By Nancy Erickson
Dennis Wilfer said he had no intention of becoming a small business owner when he founded C&R Pipe and
Steel 26 years ago. The “C&R” in the company title was inspired by the names of his children.
Photo Courtesy Lindsay Johnson
It takes a lot of space to maintain the title of the largest pipe distributor in Alaska, and C&R Pipe and Steel Inc. in Fairbanks has a 56-acre inventory yard and 12,000 tons of steel products to prove it.
The privately owned company has been Alaska’s one-stop shop for all steel, pipe, rebar and aluminum and stainless needs since 1992.
But being a business owner wasn’t exactly what Dennis Wilfer had in mind when he arrived in Alaska in 1973 to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks on the GI Bill following his stint in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I was in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time,” Wilfer said of his opportunity to go to work for himself.
Wilfer worked a couple years for a company that purchased oil field surplus material, scrapping some material too poor to be upgraded, selling other material for structural applications and sometimes sending shipments to the Lower 48.
“I got put into a predicament where I either had to start to do my own thing or quit and find a different job,” Wilfer said. “I had never intended to own my own business or never had any interest in being a business owner. The opportunity was there, and it was either do it or don’t do it.”
So after a little encouragement from his wife, Lezlie, Wilfer took the plunge. But what to name their new business on such short notice?
“We need to incorporate and be in business tomorrow morning, so pick a name,” Wilfer recalls thinking back then. The names Alaska Steel and Alaska Pipe were already taken.
“So my son was just born, and his name was Cacy, and my daughter Lauren wasn’t that old, and her middle name was Rose. But there were lots of C’s and R’s in our family so, ‘C&R. Let’s go,’ ” he told his wife.
“Now I sometimes joke it stands for ‘Competent and Reliable,’ ” he added.
“I never could have foreseen you could say the success and the business volume we have grown into when we started the business,” Wilfer said. “Little by little property became available, and little by little we had the finances to buy it.”
C&R’s 56-acre inventory yard offers new and used pipe, structural pipe, well casing, pilings, bollards, culverts and more.
Photo Courtesy Eagle Eye Photo
Lindsay Johnson has been one of C&R’s 49 employees for almost 12 years. Her job as sales specialist and project manager recently got a little easier with the implementation of a new material test report system.
Now when customers ask for a specific type of material, the program is able to provide information on where it comes from and how it’s made. That’s important due to many projects identifying as “domestic” or “buy American” and customers wanting to know if their steel was made in the United States or elsewhere, Johnson said.
Those details are important to customers like Jason Delong of Rock Solid Pile Company.
“C&R Pipe is my main supplier for all surplus pipe I purchase for my pile-driving company,” Delong said. “Lindsay and Dennis have been at the groundworks of our company since it started. I don’t think we would be where we are at today without the customer support and friendship that Lindsay and C&R Pipe has offered.”
Chris Coty of Techline Alaska, a company that specializes in drilling supplies, echoed similar sentiment.
“When we started buying steel, we used to quote two or three vendors, and C&R always had stock, was the best price and could have it delivered within a couple of hours nine out of 10 times, so we stopped even quoting other sources,” Coty said.
“Dennis was my hockey coach when I was 13 years old, so I have known him for a long time,” he added.
Wilfer didn’t hesitate to answer when asked what the biggest challenge is to being the largest supplier of pipe and steel in Alaska: “The ups and downs of the economy,” he quickly replied.
“We all realize it, but it just has to be said again — Alaska is oil,” he said. With several oil crashes within the past few decades, maintaining inventory when the demand goes down is tough.
“You want to fill your customers’ needs so you’ve got a lot of money tied up in your inventory, and if you’re going to grow, you have to put your money back into the company,” Wilfer explained. “When the economy falls, you usually get hit with a double whammy because not only is business slowing up but the value of inventory will also decrease because it’s supply and demand.”
Another issue recently has been the turmoil created by steel and aluminum tariffs imposed under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. Although imposed by President Trump the steel mills had lobbied for several years trying to get them implemented. Wilfer said it only makes sense because Alaska gets most of its steel from West Coast sources and most of those suppliers, especially in the Pacific North West, carry import products. A lot of steel and aluminum importers started to hold product in anticipation of impending tariffs, creating tight supply and driving up prices, he explained.
“It’s settled down at least for the present because, little by little, they’re filling the tight supply and catching up on the shortage. But another round of tariffs would change the world again,” Wilfer said.
Delivering product to the customer is one of C&R’s many services.
Photo Courtesy Lindsay Johnson
Wilfer said membership in the Associated General Contractors of Alaska alerts his company to upcoming job bids as well as giving him a voice in Juneau. He was business partner with Alice Ellingson in the early days, he said. Ellingson is a past AGC president and Hard Hat Award recipient and owned ACE General Contractors of Fairbanks.
“I look at businesses, and there’s some that want to do it all,” Wilfer, 66, said. “My philosophy is: We built this business, and we’re not out there to be the biggest, and we’re not out there to do it all. If we take care of our customers, we will make a living.”
Nancy Erickson is a freelance writer living in Moose Pass.