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Company Shakes Things Up in Lab to Help Keep Things Together at Home

With the sound of wood splintering, a mock-up of a three-story exterior house wall was undergoing the torment of a heretic in a medieval rack. Nails wriggled from their holes like worms. Exterior plywood sheathing peeled away from studs like the skin off a fish. And heavy beams split lengthwise as though cleaved with an ax.

This scene was unfolding inside a vast structure on the edge of Stockton. From the outside, the place looked like a nondescript annex to an industrial park; but its painted gray exterior concealed perhaps the world’s most sophisticated torture chamber of homebuilding materials.

“It’s our job to fail this wall,” Steve Prior, the head of Simpson Manufacturing Co.'s new Tyrell Gilb Research Center, told me over the din of structural members getting ripped to pieces. A 30-foot girder attached to a hydraulic pump applied tons of brute pressure against the side of the wall being tested, deforming its rectangular shape into a trapezoid. “You’ve got to be able to break stuff to figure it out,” Prior said.

Dublin, Calif.-based Simpson launched the Gilb lab this summer as a $10-million investment aimed at developing hard data about how earthquakes and windstorms can tear homes apart. The company will then apply that knowledge to the manufacture of construction fittings, its main business.

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Simpson is the kind of company that makes products most people can’t live without, but that’s almost unknown to laymen. Think of it as a household name without name recognition.

Indeed, if your home has been built or heavily remodeled in the last few decades, it’s a safe bet that a couple of hundred bucks worth of the odd twists of galvanized or stainless steel made by Simpson’s Strong-Tie Co. subsidiary are nailed in behind your sheetrock, connecting beams and trusses or securing your roof against the nastier inclinations of Mother Nature.

Architects and home builders regard Simpson products as so dependable that in plans they’ll often be specified by name. Building departments tend to give Simpson ties the benefit of the doubt, and the company hosts workshops and factory tours for professional inspectors so they can recognize its products by sight and will thus sign off on a project’s structural soundness without much further examination.

Similarly, the company cultivates relations with the experts who write building codes. For the lab’s grand opening in July, Simpson invited a crowd of influential structural engineers and academics to witness the destruction of a three-story wall by shaking that simulated the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

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The company was founded in 1956 by Barclay Simpson, who now serves as chairman and a one-man investor relations staff. The 82-year-old executive describes the company’s birth as “totally accidental.”

He was running a small business in contract metalworking when a local building contractor asked him to stamp out a construction connector on his metal press. When the man said he would pay 10 cents each for 25,000 units, Simpson received a jolt of entrepreneurial adrenaline.

“That was a big order,” he said. “It looked like the connector business was one where we could build a brand.”

At the time, the market was occupied by only one major manufacturer of structural connectors. These were not widely used, nor backed by profound engineering. “You’d nail things together,” Simpson recalls, “and the architect would have no idea what it would hold.”

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Awareness of seismic and wind issues was growing in the construction trade, but notions of how to accommodate them in building design were still rudimentary. Barc Simpson spent the next few years trying to establish his products as industry standards, but his big breakthrough came around 1960, when, seeking some outside business advice, he encountered an engineer and architect named Tyrell Gilb.

“He was a genius,” Simpson said. Gilb signed on as a temporary consultant and stayed for 35 years, during which he designed much of the company’s core inventory and left a legacy that Simpson acknowledged by hanging Gilb’s name on the new lab.

Simpson appears to be the kind of corporate executive who keeps a light hand on the tiller of a highly decentralized operation. He gives off the air of both entrepreneurial urgency and old-world principle.

His company is continuously on the lookout for important acquisitions; it recently acquired a Midwestern manufacturer of construction anchors that will bring it into a new market segment. Yet it holds to the sort of business practices that sounded quaint until they came back in style a few years ago. Simpson, who owns 25% of the company’s Big Board-traded stock, charges options grants against earnings, refuses to make profit forecasts for Wall Street analysts and discouraged all seven of his children from joining the business.

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“I don’t believe in nepotism,” he said. “If I did, I never could have hired Tom!” That would be Tom Fitzmyers, the company’s president and chief executive, who Simpson says “has run the company for 20 years.”

Under the pair’s leadership, it has grown steadily, especially in recent years as damage from natural disasters such as the Loma Prieta and Northridge quakes and Hurricane Andrew have underscored the wisdom of enforcing rigorous housing codes. In 2002, sales increased nearly 12% compared with the previous year, and profit rose 28.2%. The same pattern has persisted this year. For the third quarter ended Sept. 30, sales rose 16.6% from a year earlier and net income was up 11%. (A spike in the price of steel pared profit for the quarter, Simpson said.)

Establishing the new research center was crucial to maintaining that record, Fitzmyers suggests. “We probably have more knowledge in our little world than anybody,” he said. The company’s catalog, which lists load specifications for every product it makes, “is the bible.”

“We have to be sure that every number in there is justifiable and verifiable and demonstrable,” Fitzmyers said.

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Hence the launch of the new lab, home to one of the most elaborate “shake tables” in existence. The contraption is three stories tall, 360,000 pounds of structural steel, with three platforms (each designed to simulate one floor level) that can be raised or lowered to within a thousandth of an inch. By bolting more hydraulic devices on each level to a sample wall, the lab can simulate the seismic stresses on a whole three-story, four-walled house.

Prior said the shake table could simulate the seismic force of an earthquake up to magnitude 8.0, and replicate through computer software the patterns of several recorded temblors. Citing the old seismologists’ saw that “we’ll learn a lot from the next big one,” he added: “The amazing thing about the shake table is that you can build your own next big one.”

Some studies at the lab already have taught researchers unexpected new things about seismic stresses on wood buildings, especially those of more than one story. “We’re so far out in front,” Prior said, “that there are really no guidelines for what we’re doing.”

The harvest has Simpson executives confronting an issue common in Silicon Valley across San Francisco Bay, but rarely seen in the manufacture of relatively low-tech devices: How closely should they hold their technical findings?

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Fitzmyers said this is a difficult question, especially given that much of what they learn might improve the safety of occupied buildings.

“We feel this obligation to be forthright about the knowledge we have,” he says, “but at the same time a lot of it is proprietary.” Then he articulates a bit of knowledge that sounds like it has been ingrained in the Simpson corporate culture for years: “You can keep a roof on a house in a hurricane for $50 worth of parts. That’s one of the things we find fascinating.”

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Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. Michael Hiltzik can be reached at golden.state@latimes.com.

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