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News / Business / Clark County Business

Tapani builders who build on family

Construction firm founded on hard work is dedicated to family, community

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 17, 2017, 6:05am
5 Photos
Kevin Tapani, left, and Leigh Tapani are pictured at the construction site for the Columbia Palisades in southeast Vancouver. The brothers are two of six family owners of Tapani Inc., which is coming off a record year for revenue in 2017.
Kevin Tapani, left, and Leigh Tapani are pictured at the construction site for the Columbia Palisades in southeast Vancouver. The brothers are two of six family owners of Tapani Inc., which is coming off a record year for revenue in 2017. ARIANE KUNZE/The Columbian Photo Gallery

BATTLE GROUND — It was 1983 when Edward “Iner” Tapani, a Wisconsinite who flocked to family and construction work in the Northwest, was laid off from his job. According to eldest son Kevin Tapani, his dad came home ready to tell his pregnant wife the bad news.

“I’ve got news, too,” Beverly Tapani interrupted. “We’re having twins.”

The Tapani family wouldn’t know at the time what this turn of events would mean for the kids and, eventually, grandkids. Those twins brought the family to 10 children, though the Tapanis would end up with a baker’s dozen.

With mouths to feed, Iner Tapani borrowed $3,000 from his parents and bought a rubber-tired backhoe and dug trenches for septic tanks at night, while the clan scuttled behind in a van.

More than 30 years later, the company has grown into a multimillion dollar construction enterprise run by his sons. The company is coming off a record year in revenues, dually owed to the booming construction in Clark County and the company’s hard-won reputation as a steady firm.

Notable Tapani projects

La Center sewer line, extending sewer services to new property near Interstate 5 (2017)

Vancouver Waterfront Park, a 7.3-acre park along the Columbia River (2017)

Overhaul of state Highway 14 through Camas and Washougal (2012)

St. Johns overpass, interchange where St. Johns Boulevard intersects state Highway 500 (2011)

“There was no extra. We grew up with hard work, lots of sweat, and Dad taught us how to work in the business,” Kevin Tapani said. “We were on food stamps. … We learned the hard work, I guess that’s the thing.”

Bootprints everywhere

The firm’s projects can be spotted from Salem, Ore. to Bothell. In Clark County, Tapani Inc. built the St. Johns overpass on state Highway 500 and worked up and down Padden Parkway. Now it is the city’s prime contractor on a 7-acre park at The Waterfront Vancouver.

Tapani’s jobs can include grading projects, replacing waterlines, laying foundations for subdivisions and more. The company seesaws between public and private contracts, different markets which President Leigh Tapani said can be moving at different speeds.

“The public funding really, from 2012 to 2016, hasn’t been really robust. But housing and commercial has been fairly robust in 2015 through 2018,” he said. “It’s really that kind of pendulum swinging.”

Today, Tapani Inc. has 65 active projects in Southwest Washington, with a fleet of 400-plus heavy machines to keep pace. Leigh Tapani said the company is considering opening offices elsewhere as its footprint widens.

Battle Ground, though, is Tapani’s headquarters, and the heart of the family.

There are more than 80 Tapani children and grandchildren in and around the city, according to Kevin Tapani, who jokes there might be seven or eight kids per grade in the local schools. The family is active in its church, to which the sons credit their successes in business and in family.

Bonnie Gilberti, a spokeswoman for the city, said Tapani’s influence on Battle Ground can be seen both in public infrastructure projects — when Tapani wins a bid — and in helping the community. After a tornado blew through the city in 2015, trees and fences littered the road.

“(Tapani Inc.) came in right away and said ‘How can we help?’ ” Gilberti recalled. “They came in with their equipment, helped city crews remove debris, all donated time and equipment. They said ‘If you need help or something like this comes up again, let us know.’ ”

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Driving through town or thumbing through the Yellow Pages, you’ll see other members of the Tapani constellation, too. Seven of Iner Tapani’s brothers started businesses, leading to sibling companies such as Tapani Plumbing, Dan Tapani Excavating and Pete Tapani Construction. Some are less discernible: JRT Mechanical, GT Bladeworks and DJ’s Electrical.

Boom cycle

Tapani Inc. is poised for more growth, thanks to a strong economy, but the owners are trying to not get ahead of themselves. Construction is an industry that is greatly affected by economic trends.

Tapani lurched through the recession, but since 2013 has grown from 250 to 450 employees. According to the state Employment Security Department, construction, mining and logging jobs in Clark County have risen from 9,500 to 11,900 in that same span.

“I would say that’s pretty standard with the way construction is growing so fast,” said Melissa Boles, of the workforce development organization Workforce Southwest Washington. “They have a lots of projects and they have a bunch of people retiring. … They’re constantly having to fill new positions and get new staff.”

Tapani Inc. is already in the midst of its 2018 fiscal year, and Leigh Tapani said it is already clear the firm will finish strong. Tapani will grow, but he hopes to cap the hiring at 50 people if possible.

“Thriving businesses and downsizing generally don’t go in the same sentence,” he said. “We don’t aspire to have a higher head count, but we aspire to challenge and engage the employees that we have.”

A third Tapani generation will likely grow the firm someday, but Leigh and Kevin Tapani say that remains to be seen. Both are adamant that any kids who want to work there aren’t guaranteed a job, and they also will be supported if they wish to pursue a line of work outside of construction.

“We don’t want them to feel like they’re entitled to a position or a career path here, but we want them to, if this is what they want to do and they’re willing to do the hard work to make it happen,” Leigh Tapani said.

Columbian staff writer