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FabTrol's rise: Couple turned idea into leading brand in steel fabrication
[September 08, 2008]

FabTrol's rise: Couple turned idea into leading brand in steel fabrication

(Register-Guard, The (Eugene, OR) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sep. 7--Back in the early 1980s, Eugene resident Douglas Cochrane was teaching himself how to program computers and write software to help steel fabricators more accurately estimate the costs of projects.

He had no idea his fledgling concept would turn into FabTrol, a global venture that now has 35 employees in Eugene.

And, in 1985, when Cochrane incorporated FabTrol, and Gerry Dennis, a savvy saleswoman who owned a welding shop in Veneta, joined the company, neither Douglas nor Gerry knew what was in store, personally or professionally.

"I don't think in our heart of hearts we thought this was going to go," she said last week at the company's offices on Willamette Street in Eugene.

The two were married in 1993, and over the years they built FabTrol into a leading supplier of software that helps steel fabricators with estimating costs, project management, drawing management, materials management and production control. The company has more than 1,050 customers in 22 countries.

Last week, the Cochranes sold their shares in FabTrol and their lives' work to the Dowco Group, a privately held, family-owned Canadian company. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"FabTrol is highly regarded in the North American steel construction fabrication market," said Dowco president Ewen Dobbie. "They are the pre-eminent dominant brand."

He said Dowco plans next year to expand FabTrol's international presence by setting up authorized resellers around the world.

As it expands internationally, FabTrol will remain headquartered in Eugene, Dobbie said. The Eugene office will continue to provide customer and technical service and become a training center for resellers. Dobbie projects FabTrol's 35-person staff in Eugene will grow by 10 percent to 15 percent in the next couple of years.

Fabricators say FabTrol software allows them to more accurately estimate project costs, and more effectively manage materials and production.

Walters Metal Fabrication initially had looked into FabTrol for estimating, said Don Porter, project engineer at the Granite City, Ill., company, which has used FabTrol for about two years.

"Then, once we got it for that and started looking at all the production features, we started using it for material purchasing and production," he said.

"It's like taking a big bucket of data and dumping it into FabTrol (software)," Porter said. The software sorts out the list of what parts are to be fabricated, and sends detailed work instructions to each machine in the shop.

Previously, a lot more of that organizational work had to be done by hand, and occasionally, operators had to manually enter data into a machine, he said.

The software saves a lot of time, Porter said, and more importantly, it eliminates the possibility of someone making a costly mistake.

The Cochranes said Dowco was among three companies that had expressed interest in buying FabTrol in the past six months.

They said they chose Dowco because the company's values closely tracked their own, and they believe that Dobbie has the vision, energy and resources to expand FabTrol.

"I think he can take us successfully internationally," Gerry Cochrane said.

The Cochranes said that for the sake of FabTrol's customers and employees, they wanted the company to continue beyond a single generation.

"I'm really committed to making this a 50-year company," Gerry Cochrane, 59, said. She became FabTrol's president in 1987, and added the CEO title in 1995.

Douglas Cochrane, 61, Fabtrol's founder and former chairman, stepped back from the company's day-to-day operations in 1998.

"We've had fabricators spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we're committed to be here. If we're not here, it's horribly expensive for them to implement a new system," Gerry Cochrane said.

The cost of the software package, plus implementation and training, ranges from $10,000 to $200,000, depending on the number of users.

That's quite a change from the $2,000 Cochrane's estimating program fetched when he made his first sale in 1982.

Douglas Cochrane grew up in the steel industry. His father operated a steel fabrication company in Boise during World War II. Cochrane had been chief estimator at a steel company before starting up a small welding shop in Eugene in 1981.

Drawing from his experience as an estimator, he thought that personal computers would have a place in steel fabrication shops.

"I got the idea that we should computerize some of this stuff because it was so tedious," Cochrane said.

But developing the computer program turned out to be complicated.

Cochrane looked into hiring a computer programmer to write the program he envisioned and was told it would cost $100,000.

So he teamed up with his brother Tom, who was between jobs and had been working with computers since the 1960s. "Tom told me, if you buy the computer and write the user's manual, I'll write the program," Cochrane recalled.

He did that, borrowing $10,000 from his mom, Carolee Cochrane. Then Tom Cochrane got a job on the East Coast, and Cochrane was back to square one.

Cochrane said he never really considered giving up on his idea.

"Either I was really smart, or I was a stubborn Scotsman," he said.

Over the course of a couple years, Cochrane hired a University of Oregon student and a consultant to work on the program. "During that time, I learned more myself" ?" enough to write the program that launched FabTrol, Cochrane said.

Cochrane took the program to industry trade shows and gathered enough leads to allow him to enlist Gerry Dennis, owner of a local welding shop with whom he had collaborated on other projects, to help make sales calls.

She agreed to help out just for a week or two, but ended up joining FabTrol when it incorporated in 1985 and later selling her welding shop.

Those early years were tough, Cochrane recalled.

"We sold software as hard as we could," he said. "If we could make one sale a month, we were in hog heaven."

Cochrane said he couldn't afford to keep his large Ferry Street home, so he sold it in 1987. A few years later, he and Gerry cashed out their 401(k) retirement plans in order to meet the monthly payroll, he said.

Cochrane said his wife is "very aggressive" when it comes to sales. "I remember Gerry telling (a prospective customer), 'I'm going to call you once a month, and after that I'll call you once a quarter,' " he said.

Through force of will, she ensured FabTrol came to dominate the sector and push major competitors in the United States and Canada out of business, Douglas Cochrane said.

Over the years, FabTrol became a leading software player in the North American steel industry because of the software's functionality and the service and support it provides customers, the Cochranes said.

"In the early ‘80s, other people were writing software," Gerry Cochrane said. "They'd write software, but not build the business around it to support it. We built the infrastructure to support the software."

FabTrol customer service technicians are highly committed, she said, offering the example of a technician who was on the phone working with a customer in Australia. It was the end of the work day in Eugene, so the technician told the customer she had to pick up her child from day care, but she would call him back. She helped that client until 8 p.m., while her manager looked after her baby, Gerry Cochrane said.

Douglas Cochrane offered this advice to other business owners: surround yourself with smart, talented people.

"Several times we have paid people more than we were paying ourselves to get real talent, and it's almost always been a contributor to our success," he said. "I hired Gerry in the first place, and she was smarter than I was by far and has proven that by taking this company beyond our wildest dreams."

The company does not disclose financial information.

Cochrane also said the best time to start a company is "when the economy is down and you're unemployed, because when the economy is good and you've got a job that pays you well, it's very hard to bite the bullet and go out on your own."

The Cochranes looked elated, if a bit stunned, after receiving official word of the sale on Wednesday.

"It is emotional leaving the company because it's something we've built forever," Gerry Cochrane said.

"While I'm personally not ready to leave the company, I know it's the right time for the company and I know it's the right buyer," she said.

"It's like selling the old family home," Douglas Cochrane said.

The couple will be based in Yachats, where a beautiful home and boat beckon, he said.

To help with the ownership transition, Gerry Cochrane said she'll "be in town as long as I can be of service." Then, she hopes to begin another venture.

"I have another business in me," she said. "I keep getting glimpses." She said she's not exactly sure what it will be, but she figures she'll start working on it in a few years, after she's rested up from her work at FabTrol.

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