Driving down Interstate 80 in Nebraska, a massive, multicolored hot air balloon greets motorists about to pass through York. That balloon, though, is curiously immobile, moored to the ground thanks to tons of steel and concrete and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.
The project, completed last year by J. R. Stelzer Co., has turned a uniquely-shaped tower into a local icon. “It’s even on their stationary and Chamber of Commerce communications,” noted founder and principal, Jim Stelzer. “We used a fluoropolymer that we believe will maintain gloss and color for 20 plus years. An eye catching project can be a real sense of pride for the community, and cities that don’t even put letters or logos on their tanks are missing a golden opportunity. True that it’s a little bit cheaper, but they’re missing out on advertising the quality of their city.”
Stelzer, now based in Lincoln, Neb., got his start in 1973 while a senior at the University of Nebraska majoring in Economics and Finance. A new fraternity house was being built, but construction was being held up because the painter hadn’t finished and Stelzer offered to help. The contractor took notice of his hard work and knack for the trade and recruited him and some friends to paint apartment complexes in town. Stelzer explained that “after graduation, my goals were more to pursue the industrial part of the industry. And now I’ve never had a fulltime job working for someone else…part time yes, but I started out on my own company right after college.”
In 1975, Stelzer completed his first water tower project, and it’s been the company’s focus ever since.
Growth and Advice
J. R. Stelzer Co. has projects all over Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Northern Texas, with jobs in the latter especially during the winter when weather in the Midwest turns inhospitable. Stelzer’s 14-person team can work on multiple projects at any given time, but the size still remains manageable. In addition to coating water towers, the company also does welding repair, valve replacements, fencing, and irrigation. Currently Stelzer is working on a 2 million gallon (~7.6 million L) tank in Carrolton, Texas, and a 1 million gallon (~3.8 million L) tank in York, Neb., though they won’t be more fanciful hot air balloons.
“We are happy with where we are at right now,” Stelzer said. “We continue to take on whatever people ask us to do in addition to what we seek out, and we’ll maintain relatively slow growth. Being a specialty [contractor] and the fact we’re selling ourselves as a better package than our competition, we can’t grow too quickly based on that. I don’t know that I want to be large for the sake of being large.”
For Stelzer, advice for other contractors includes that it’s important to constantly set yourself apart and make your product a better long-term value, especially when dealing with municipal projects. “Public works often go with the low bid, but 40 percent of the time we’re not the lowest,” he explained. “They’re coming around, and we’re really happy about that.”
Stelzer offered some advice for those just starting out: “Make sure you maintain high standards for quality and production. Quality being the most important, along with the necessary safety to be able to do business. Have a knack for working with people, so the objective is that if you know how to do it, you have to be able to teach others how to do it.” He also stressed the importance of finding a niche and becoming a well-regarded expert in that field.
“What I tried to do was find projects that very few people were interested in and capable of doing that had a reasonably high degree of difficulty. You reduce competition and feel more appreciated for what you’re providing,” he added. In the end, his goal is to provide a top quality job and make fair money.
Work and Play
“To this day, I still love the trade,” Stelzer mused. “I love the results, and it’s very gratifying. I think that serves well with maintaining the right attitude. It’s not just about dollars and cents.”
Stelzer explained one regret he has had along the way: “I wish I would have worked a little harder to find people I could delegate to. I tend to do more myself than I should.”
Despite the hard work over the past four decades, Stelzer still manages to get away to sunny locations when work slows down during winter, such as the Bahamas, Arizona, and Southern California. Year-round he enjoys time with his eight grandchildren. His success with people extends from work to home.