Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen, Saudi Arabia 1977

The Fabsteel Company was a steel fabricating business with operations in Waskom, Texas. My law firm had initially represented its general manager Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen.

A Shreveport resident, the concern he headed was a subsidiary of Universal Oil Products. UOP (now Honeywell UOP) at the time was a leading international licensor of proprietary industrial technologies for the petroleum refining, gas processing, and the petrochemical production industries. It had become somewhat bloated in the 1960s as it grew into a conglomerate beyond these fields. It ended up owning businesses as diverse as fragrances, food additives, copper mining, forestry and was even manufacturing truck seats and aircraft galleys. Among these more extraneous assets in its portfolio, was its steel fabrication plant in Waskom.

Part of its specialized work was turning steel mill products such as ingots, slabs, sheets, beams, and rebar into the peculiar shapes needed to build complex industrial facilities.

The fabrication process took the different steel mill products and cut them into strange, curved shapes that could end up being welded together into the maze of vessels, towers, ladders, and pipes that make up an oil refinery or plant producing plastics.

Fabsteel’s niche in the market was the very high component of labor needed for each ton of the steel it fabricated.

When UOP’s earnings in the 1970s had begun to slide, it decided to stick to its knitting and it sold off most of its forays into non-core businesses. When its Waskom property was to be sold, the most logical buyer was its manager. Whoever it was sold to would likely entail UOP loaning the buyer much of the purchase price to the buyer, hoping it got paid back someday. With Jerry Kaplan in the lead of the transaction, I was in the trenches travelling to Waskom and spending days at a time shuffling between Fletcher’s home in Shreveport, Louisiana and the Waskom plant, a short drive across the Red River in East Texas.

After he bought it, Fletcher had renamed the UOP subsidiary The Fabsteel Company.  To represent Fabsteel’s interests properly I had to understand the business from the bottom up. What fun that was! For most of the 1970s, I regularly flew to Shreveport and back on my legal work. From their I would visit fabrication plants it had acquired there, in Mississippi and or Indiana or head out to the nearby Waskom plant. These facilities were enormous, high-ceilinged open structures, with overhead cranes used to move the heavy steel pieces that were being fabricated. The noise could be deafening as torches cut complicated shapes out of the raw steel, and welders were at work everywhere. Periodically, large, finished components would be taken by an overhead crane to a large vat of molten zinc. One dip into the pool of zinc and the piece would be lifted out with a thin galvanized finish that would be ready to last a lifetime outdoors in a refinery or like destination without ever rusting.

For me, leaving my spare lawyer office in Chicago to travel to Saudi Arabia or ramble about one of Fabsteel’s plants in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Indiana was always something I enjoyed. Worksites where the finished products ended up needed to be visited as well. I vividly remember clambering up ladders on stacks and vessels and crossing narrow platforms high above an oil refinery in Houston’s Chocolate Bayou.  While this was regarded by some to be grungy work, to me it was truly the high life.