When the largest steel fabrication and erection company in the U.S. began looking for opportunities for growth, it expanded its horizons beyond the border.
"We could sense a slowdown in the U.S., so we started looking overseas," says Jay Allen, executive vice president of sales and engineering at Schuff International. "Panama made sense since it is a gateway to all of Latin America."
Five years ago, Phoenix-based Schuff completed the first high-rise steel structure in Panama, the Torre V, located in the Costa del Este section of Panama City.
Schuff's entrance into the Panamanian market coincides with the Central American country's dramatic building boom. While the demand for high-rise residential buildings has peaked, interest in tall commercial structures continues to be strong.
Schuff has built several more steel high-rise structures in Panama and also is involved in other high-profile jobs, such as Caterpillar's Panama City training facility and the ongoing retrofit of the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the Panama Canal's Pacific entrance.
Schuff galvanized its commitment to Panama in 2011, when it formed Schuff Hopsa Engineering Inc., a joint venture with the Panamanian firm Empresas Hopsa S.A., to provide steel fabrication services throughout Central America.
Today, Hopsa retains a 51% stake and controls the management of the new company, while Schuff oversees the operations side. The move gave Schuff the use of the largest steel fabrication plant in Panama, a 52,000-sq-ft facility that opened in 2009 in Chilibre, just outside Panama City.
The plant provides a savings on steel fabrication costs for Schuff's regional projects, but there are limits to the capacity, Allen says. As a result, Schuff continues to produce a portion of the steel for the firm's Panama projects at one of the firm's 10 U.S. fabrication facilities.
While it is unlikely steel will soon supplant concrete—the primary building material in all of Latin America, including Panama—the metal offers advantages to builders on specific types of projects, such as large commercial structures. As the building boom in Panama continues, the interest in steel is likely to grow, materials experts say.