For more than two decades, a South Whitley manufacturing company has been gaining ground in the competitive market of modular fabrication and buildings. With its latest acquisition, that company plans to expand its customer base and reach upward – up to 20 stories.
"We plan to gain more access to the New York and East Coast markets," said Simon E. Dragan, owner and president of Whitley Manufacturing, which earlier this year purchased the Capsys Corp. in Brooklyn, New York.
With four manufacturing plants – two in Indiana, one in Pennsylvania and another near Seattle – Dragan’s company designs and builds temporary and permanent structures, including classrooms, dormitories, office buildings, medical facilities and upscale hotels.
Modular buildings, sometimes called prefabricated, are structures assembled or manufactured off-site. Often less expensive than buildings constructed on-site, modular buildings have several other advantages, including being less disruptive at the time of construction.
Modular construction was associated with prisons, military barracks and construction sites, according to the Modular Building Institute, a trade association for manufacturers, contractors and suppliers in the industry. But over the last decade as methods of construction have evolved, the popularity has grown. Advanced eye-pleasing designs and speed of construction have improved so that modular construction in some cases is sometimes preferred over traditional techniques, according to the Modular Building Institute.
Some of Whitley Manufacturing’s projects include modular buildings for Rolls-Royce Energy Systems in Mount Vernon, Ohio; the Marysville Arts and Technology campus in Marysville, Washington; the Frank & Anne Oropeza Residence Hall at Indiana Tech; and the Ross School of Business Administration at the University of Michigan. Over the last two decades, the company has received more than three dozen awards from the MBI.
Doing business on the East Coast, particularly in densely populated areas, won’t be easy, Dragan said.
The East Coast market is complicated, especially in New York City, said John Morrison, vice president of Mark Line Industries located in Bristol, Indiana. He is also on the board of directors of MBI.
"We’re not really competitors," he said of Whitley Manufacturing. Until four years ago, Morrison worked in marketing and business development at Whitley.
Morrison called the business a "high-wage, highly regulated market." On the East Coast, though, the logistics are different. "You can’t just store materials and equipment nearby," he said, "there just isn’t space."
Modular construction reduces the timeline for getting an office or hotel up and running by about 40 percent, Morrison said, "and doing business is a real challenge."
Dragan was executive vice president of Williams Scotsman, a prominent company in the modular construction industry located in Baltimore, when he bought Whitley Manufacturing. He started at Williams Scotsman as a draftsman after migrating to the United States in 1970 from a refugee camp in Austria. He saw potential in Whitley Manufacturing and decided to take a chance.
"The company had good people," he said, "and (Dragan) thought it could be competitive with a different strategy."
That different strategy, he said, involved widening the company’s potential market.
"Instead of selling exclusively to the parent company," he said, "we sold to everybody. That continues to be our strategy today."
His company has other advantages, Dragan said. "My Pennsylvania factory is 100 miles from New York City," he said. And his plant in the state of Washington is near Seattle.
Company planners have a thorough understanding of U.S. construction codes and business practices, he said, knowledge that helps offset some of the advantages foreign competitors might have.
It didn’t take long for Dragan’s strategy to make a difference, said James Sack, the company’s former marketing manager and a long-time friend of Dragan’s.
"I sat in strategy meetings," Sack said. "I saw how Simon made the company more competitive with foresight and insistence on excellence – in the product and from employees."
Dragan said his company has thrived in part by being flexible in the market place.
"Initially, we built construction trailers," he said, "and then classrooms, entire schools and eventually, large office and medical buildings."
The key to being flexible is people, he emphasized. "We hire the best and we expect them to produce their best."
Dragan is 69, but doesn’t expect to retire any time soon.
"It (manufacturing) is what I know," he said, "and I really enjoy doing it."
But Dragan expects his only son, Sam, to become more involved in the company and to assume a leadership role. "I’m very optimistic about the future," Dragan said.