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Metal Masters hits half-century mark

Through the economic ups and downs and twists and turns of succession, Metal Masters has endured and prospered for half a century.

The original metal masters — Ed Shipley, Loren Severson and Dick Shorb — pooled their expertise and resources to found a heating, ventilation and air conditioning firm in 1968, a period of economic expansion and national travail.

Fifty years later, against a similar backdrop, Metal Masters has grown to a regional HVAC player, handling thousands of commercial and residential accounts — primarily in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. The company employs 75 with offices on Crater Lake Highway and in Klamath Falls.

The second generation, led by Debby Cate, Ed Shipley’s daughter, and her husband, Lyn, grew the company during the turn-of-the-century boom and through the clothesline times of the Great Recession.

Now they are preparing the transition to a third-generation owner, their youngest son, David.

Debby Cate, president and CEO, admits the corporate name is a bit of a mystery. Severson specialized in stainless steel, while Shipley and Shorb were metal fabricators for commercial buildings, when they set up shop on Sage Road.

“Metal fabrication wasn’t and never was the focus of what we do, but somehow that became the name,” Cate said. “I always wondered why they didn’t call it the “3 S’s” or Triple S HVAC, or something like that because all of their last names started with ‘s’.”

A year or so after the company started, Severson sold his shares and moved on to other pursuits. Not fond of a 50-50 partnership, Ed Shipley, along with his wife, Severta, bought out Shorb in 1975. The company had 10 employees at the time.

Three years later, Metal Masters moved across town to its present one-acre location at 3825 Crater Lake Highway. The company’s long-standing relationship with climate control manufacturer Lennox was primarily because of its direct relationship with dealer/contractors, while other companies go through distributors who pursue contractor relationships, said Lyn Cate, who joined the company in 1970.

Other than a five-year hiatus working for HVAC outfits in Alaska, Lyn Cate has played a critical role. For the past 20 years, he has been vice president. As he moves about the production facility behind the front office, he recalls both the past and what moved the company into the present.

“When we moved into this building, we had conventional sheet metal gear, a power shearer, various brakes and notching machines to build sheet metal duct work,” Lyn Cate said.

Like most industries, computer technology revolutionized the way things were done in the shop. Three layout benches were displaced by a computerized cutting table, lopping off 30 minutes per fitting.

“With a computer, that happens almost instantly and it’s cut out in two or three minutes,” he said. “It cut the time by way more than half.”

As the Shipleys began formulating succession plans, they started a short-lived, five-way split in which Debby Cate became president.

“Growing up, I didn’t want to be part of the family business, for some reason I just couldn’t imagine it,” she said.

Cate stepped into the office to handle accounts payable in 1992 as her oldest two children — Brad and Amy — hit the college years. She thought that was a short-term gig, but it didn’t turn out that way.

“When we needed extra money to pay for college, there was a job here,” Cate said. “I had taken accounting classes and turned out I knew more about accounting than the people they had at the time.”

She planned to depart when her parents retired at the end of 1997, but had second thoughts.

“Bookkeepers can really mess you up,” she said. “I felt like I needed to stay in the company and keep the books, so that my parents could retire and get paid off. I didn’t necessarily want to be the owner, it just gradually morphed into that. Now looking back, I see this really was my calling and God was leading me to this.”

On Jan. 1, 1998, she became president of the company, with ownership split between the Cates, Debby’s brother Tom Shipley, and sister-in-law Brenda, and Russ Gann, a longtime employee. History repeated when Gann sold his shares in 2001, and in 2006 the Cates bought out the Shipleys’ shares.

The years that followed weren’t easy as the country slipped into recession. Money was tight and projects were hard to come by.

“The bank pulled in our credit line and no one wanted to loan us money,” Cate said. “It was a real struggle. I would bring profit and loss reports to every managers’ meeting and tell everyone to look at the line items and tell me what I could cut. We just started cutting things and cutting things. Lyn and I both took money out of our retirement accounts and put it in; it was some hard times.”

Among the biggest projects the company has worked on are the Jackson County Health and Human Services building in downtown Medford, Merle West Medical Center in Klamath Falls, and elementary schools in Phoenix and Talent.

The hardest task was adapting modern ductwork into an aging administrative building at Southern Oregon University.

Next January, David Cate will become general manager, incrementally accruing ownership over a three- to five-year period.

Debby Cate said Metal Masters is transitioning in similar fashion to the way construction firms Adroit Construction and S&B James handled ownership succession.

David Cate joined the business nearly 10 years ago, working in the shop, and is presently commercial service manager.

“I love working with my hands and doing something physical and not just sit in an office chair,” he said. “I had done a graphic design job at Harry & David previous to that. It was good, but it made me realize I just didn’t want to sit in an office all day.”

After a year in the shop, he began driving service parts to job sites. Later he became a service technician and eventually moved into his present role.

“Not only do I like the mechanical side of this industry, but I also really like the business strategy side of it. Learning the numbers and how to optimize the business, to perform the best we can, and be the most competitive we can.”

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ }Debby Cate inside the Metal Masters shop in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Lyn Cate talks about the history of the machinery used at the Metal Masters shop in Medford.