While growing up on a farm in Iowa, raising cattle, Tom Neppl assumed he’d stay involved in the family business as an adult.
But after studying industrial electronics in college, he moved to Colorado Springs in 1985. Neppl, who likes to build and create things, was “driven” to work for himself, so he co-founded Springs Fabrication Inc. in 1986, taking over full ownership about a year later.
Springs Fab has grown to become the region’s largest manufacturing company. With recent acquisitions, the company includes manufacturing facilities in Colorado Springs, Loveland and Broomfield, specializing in energy, new technology and heavy industrial equipment manufacturing.
Neppl and his wife Lorrie, who have two children and three grandchildren, recently hiked in New Zealand and Australia. In addition, Neppl has climbed more than half of Colorado’s Fourteeners, and enjoys mountain biking, dirt biking and hiking the Manitou Incline.
Last month, Neppl took on a more prominent new role, becoming chairman of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance board of directors for the year of 2014.
Recently, Neppl spoke with the Business Journal about his plans to help drive manufacturing and business in the Pikes Peak region.
How has your career prepared you to be chair of the Regional Business Alliance board?
I’ve learned by growing my company over the years in this community. A lot of my business skills are a combination of on-the-job training and being a member of a global CEO group, Vistage. It’s a peer-to-peer group for [people] with the goal of becoming a more effective CEO, and I’ve learned a lot there and by working with other business leaders. I joined the [then-Greater Colorado Springs] Chamber board five or six years ago, and I saw them through the unification process [with the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp.], and I agreed to remain on the board for a year for continuity.
What are some of the philosophical changes you hope to make in the Business Alliance?
I wouldn’t say I want to make philosophical changes. I want to do my part in transforming the culture in this community to first of all move from a culture of lack of focus. And I’d like to see the culture in the community change to more supportive of business, more supportive of entrepreneurs, with common goals, and more positive about the community.
I’m not the person to transform the culture — but I want to do my part by standing up an organization that provides leadership in the community, and consistent in tackling some of the big challenges we have here, and that supports innovation and really supports the whole aspect of growing a real sense of community, focused on making this region a great place.
It’s already a great place environmentally, and we have great assets. I’d really like to see this negativity in our community go away. We have too many people content with being negative. It doesn’t take talent, ideas or intellect to tear things down.
I’d like to see the community get behind a common vision and common goal and make something big happen.
What are the ongoing challenges for the business community?
Right now I would say one of the challenges is the distraction created by a lot of the negative issues that continue to come up. Our local politics are distracting and will become a challenge if they don’t find a way to work together on the needs of the community. There’s a lack of common vision in this community. Lots of people have tried [to create a common vision], but it’s been somewhat of a moving target.
What are the strengths in the business community?
We have a tremendous number of talented people in this community who are passionate about Colorado Springs. We have a great network of volunteers for nonprofits. If you look at our assets — things unique to Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Olympic Committee, The Broadmoor, plus our natural assets, which are unparalleled … And we do have a positive business environment.
Leadership is relatively supportive — even though we can’t provide huge incentives, which I’m not an advocate of anyway. I think a company should want to move here for the right reasons: quality workforce, quality of life, supportive business climate, and a cohesive business environment with support available.
The county is supportive of business; certainly the mayor’s office is supportive of business.
Is it a priority to find out why some companies were interested in moving to Colorado Springs yet decided to go elsewhere?
Yes, as much as possible, we like to find out why companies don’t move here. That feedback does shape some of our initiatives and strategy. But our No. 1 goal in terms of business development is supporting and growing the businesses that are already here.
It’s easier to grow what you already have than to recruit from outside the area. In order to grow the economy, the most benefit [comes from] creating the right environment to assist them in growth.
What do you want people to know about the Business Alliance?
Our four key strategic focus areas are:
1. Legislation — The Business Alliance’s local, state, and federal efforts to drive legislative policy that will support business and oppose any anti-business laws at any level.
2. Military Affairs Council — We need to be the active voice in this region and the state. We are determined to support the military assets in this community. We are a unique community in that we have such a major portion of our economy reliant on a defense budget.
3. Business development — That includes working with our local companies, assisting them in whatever issues they’re having locally. We have an industry advisory council that oversees industry sector teams, such as sports economy, medical device manufacturing, IT, clean tech, defense sector, health and wellness sector, among others. And we’re launching one for the manufacturing sector, which will be more regional, for Southern Colorado.
In these industry sector teams, that’s where the rubber meets the road — where the real work is done. The teams are staffed by volunteers from companies or individuals in the community who have experience in that particular sector.
4. Community development — This will have a real focus on workforce development. The goal there is to create a demand-driven workforce that really matches the needs of the company with the skills of the available workforce. We have strategic relations with all of the major higher-education institutions, like University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Community College, Colorado College and Colorado Technical University, and eventually we plan to include primary and secondary education.
All across the country, manufacturers are having difficulty finding skilled labor — for the past five or six years. And this will continue to be an issue for manufacturers until we get the curriculum back in the schools and expose kids to it and make it a career path and an opportunity for kids.
What is your top priority as board chair of the Business Alliance?
Our overriding goal is to create a culture in this community that supports business and encourages innovation and provides opportunities for people who live here or want to live here to earn a good living and have a fulfilling career.
We have the right group of people and the right board to make this happen. The people on the board feel this is a good time for us to drive this initiative and move it forward.
And if there’s any way we can do that, we certainly will. There’s a lot of activity centered around innovation right now — not just the Business Alliance but many organizations in the community.
We need to put all of the puzzle pieces together to create this culture of innovation. And we’re very much engaged in that with our partners.
One of my passions for the community is to increase the amount of manufacturing done in this region, and that would be through assisting existing companies in their growth as well as recruiting more manufacturing companies — with more of a regional approach.
I plan on working with our partners to the south quite a bit — Pueblo, and anybody south of Colorado Springs who wants to be engaged in the initiative.