From journalism to industrial sales
|Decades ago, TOPCOR CEO James Baker left behind a news career to build a fast-growing specialty services firm.|
Though he heads a company that specializes in industrial construction projects for the energy industry, TOPCOR Companies founder and CEO James Baker doesn't strike you as a typical, wonkish engineer. Perhaps that's because he is not.
He's a one-time journalism major; and even though he's comfortable kicking around the dirt on a construction site in steel-toe boots, he's even more at home in the boardroom making easy conversation and making deals.
His considerable communication and networking skills have helped fuel the tremendous growth at TOPCOR Companies, which jumped to No. 51 from No. 70 on this year's list of Top 100 private companies, and saw revenues increase a whopping 62% in 2011 to $68 million from $42 million the year before.
Over the past 10 years, Baker has pursued an aggressive growth strategy for his 23-year-old company that relies on the deals he is able to make and the personal relationships he is able to build. The result is an affiliation of 10 TOPCOR companies that work throughout the region under a single corporate umbrella. Individually, they provide unique services that include such specialties as restoring the steel and concrete on highway bridges, manufacturing composite repair products for offshore oil and gas platforms, and lining high-density polyethylene pipes.
“The secret to my success has really been finding partners to come in and run all the companies that are under the TOPCOR umbrella,” Baker says. “For the last 10 years, I've been working to get to the point where all these companies are managed by someone else and my job is to create the growth and the strategy.”
It's a far cry from the aspirations of the college kid Baker was in the 1970s, slogging out news copy on IBM typewriters in the journalism building on the LSU campus. Back then, he thought he might like to write professionally, a skill at which he still excels. But not long after graduating in 1977 Baker realized journalists don't make money, and a colleague suggested he try his hand at industrial sales.
Baker was a natural in the sales world and before long had his own company selling industrial supply products, then another. In 1989 he and a partner branched out from sales and founded TOPCOR, which provided contracting services to the petrochemical industry. It was a natural offshoot of what he'd been doing, and the timing wasn't as bad as one might think. Even though the price of oil had fallen through the floor, TOPCOR was servicing the downstream side of the business—doing concrete restorations and coatings—and therefore remained unaffected by global energy prices.
“Oil prices go up and down, but we are really a petrochemical town, and we cater to the petrochemical industry,” he says.
In 2004 Baker and his then-partner decided to part ways, and he decided to get really aggressive about growing the company. His strategy was risky, as it relied on debt to acquire existing companies or, in a few instances, work with partners to create new companies.
But Baker was in the mood for risk at the time and his gambles paid off. Under the structure he has created, Baker owns 100% of TOPCOR Companies, which, in turn, owns a percentage—typically between 50% and 80%—of all the others. Each company has its niche, either geographically or sector-wise. But many of them are able to work together, which has been a big plus for TOPCOR Companies when it bids a job.
“They're all very synergistic,” Baker says. “So we can go to ExxonMobil, for instance, and all these companies can each do something different for them, which makes it especially fun for me. No one else in town has as many different corners of the market covered.”
TOPCOR COMPANIES AT A GLANCE
2011 ranking among Top 100 firms
2010 ranking among Top 100 firms
TOPCOR Mechanical, for example, does typical mechanical contracting, mosty on piping. TOPCOR Belco specializes in the rubber lining of storage vessels. TOPCOR Offshore makes repair products for platforms in deep waters around the world.
The variety makes it fun and also keeps it interesting. For instance, the oldest of the companies, TOPCOR Services, does concrete and steel restoration projects, specifically on bridges and roadways. Among its most high- profile projects was repairing the bridge on Interstate 10 west over Lake Charles with its iconic rails of Dueling Pistols.
The newest addition to the TOPCOR family, TOPCOR Construction, is servicing companies involved in the shale plays in north Louisiana and the Felicianas. The company was actually a creation hatched by Baker in August 2010, rather than an acquisition of an existing company, and it was formed to “go after the midstream oil and gas business.” So far, business is booming.
“That's really where all the excitement is right now,” Baker says.
Having several affiliated companies is giving the parent company a modicum of security. Some years, the fabrication sector may be strong; other years, it might be steel and concrete restoration.
“There is always going to be somebody having a tough year and somebody having an outstanding year,” says Baker. “TOPCOR Belco and TOPCOR Construction are having an outstanding year in 2012. Last year, it was U.S. Fusion. So who knows?”
Overall, for TOPCOR Companies, 2012 is poised to be the best year ever. Estimated revenues will top $75 million, and Baker plans to beat his personal goal of hitting the $100 million mark by 2017 by a couple of years.
But he couldn't do it alone. He credits his partners and the key members of his executive team, which include the state's former Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Johnny Bradbury, now COO of TOPCOR Companies, Jay Roccaforte, who runs TOPCOR Belco, and Guy Lewis, who heads U.S. Fusion, with helping him put together all the pieces.
Says Baker: “We all complement each other really well.”
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