Colorado Company in Disaster Shelter Business

By AARON BURNETT | April 9, 2012

Nearly four decades after Cook’s Welding first opened for business in Silverthorne, Colo., the company is reinventing itself. The welding and fabricating outfit is diving headlong into the disaster shelter business.

What started as a desire to diversify its customer base in a down economy has morphed into its own entity, Security Disaster Shelters.

“In a nutshell, we were hurting for business three or four years ago with the start of the decline in the economy,” said Riley Cook, the son of the company’s founder, Rich Cook. “We were trying to think outside the box and find some markets and find some niches in our industry.”

What they found was a growing market for disaster bunkers. The fabricators now build everything from escape tunnels and food and document storage units to elaborate underground bunkers.

The Cooks partnered with a disaster shelter expert with more than two-and-half decades of experience and have hit the ground running.

The company is currently working on a nearly half-million dollar disaster shelter for a client near Chicago. The fully contained unit will feature living quarters, multiple power sources, storage space and emergency egress. The lithium ion batteries for the shelter, which cost $25,000 apiece, are the same model as the batteries the space program used when it sent its last rover to Mars.

The company was recently featured on an episode of “Doomsday Preppers” on the National Geographic Channel, exposure Cook said has kept the phones ringing off the hook.

“We’re not marketers by any means. We’re just welders/fabricators,” Cook said. “Now, since we’ve aired on National Geographic, we’ve got marketers, we’ve got business consultants, we’ve got all sorts of folks wanting to do something with us.”

With the recent exposure the company is also having to educate its new-found customer base.

“There are 500 questions that you have to ask,” said Desirey Sheets, the company’s office manager. “It’s like building a home.”

The process starts with basic questions about what functionality the customer wants from their unit, from the ability to withstand a nuclear attack to a simple food shelter. From there the process becomes more detailed as everything is custom built to the customer’s specifications.

“It starts at a round pipe and ‘what do you want?’ We’ll build it,” Sheets said. “It’s complicated. We’re building a house underground.”

The original thought was to focus on high-end customers, whose units could run up to several hundred thousand dollars, Cook said. But the recent television coverage has spawned considerable interest from customers seeking more modest units as well.

“Ever since the program aired, I haven’t welded for almost a month,” Cook said. “I’ve been in here answering phones, emails. And now people are just lining up. … They want the $30,000-$60,000 shelter. We’re doing storm shelters and tornado shelters as well.”

The increased business has been a boon for the Silverthorne staple that had been struggling since the downturn in housing construction. Prior to the recession the shop had 16 or 17 employees at any given time. Currently the operation employs half that many workers, but Cook said things are looking up as the shelter business takes off.

“We’re all hands on deck over here,” Cook said.

While disaster shelters are a relatively new facet of the operation, Cook said the company will continue to work on the projects that have kept them in business since 1974.

“We’ve been in business for 40 years because of small projects. We welded that guy’s chair,” added Sheets. “And we’ll continue to do those jobs.”

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