When Bill Assenmacher first joined Caid Industries, he used the leftover sheet metal from his big mining projects to cut out yard art — coyotes, kokopellis, that kind of thing — to sell at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair.
He was asked to stop selling at the Street Fair by purists who didn’t think his laser-cut, manufactured kitsch fit with the fair’s crafty persona.
“i was not an artist. I was not making it myself, even though we kind of invented the evolution of metal art,” said Assenmacher.
Assenmacher’s company, whose revenues have grown from $1 million a year in its North Fourth Avenue days to $56.5 million last year, still creates art, but now it is mostly one-of-a-kind, monumental art for some of the Southwest’s premier public artists. “We do up to $5 million a year in metal-art work,” he said.
Caid Industries still does small custom projects for its customers, but its days of craft fairs are over.
Fourth Avenue figures prominently in the Caid Industries story. Thomas Arthur Caid founded the business in 1947 in the quonset hut that is now the Hut bar.
It was still there Assenmacher went to work for Robert Caid in 1973 while he was a University of Arizona engineering student.
Caid was already moving away from its origins as a fabricator for heating-and-air-conditiong ducts when Assenmacher arrived, expanding beyond Tucson to take on bigger tasks for Arizona’s copper mines and power plants. The firm moved the following year to an industrial site just north of Tucson International Airport.
Assenmacher’s first job as a young engineer was a coal-handling system for the Navajo Generating Plant at Page, Arizona.
Caid wanted the young engineer to stay on, and offered Assenmacher a path to ownership of the firm.
Forty years later, with Assenmacher as principal owner and CEO, Caid Industries occupies 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space on a 30-acre campus near South Campbell Avenue and East Bilby Road.
The buildings are huge, up to 40 feet high, with 14 overhead shop cranes.
The capability is needed. One project on site is a heat exchanger for a mining smelter — a cylindrical piece of equipment 20 feet in diameter and 150 feet long, weighing 250,000 pounds.
Caid’s artistic imprint is all over Tucson: the whimsical metal canopy outside St Augustine Cathedral, the copper domes at Casino del Sol, the towering sunshade at the UA’s Bio5 Institute and the monumental sculptures being installed on the Kino Boulevard overpass at 22nd Street.
In any given year, though, Pima County accounts for only 5 percent of Caid’s income.
Caid employs 250 people, including 30 engineers, and hedges its bets against the vagaries of copper, oil and gas prices with work on astronomical projects, public art, architectural elements and, most recently, automated manufacturing.
“A lot of firms have one niche. We have several dozen,” Assenmacher said.
The variety keeps Brad Warner interested in his job.
Warner, a 2013 UA graduate in mechanical engineering, began working at Caid while he was still a student.
“Once I saw the diversity of the work that was being done here, I was instantly hooked. You never get bored. There are almost always some ‘one-offs.’”
Warner also enjoys being involved in every stage of a project, from conception to commissioning.
“I just came back from a three-week trip to North Dakota to do some field work on oil-measuring skids we produced. Some of my friends who have the typical engineer desk jobs are jealous,” he said.
Ron Rice, a vice president and chief designer at Caid, said the firm still does plenty of repetitive manufacturing and standard fabrication.
“There are things you want to be involved in and things you don’t where it’s like watching paint dry.”
But Assenmacher’s push for diversification creates plenty of technical and creative challenges, he said. “We’re constantly doing interesting things.”
The art projects and the increasing amount of work the firm does for the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab fit that category.
“The astronomical work is taxing because of the tight tolerances. We’re building a major machine shop to go after even more of that type of work,” he said.
“We’ve done quite a bit in the mirror lab. We built the polishing cells, the test tower they use to scan and verify. Anytime they have something coming up, we always enjoy the challenge.”
Caid also builds shipping containers for the mirror lab’s giant, multi-million-dollar mirrors.
Rice downplays his role in that. “We don’t design the shipping container. We’re just fabricating it to their specs.”
But the precision demanded by astronomy is not easily reached, said Bill Gressler of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which contracted with Caid to build a shipping container for the giant survey telescope’s trip to a mountaintop in Chile.
Gressler said he was relieved when Caid competed for and won the job because they had made containers for the Large Binocular Telescope and were working on the Giant Magellan Telescope as well.
They know what they’re doing, he said.
The value added to projects by Caid is one of the reasons it has grown as large as it has, said Assenmacher, and why it remains in Tucson.
“We’re design-build. There is risk involved. We’re not just the low bid,” he said.
“The concept is you’re either adding technology or doing concept work for the customer,” he said. “When you help them invent their product, you become part of the customer’s team and they don’t want to do a job without you. Our customer retention is 80 to 90 percent.”
It is currently vying to build portions of passenger rail cars. Assenmacher said that could be good news for Tucson, which bought its new streetcars from a factory in Portland that recently went out of business.
Assenmacher said he has told city officials that Tucson manufacturers — “doesn’t have to be us” — have the know-how to fill that gap.
He said he wasn’t initially a fan of Tucson’s modern streetcar. “Now that it’s here, let’s embrace it, take care of it and use it as a feather in our cap.”
Caid is also ready to receive any overflow from the UA’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which is running out of space to cast, polish, and assemble its giant mirrors.
That was part of the reason for expanding its manufacturing space recently, Assenmacher said.
On a recent visit, the projects underway ranged from its bread-and-butter tasks such as fabricating and rehabilitating cathodes for plating copper, to building missile boxes for Ratheon Missile Systems, to creating robotic manufacturing systems.
Its industrial automation division, established in 2012, accounted for $10 million of Caid’s revenue in 2013.
Caid still retains a showroom filled with cut-out desert creatures and rusted-metal wall sconces. Assenmacher said he still gets requests from clients for small, decorative jobs and doesn’t turn them away.
He just doesn’t do street fairs anymore.