Meet Joe Toso: A Closer Look Into Tri-Metal Fabricators

Joe Toso is the president of Tri-Metal Fabricators and he is also the current president of SMACNA-BC. Joe has been in the industry since 1965 when he first started working for Tri-Metal. Those who know him, know him as passionate and dedicated to the industry. With his soft-spoken manner and his quiet confidence in the team of people that make up Tri-Metal, it would be easy to think that business came easy for him and that he’s been lucky, but as anyone who is in business knows, the words “luck” and “easy” have very little to do with the price of tea in China.

Tri-Metal Fabricators has been in continuous operation since 1963. There has been four incarnations of ownership, Joe Toso and his partner being the most current. The company started out in the sheet metal industry by manufacturing and installing ducting. Over the years the company also developed a successful line of cast aluminum 12” to 60” exhaust fans which continue to play an important role in the company’s product offering.

What makes Tri-Metal fabrications a bit different than other sheet metal fabricators is the heavy gauge fabrication side of the business. In the late 1980s, Joe felt a strong need to diversify the company’s product and service offering in order to stabilize the company from the constant ups and downs of the construction industry. New fabricating opportunities typically came from the mining, oil and gas, and pulp customers Joe was already doing business with, making heavier gauge fabrication a natural next step for the company. With this existing client base, Tri-Metal began building hoppers, tanks, and other heavy-gauge products for their clients. As Joe expanded the new part of his business, another opportunity once again appeared in the form of an inquiry from a company called Weatherhaven who had an idea to create a portable, all-season shelter system.

Weatherhaven arrived at Tri-Metal with a good idea and the design of a prototype for MECC Shelters. Being in the fabrication business, Joe has seen his fair share of people walk into his shop with business proposals based on “good ideas” most of which never materialize, but this one was a little different. Being that there was a bit of a gap in production, Joe decided to help out Weatherhaven and take a chance on their good idea. Joe and his team worked with Weatherhaven to produce the prototype expandable shelter system which combined the strength and functionality of a 8’ x 8’ x 20’ customized steel container with Weatherhaven’s fabric structure technology. Soon after, the Mobile Expandable Container Configuration (MECC) prototype was in hand and the company got its first order from Canada’s Department of Defence. Then it received its first big order of 100 shelters from the Japanese army shortly after the Kobe Earthquake. Joe’s gamble paid off, and orders slowly began to come in from all over the world.

Tri-Metal Fabricators manufactures the MECC containers while Weatherhaven and its team customize the shelters into everything from hospital operating rooms and kitchens, to showers and mechanical rooms. The containers can easily be trucked, shipped, and/or dropped in by helicopter, and can be set up and operational by two people in 10 to 15 minutes. The flexibility and portability of the units have proven very popular for defence departments around the world.

Timing is everything in business, and so too it was for Joe and the team at Tri-Metal. As the shelter project was starting to produce some steady work for the company, Joe’s two business partners decided they wanted to depart the business, which meant Joe had to come up with the cash to buy them out without strangling the company’s cash flow. After a lot of number crunching and work, Joe knew the math just didn’t work. He couldn’t do it all by himself so after careful consideration he decided to approach Weatherhaven with a proposition. The idea was that Weatherhaven would take an ownership position in Tri-Metal, thus securing the facility and services they needed for the growing MECC business, and thus buying out Joe’s two partners. In the end the proposal made a lot of sense for Weatherhaven and the deal was completed just as Joe had proposed.

The MECC business has grown to include customers such as the Swiss Army, Japanese Army, US Army, and other groups from around the world. It has also created some real production and business challenges for Joe and his team at Tri-Metal. For example, one customer may take up over half the production capacity, so Joe and his team have constantly had to re-tool and improve the facility and production systems to meet their demands as well as the demands of regular customers. Couple this with the reality of a strong Canadian dollar in a market that only pays in US dollars and it’s easy to see how managing the company’s growth was becoming an enormous challenge. Raising prices due to currency fluctuation is generally not an option in most industries, as was the case for Tri-Metal, so in order to stay profitable, Joe and his team have had to have a very strong focus on lean manufacturing, covering the exchange losses with efficiency gains. Through a lot of tough work and great co-operation from his staff and unionized employees, Joe was able to steer the company forward and remain competitive in a tough changing economic environment.

The successful addition of the MECC manufacturing business has fundamentally changed Tri-Metal Fabricators from the company Joe started with back in the 60s. The challenges of doing business in the competitive sheet metal industry were replaced with the challenges of re-structuring the company and managing the needs and expectations of a single large customer now representing the majority of the company’s annual sales. As Joe pointed out, “the benefits of the recurring MECC business allow us to be a bit more selective when bidding regular sheet metal and fabrication projects, but it also means we must work twice as hard to manage the relationship and to keep our core business growing as well, because you never know what the future may bring.”

As the new SMACNA-BC president, Joe brings a wealth of experience and knowledge and he is more than willing to share with the association and its members. Joe clearly sees the importance of diversification for Tri-Metal and his experience and business acumen have allowed him to try new ventures and ideas without risking the overall health of the company. His drive to innovate and create a legacy for the next generation of owners at Tri-Metal could easily act as a template for building a successful fabricating company in the new global economy.

  • Telephone (604) 531-5518
  • Address 19150 21 Ave. Surrey BC. Canada V3Z 3M3
  • Joe Toso, President (604) 531-5518 Ext. 229
  • Craig Ono, Manager(604) 531-5518 Ext. 233
  • Steve Eden, Manager Fan Division (604) 531-5518 Ext. 234
  • Pat Toso, Purchasing Agent (604) 531-5518 Ext. 232
  • Fran Jackson, Office Manager (604) 531-5518 Ext. 224