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Iron Man Hard to Label

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August 20, 2010 by wcobserver

By Susan McCarthy

He’s reinvented himself a number of times and most would not even know his company exists along Hwy. 71 in West Fork.  But people quietly seek him out; his reputation brings customers to his door for high-end custom iron work.

In a 5000 square-foot sheet-metal building, Stephen Marquardt and two craftsmen transform large pieces of iron into works of art just north of McKnight’s Wrecker Service on Centennial Avenue.  The shop is neat as a pin, but the work-in-progress shows that the space has been anything but idle.

He and his crew are currently building a custom iron gate for an art collector in Johnson.  Ironically, the gate’s iron was most recently considered an eyesore and was the center of a sheriff’s office investigation. Marquardt and his crew recently salvaged the iron from a private bridge that had washed into the White River several years ago just south of West Fork.  When the salvage was almost complete, it was stolen and sold in Springdale before it was returned to him.  A large piece of the I-beam, rusted and full of large bolts lies on the floor in the front of the shop.  It is a deep contrast to the shiny silver gate that is beginning to take shape as an art form at the back of the shop.

Marquardt is part artist, blacksmith, engineer, project manager and Buddhist.  His nearly 30-year career in custom ironworks has taken several twists and turns, but has survived by reinventing his niche while staying true to his vision and insisting on perfection.

“My goal from the very beginning was to do the best work I possibly could do,” Marquardt said.  “Do every project like it’s going to the White House.”

He says his shop logs in three to four times the hours more than a lot of shops would on a project.  He points to the custom gate and says he noticed a “very little error,” but had it ripped out and restarted.

“We want them (clients) to be thrilled.  Whatever they thought, we want them to get something better,” he said.

This shop is actually a smaller version of a bigger operation he ran for 20 years in Fayetteville, Great Southern Metals.  At its height, it employed as many as 32 people.  In younger years, Marquardt, now 60, traveled and held several different jobs; several life interruptions kept him from finishing a college degree.

Stephen Marquardt is the president of Marquardt Ironworks based out of West Fork and specializes in custom ironwork pieces.

“The biggest disadvantage is I was interested in everything,” Marquardt said.  “I was more of an adventurer, not one to concentrate on any one thing.”  But he was attracted to manufacturing and intrigued by the number of problems to be solved to produce something.  “I had ideas about order and how to do things efficiently,” he said.

In 1982, he was working for his brother, who had a blacksmith shop in St Paul, Arkansas.  His brother sold his blacksmithing shop that year, leaving Marquardt to figure out what his next adventure would be.   He said he had “a primeval interest in the stuff itself,” referring to iron.  He opened his own company that year, Great Southern Metals.

“I actually knew very little about it,” he said.  Marquardt says much of his success can be attributed to hiring talented people.  He honed his craft and offerings and created projects that ranged from custom French reproduction grand staircases and furniture to gates, like the one on the eleventh floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago. He’s even built 7200 “soviet-style” tricycles.

But his business quickly became focused on creating a line of custom lighting fixtures for a lighting store in Dallas.  He and the store’s owner designed 130 different custom fixtures and it soon became about 75 percent of Great Southern Metals’ revenue.  In 1999, the invasion of inexpensive Chinese knock-offs of the duo’s designs, brought demise to not only Marquardt’s business, but the lighting store with 280 employees as well.

Marquardt exited the iron works world, but found himself slowly lured back into the business when his sister asked him to create a gate for her ranch near Tulsa about five years ago.  Gradually, he says people have heard he’s back to work and his business has grown, largely through word-of-mouth.

“Just as we were starting to take off, the recession hit,” Marquardt said.  He says business has grown a little bit every year, despite the recession.  He says he’s borrowed no money and that his size has enabled him to grow.

In his shop with cavernous ceilings, Marquardt works shoulder to shoulder with Donovan Tippet of West Fork and Jake Sellers of Lincoln.

“My guys are cream of the crop,” he says.  He describes Tippet as “an artist, a blacksmith with very high training.”  He says that Sellers describes himself as a “redneck”, but “he’s smart as hell…he absorbs everything and is a very fast learner.”

Around the shop, a series of architectural panels are propped up.  The sculpture-like work will soon become part of a ceiling grid for a retail store on the Fayetteville Square and will be used to hang merchandise, according to Marquardt.

The hard, cold, iron is a contrast to the soft-spoken Marquardt who studies Buddhism and meditation and spends hours at a time in the woods observing birds and wild flowers.  He has no television and lives quietly east of Winslow.  His life, as his work, portrays a man on a journey.  He doesn’t seem to be worried about where he’s going, but seems sure he’s on his way.

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