March 16, 2007 in Business

This idea couldn’t be held back

By The Spokesman-Review

Metalite Industries Inc. has won a $545,000 federal contract to replace the warning booms above Grand Coulee Dam that keep boaters away.

Earning the contract, however, was a decade-long endeavor for Metalite owner Gregory Paulus, who first floated the idea of stringing a chain of 20-foot, foam-filled aluminum booms across the water.

The dam operators were looking for something to replace the giant cedar logs that had bobbed across the water like an industrial necklace since the dam first backed up the Columbia River in 1941.

The dam operators seemed to like the concept of square aluminum booms and, at their behest, Paulus forged ahead.

Though when it came time to replace the cedar logs, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation instead sought bids for plastic buoys.

Paulus was incensed, reamed out procurement officials at the dam, and went to work trying to sell his booms to other dams. Because Grand Coulee is considered one of the most impressive and important dams in the country, Paulus had hoped to use a deal to springboard sales to other hydro projects.

It worked the other way. His sales team convinced the operators of Glen Canyon Dam to buy the booms. After a couple of minor problems, the product, strung across 1,200 feet of the Colorado River above the dam worked as advertised and Metalite found itself with a new line of business with a good profit margin.

A few years later came a call from the operators of Hoover Dam. They wanted a 3,000-foot boom chain strung below the landmark dam near Las Vegas to keep jet skiers away from the dam’s base and its river diversion tunnels.

Other dams followed.

Finally, it was time again for Grand Coulee.

The dam was dissatisfied with the plastic booms it had used. They deteriorated in the sunshine and haven’t been a reliable replacement for the logs, Paulus said.

Grand Coulee spokesman Craig Sprankle acknowledged that contract was a long-time coming for Paulus.

“He’s pretty excited about it and we’re happy for him,” Sprankle said.

To get the deal, Paulus was able to use his status as a disabled veteran to help win the contract. The government has procurement programs designed to help minority and veteran-owned businesses.

Paulus was an Air Force fighter jet pilot for 20 years. The work damaged his hearing and he suffered a compressed spine that has saddled him with perpetual back pain.

When he left the Air Force, he bought a bankrupt company called Cheney Weeder. That was 14 years ago.

Cheney Weeder, founded in 1910, was famous for inventing and selling a farm implement that would till the soil and expose the roots of weeds. It was drawn by horses and dragged by tractors for many years, helping rip up virgin soil and keeping weeds in check in the days before chemical weed-killers.

Paulus called it truly one of the great farm inventions.

The business slowly faded and by the 1990s was failing.

Now named Metalite, the company continues making some farm implements. Most of the company’s business, however, is manufacturing and selling docks, pontoon boats, and trailers for snowmobiles and recreational machines.

The dam business, as Paulus calls it, is a minor piece of his 10-employee company located on the fringe of downtown Spokane, at 1805 W. Fourth Ave.

The Grand Coulee deal has given the company a busy winter. In June, Paulus and his crew plan to install a total of 295 aluminum dam barrier booms across more than a mile of Lake Roosevelt. Curious boaters will see the metal glinting in the sun.

“It’s definitely a feel-good moment for us,” Paulus said. “It shows a local company can do it.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email