In 1971 a young Oregon couple, Andrew and Diane Ulven, had a life-determining decision to make.
Andy had a couple of years of law school behind him, had worked in sales for a few years, and had previously worked more hands on with "hot metal." Diane had a tidy savings account.
When the couple discussed their future, they decided that a life in which they were able to make their own decisions, decide their own fate, was preferable to other options before them. So they took $3,000 and purchased Molalla Iron Works, described in reminiscene as "a two-man operation producing low volume products, mostly pins and repair parts, on a 500 pound Little Giant trip hammer."
At that time the metal works enterprise primarily supplied parts to timber operations, and the parts were generally ones that larger companies didn't want to bother producing.
Fast forward a half century and the Ulven Companies is a multi-tiered, multi-generational operation with a global presence and 108 employees. Five Ulven Companies – Skookum, Ulven Forging, Wolf Steel Foundry, Ulven Aerospace, and Houston Structures – provide services to aerospace, commercial fishing, lifting and rigging, infrastructure, logging, maritime, military/defense, oil and gas, and recreation.
You can find their work in as disparate places ranging from Columbia River dams to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Ulven Companies President Dan Ulven, Andy's son, said metal was in his dad's blood, and his craftsmanship mixed with a business sense proved to be a burgeoning combination.
"My father had worked in the same industry for a number of years, and he had a couple years of law school," Dan Ulven said. "But he was drawn back to the hot metal. Mom had $3,000 in savings, and basically she said we don't want to live rest of our lives saying that 'we should have.'"
Andy filled niches by furnishing custom parts that many operations needed but weren't available via larger chain providers. It proved lucrative, and Ulven Forging began building a reputation as an outfit that delivered.
A year and a half after purchasing Molalla Iron Works, Ulven Forging operations grew out of its limited space and moved to Hubbard in 1973. They occupied a building that housed a brick-and-tile factory in the 1920s and 30s and afforded 13,000 square feet of work space. Set on four acres, that building is still in use today.
"At that time the forging industry was quite a bit different," Dan said. "It was mostly logging and wood products...But he carved out a niche by taking hard-to-do projects that other shops didn't want to do. "
Dan said his father essentially worked out of his car to develop a customer base that he valued. As business grew, Andy also valued his employees, seasoned workers and longevity. In fact, one of Ulven Forging's early employees, Larry Philpot, retired Feb. 1 after 47 years with the company. His brother, Mark, also works for Ulven and Larry's father, Ray, was the first employee Andy hired decades ago.
The timber industry was strong enough during Ulven Forging's first decade to enable Andy to establish a strong customer base. Dan said his father cultivated customers from northern British Columbia down to northern California.
"It was a pretty good footprint," Dan said. "Over time with different hot topics, the spotted owl and stuff like that, there were changes in the logging industry. The company looked to diversify, and in the late 70s and 80s it went into construction and maritime markets."
Diversification would not stop there.
As technology was shifting, Ulven was shifting with it. In the mid 80s Andy and Diane purchased Skookum/Rope Master, which was originally established in Portland in 1890 as Columbia Engineering Works. Skookum was a noted name in the timber industry. Some of its early work involved manufacturing boilers and wigwam burners for sawmills, while also furnishing repair services.
Today it still serves the timber industry, as well as customers in the petroleum, vehicle manufacturing, infrastructure, commercial fishing, maritime and general rigging industries.
That growth led to more growth. Ulven expanded into the foundry business in 1989, opening Wolf Steel Foundry in the Whiskey Hill area, east of Hubbard and south of Aurora. Wolf Steel, which embarked on an expansion project in 2013 to double its capacity, serves customers in the petroleum, defense, infrastructure, recreation, food procession, pump manufacturing and various other industries.
Other growth partnerships and expansions would follow, including teaming with Brookway Manufacturing Corporation, acquiring STX Structures of Houston, Texas and Hale Iron Works, which was originally established in Rossville, Georgia in 1930. Hale has been incorporated into the Skookum product line.
The Ulven website history page said Skookum also acquired the brand name and intellectual property for the SOWA line of oil field blocks, hooks and shackles, an outfit originally founded in 1898 as a blacksmith shop in Woodburn, long before evolving into oil field products in the 1980s.
The website notes: "From a single hammer in a small shed in Molalla, the Ulven companies have grown steadily and now occupy over 159,500 square feet of building on 34.5 acres."
Legacy & commitment
Dan said the Ulven customer base today is a global one, from South Korea to South America, New Zealand to Europe.
He summed it up: "We pretty much have customers everywhere."
Regionally, the companies' work and products have been part of dams, bridges, even the Mariners Safeco Field, now T-Mobile Park.
"The ever changing world that we work with; economics ups and downs, consolidation, the one constant is change," Dan said.
He believes adaptation to that change hinged on the original core values his father instilled in the business from it's onset: being firm in values while also able to adapt to markets -- and committing to being good at what they do.
Dan, 47, grew up in the Silverton School District where he met his wife, Adrian, marrying his high school sweetheart in 1997. He began working at Ulven Companies part time as he was growing up and started full time in 1995.
Dan and Adrian's four children – Madison, 24; Drake, 19; Talon, 13; Keegan, 11 – are also Silverton School District educated.
An Oregon State University graduate, Madison has also joined the company, while Drake is working there part time while he pursues his early college studies at Chemeketa Community College.
Andy, 80, is retired. Diane passed in 2014.
As Ulven Companies greets its 50-year milestone with mushroomed growth of global proportions, it also remains firmly grounded at its roots.
Dan references Silver Falls State Park, located in Silverton's backyard.
"When customers come in here for a visit, it's nice to have something like Silver Falls to take up them up to and hike under waterfalls," Dan said.
"Every little bit of our history and growth comes back to the employees in Oregon" he added "What we do is critical, and that goes right back to the employees; and being good stewards to the environment -- we all enjoy Oregon."
Over the past 50 years the Hubbard-based Ulven has diversified from a local timber-industry focus to a diverse operations. The five Ulven Companies – Skookum, Ulven Forging, Wolf Steel Foundry, Ulven Aerospace, and Houston Structures -- service quite a few industries across the globe, including: aerospace, commercial fishing, lifting and rigging, infrastructure, logging, maritime, military/defense, oil and gas, and recreation.
Ulven family values are key in supporting skilled, long-tenured employees and producing industry-leading products.
For information, visit https://www.ulvencompanies.com.
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