Curt Callahan grew up in Sayre, Okla., a town that sits on Route 66. Scenes from the movie Grapes of Wrath were filmed in the town, its sole claim to fame, Callahan says. Like the characters in the movie, Callahan left his rural hometown in order to make a living. Rather than heading west to California, Callahan went east, to central Oklahoma, where he relocated the family business, Callahan Steel Buildings.
The business informally began in 1969 when Callahan’s father and uncle built a carport. The following year, they built a hay barn. “Soon all the farmers in the area wanted them to do work,” says Callahan, “and the business slowly built up to the Panhandle.”
The 34-year-old Callahan says his initial post-high school plans were to attend college and earn a degree in business. He started in that direction, taking a few classes at Southwestern University. However, after his high school graduation, Callahan helped his dad build a new weight room at his old high school.
“That changed everything,” says Callahan. “I got stoked by the project, and I wanted to keep doing it.”
When he decided that this was the career direction he wanted to take, Callahan didn’t just join the family business. He took over the operation. His dad and uncle were retiring and moving into other ventures. With the energy and optimism of youth, Callahan took the reigns of the company and decided it was time to try new things.
In 1991, a year after his high school graduation, Callahan decided to set up an exhibit at the Oklahoma State Fair and display his products. It was a success, as the exhibit brought new customers.
With this new business at hand, Callahan made another decision. He married his girlfriend, Renee, and the newlyweds moved their home and business to Mustang, just outside Oklahoma City. It was a logical business move. Being in the center of the state gave Callahan better access to materials. It has also allowed him to expand his business into Dallas and Wichita.
“At first, there were some concerns about the move,” Callahan says. “My dad and uncle encouraged us to keep it simple and just do carports.” Callahan laughs at the memory. “That didn’t last long.”
Callahan Steel Buildings is now a steel building general contractor, constructing all kinds of buildings, from sports facilities to doctors’ offices. “Every so often we still do a hay barn,” says Callahan.
Callahan Steel Buildings employs 25 people year-round and has added a second location in Tuttle, Okla. Like the owner, the five people on the sales staff are under 40, and everyone on the steel construction crew is under 35 (Callahan’s wife works as office and bookkeeping support). However, Callahan and his staff don’t hesitate to call on their mentors — his father, Neil, and his uncle, Clayton — when they need advice.
“It is definitely a Generation X group here,” Callahan says. “The younger guys want to come in and learn.”
Age is less important than ability, Callahan adds. “You’re only as good as the guys who work for you,” he says.
Most of Callahan’s duties involve running the business from the office. On a typical day, he’ll meet with customers who come to the office or solve any problems that come up. Although he will take an occasional trip to a site, he prefers to leave that work to his employees.
“I found that the superintendents on the site do a better job if I’m not around,” he says. “If you are staring over their shoulders, they won’t work as well. I hired competent employees who can handle problems by using their own ideas and solutions.”
Callahan enjoys being a contractor and working on the business end. “It’s exciting to see the fire in the eye of a client when he has plans to build his dream building. It’s fun to build something from start to finish.”
Current projects his company is working on include horse arenas, doctors’ buildings, and mini-storage facilities. One of his favorite projects was a million-dollar log home with a bright red roof. “The roof made the finishing touch on the home,” Callahan says. “The building shows how much materials have improved over the years.
Because he works with both rural and urban clients, Callahan must work with a wide array of code regulations, which can be frustrating.
“A lot of rural areas have no requirements,” he explains, “but in urban areas you have to meet an IBC code.” His solution was to develop a standard for his own company, which follows the IBC and Oklahoma City codes, which are stricter than the rural regulations. “We build a rural building just as we would in downtown Oklahoma City.”
While he enjoys the changes that have occurred in the steel building industry over the years, he is nostalgic for the days when his father first started the business. “I remember going with my dad to meet a customer. My dad would draw up plans in the red dirt with a tree branch. There were no other plans,” he says. “Nowadays, my daughter, who wants to be an architect, designs her ideas on the computer.”
Even though he has been in the business for more than 15 years, Callahan realizes he still has a lot to learn. “We’re always looking for new suggestions and better ways of doing things. If you’re not learning, you’re standing still.”
Even so, Callahan has made his mark in the community by always providing a quality product and proving that metal buildings have a place in urban, as well as rural, communities.
With the continued improvements to steel buildings, Callahan believes the future of the industry is bright.
“The building business will always be there. I don’t see that changing,” he says. “But I do see the business as a whole moving to commercial buildings rather than rural or residential.”
One thing is certain, however. Callahan Steel Buildings will be at next year’s Oklahoma State Fair, continuing to grow beyond carports and hay barns.