Local modular construction company thrives in tough economic times

Charleston Post and Courier
Charles Williams, Staff Writer
October 1, 2001

Even in bad economic times, some companies thrive.

Jacobs Applied Technology is one of them.

The Bushy Park designer and builder of modular units for industrial facilities around the world is expected to increase its workforce from 200 people to possibly 800 in the next few years.

“In the difficult times like we’re in now, we need more news like that,” said Jim Rozier, Berkeley County supervisor.

The company is in the prefabrication business. It designs and builds pre-assembled units or modules in its massive 94-acre manufacturing complex on the Cooper River industrial corridor. It’s kind of like taking mobile home construction to a much larger industrial scale.

The units can be the size of a desktop to a four-story building.

Revenues last year were $26 million and Jacobs anticipates a doubling next year. The expansion is being fueled by a number of large contracts.

“Our next two years will be the best we’ve ever had,” said general manager Michael Tate. “We could go up to 700 or 800 people.”

The flurry of new, multimillion-dollar projects include building modules for a pharmaceutical company and for certain industries in the food, chemical and refining fields.

While Tate wouldn’t disclose the names of the new customers, past clients are among the world’s largest companies: Dow Chemical, Chevron Chemical, BP, Astaris, Rhodia and Conoco.

“Our client list is highly diversified,” he said.

More than 70 percent of the company’s revenues are with repeat customers, said Paul Hochi, marketing services manager.


What makes Jacobs different from so-called stick-building construction firms is that it does its work indoors, which can save time and money.

“If it rains here, the workers continue working. If it rains on the job site, they are sent home,” Tate said.

The company designs and builds the huge steel and alloy-framed modules, complete with equipment, piping and instrumentation, inside two major manufacturing buildings. Jacobs has a total of 400,000 square feet, including a mammoth 26-story building that’s considered the largest structure in South Carolina.

The modules are shipped by rail, truck or barge worldwide for assembly as units. Most of the projects are in the United States, but units have been shipped as far as China.

“Modular construction gives us the ability to reduce the schedule of the project,” Tate said. “We do most of the work under a roof. Weather is not an issue. We also have developed work processes that make us more efficient.”

Modules are built horizontally, so the workers are never more than a few feet off the ground.

The work is spread out on the shop floor and workers have better access.

“Having the workers that close to the ground improves productivity and is inherently safer,” Hochi said. “Last year we completed over 460,000 work hours with no lost-time accidents.”

For a $90 million expansion project in 1999 at Chevron Chemical in Belle Chasse, La., Jacobs saved the company five months in production time.

“The actual duration of start-up was one of the industry’s best,” said Gary Enk, technical manager for Chevron. “The main benefit is the schedule advantage you get by building off site.”

Hochi said that Jacobs finished a multimillion dollar project for a major U.S. pharmaceutical company in Ireland last year that was 30 percent faster than was possible with traditional construction methods.

“Modular construction enabled us to meet aggressive schedules at a time when local labor was scarce,” said one of the client’s project engineers.

Jacobs also recently completed a $3 million reactor project for Ashland Specialty Chemical in Calumet City, Ill.

“We had one year to get a reactor engineered, constructed and making resin,” said R. Kevin Floyd, Ashland Specialty Chemical’s project manager.

“Usually it would take two years to stick-build a reactor at an operational plant. The only way to go was modular construction. Jacobs designed and built the system in eight months; we were operational in nine months.”


The parent company is Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies.

Jacobs Applied Technology dates to the 1940s when two Orangeburg engineers, Parks Newton and W.W. Dukes, founded Applied Engineering. The South Carolina operation was acquired by Jacobs eight years ago.

The plant moved from Orangeburg to the former General Dynamics site in Berkeley County three years ago because the company needed more space and access to a major port.

“It gave us the ability to build much larger modules for facilities,” Tate said.

The company shouldn’t have any problems recruiting new workers, which include welders, pipe fitters, electricians, engineers and designers.

Jacobs offers advantages not typically found in construction, Tate said.

Craftsmen have steady employment in a business where workers traditionally travel from job to job and may be out of work for months at a time. Company workers are also paid a competitive wage, he said.

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