting the local community and making it better. She is especially attuned to meeting the needs of children. “There are more than 400 students registered as homeless in our community,” she remarks. Ronda makes sure that shower kits for homeless students are always available at the YMCA of Southwest Washington, where kids can attend to their hygiene before heading off to school.
Big C contributes time and treasure to several other organizations: providing 900 backpacks filled with school supplies through the city of Longview; donating school supplies and meals for families served by Cowlitz Foot Patrol Community Outreach; and annually supporting Royal Family KIDS’ camp for foster children as well as providing those kids with the experience of riding in a local parade, seated on a flatbed pulled by a Big C truck.
Employees participate in community events as well, such as the annual Squirrel Fest. During Fostering Love’s annual Christmas party for foster children, Ronda put together a craft area and did activities with the kids, in addition to providing presents and pajamas.
Written on a whiteboard in the Big C office is a fitting statement: “We don’t sell steel; we sell customer service.”
Since opening its doors, Big C has experienced a steady stream of repeat business and referrals. “Customers come back to us,” Ronda says. “We make sure their needs are met. We also leave space in our schedule to say ‘yes’ to their hot, turnkey jobs. That’s the service level we sell.
“We always believed that customer service was more important than anything else,” Ronda adds. “We just keep growing and moving forward.”