On a Mission
An Orange County icon continues to inspire Paragon Steel’s evolution
The Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano, California, is a testament to the resilience of man and materials. The main structure was first built by Spanish padres and Native Americans over 240 years ago and is considered the birthplace of Orange County. California’s first orange vineyard is reportedly located on the mission grounds.
But, earthquakes have long been the Mission’s nemesis. The primary building on the complex has been rebuilt, including the addition of the 85-foot-high main rotunda and 104-foot bell tower, and restored multiple times over the last 200+ years. Yet, earthquakes in the early 2000s would again weaken the masonry elements. The challenge for the Mission Preservation Foundation was finding a way to retain the primary historic structure itself (without reconstruction) and yet make it safe for the public to come and visit. Engineers designed a steel-reinforced skeleton that would be affixed to the roof system and provide additional support. Paragon Steel was called on to fabricate and install the skeleton.
Jim Stavis, President and CEO of Paragon Steel, says, “It was perhaps our greatest contribution to Orange County because of the landmark’s significance as the birthplace of agriculture, industry, education and religion in the west. Personally and professionally, it has become a symbol of our company’s strength and spirit.”
A Backbone of Steel
Paragon Steel was founded in 1988 by Stavis and Doug Carpenter. They had met one another when Carpenter ran a steel company that used to sell to Stavis, who owned an auto aftermarket business producing mufflers and performance products.
The two built their steel enterprise with a belief that quality and service would be the cornerstone of the company. The steel industry was somewhat fragmented at that time and serviced by distributors that each specialized in a limited number of commodities. Paragon’s strength was in its ability to provide a wide variety of metal products with guaranteed complete and quick deliveries, which was quite unique.
Their approach was similar back then to the Amazon model of today of providing customer orders precisely how, when and where the end user wanted them. Stavis adds, “Customers today have become used to this level of service, but back then it was quite revolutionary.”
Since 1988, many steel companies have come and gone. However, the two partners expanded their service line in Paragon’s early years to include fabrication and installation, which helped them stay in business. They provided steel for the Metrolink rail project and the Santa Monica steel structures at Tongva Park overlooking the pier. These jobs were awarded after earlier successful jobs such as the Mission San Juan Capistrano.
On a personal level in 2004, Stavis needed some reconstruction of his own. As a consequence of his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes as a teenager, he had developed congestive heart failure and doctors determined that he needed the transplant of a heart, kidney and pancreas in order to survive.
In 2005, Stavis received donated organs from a 17-year-old football star who had tragically died in an auto accident near Santa Barbara. The triple organ transplant was performed successfully at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the first time such a procedure had ever been attempted.
Like the transformation of the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Stavis’ transformation was equally miraculous. As an outgrowth of Stavis’ transplant story, he began to do volunteer work for OneLegacy Foundation and Donate Life America, charitable organizations that work to promote a culture where organ donation is embraced as a fundamental human responsibility.
One annual event that helps raise awareness for these entities is the Donate Life 5K/1K Run/Walk in Orange County on the campus of California State University, Fullerton. Last year, over 12,000 people participated in the event with the shared goal to educate and inspire the community about organ and tissue donation—and the Paragon Steel family was there to help.
Each year, Paragon Steel sponsors a team that participates in the event and invites employees, family members and friends to attend. It is Stavis’ way of giving back to the cause that changed his life forever. Paragon sponsors a team called Brice 4 Paragon Steel in memory of the young man who saved Stavis’ life.
Stavis adds, “It is rare for a donor family and recipient to actually meet, let alone develop a relationship. This event allows this union to occur. My donor family brings a dozen or so family members each year to walk alongside my family and co-workers. It is an inspiring day.”
More Changes to Come
In 2012, Paragon’s other Principal and Founder, Carpenter, experienced his own medical challenge. He had contracted an infection while in the hospital, which ultimately led to his death 26 months later. It was a brutal period for the company and for Stavis, as both had to absorb the loss of Carpenter.
Stavis says, “It was the hardest thing I ever had to overcome—and I have had to overcome quite a lot during my lifetime.”
“Personally and professionally, [Mission San Juan Capistrano] has become a symbol of our company’s strength and spirit.” Jim Stavis, President and CEO, Paragon Steel
Stavis needed to rally the troops and assure customers, vendors and the bank that the company could survive without Carpenter. He made a decision at that time to focus the operation exclusively on steel distribution, foregoing fabrication.
Stavis’ course focused on both the steel construction sector and the manufactured products sector, once again with an emphasis on service. The shift to distribution only has helped insulate the company from the volatility in construction cycles (as evidenced by the effects of tariffs in 2018) and also provides products for a variety of other types of steel users.
Today, the company distributes a wide range of steel products including angles, channels, beams, plate, tubing and pipe, sheet and coil, bars and strips for structural, nonstructural and ornamental applications. These products are available in a variety of materials including carbon steel, aluminum, stainless steel, alloys in various grades, copper and brass.
While the company does not do large fabrication jobs, it does still provide processing services including saw cutting, flame cutting, water jet, coating, punching, slitting, shearing, leveling and forming.
“Along with fast and reliable deliveries, custom packaging and just-in-time programs, we specialize in hard-to-find items,” Stavis says. “We have a large network of distributors and mills that a buyer typically would not have access to, which allows us to find unusual grades and sizes of steel items.”
As an example, the I-405 Improvement Project initiated by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in cooperation with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is an ongoing multiyear project to add a general-purpose lane in each direction on I-405 between I-605 and Euclid Street, and a second lane in each direction to be combined with an existing carpool lane to create the 405 Express Lanes, which will be dual-tolled lanes between I-605 and State Route 73.
Contractors on the project required a specific type of Teflon-coated steel plate. Paragon Steel sourced it from the East Coast and shipped to the job site within a matter of days.
The Future Is Bright
Stavis is very public about his good fortune both personally and professionally. He believes that his company’s journey, and its three decades of success, are also a story of survival, much like Mission San Juan Capistrano.
He adds, “You never know what a day may bring, so hope is fundamental to both my story and Paragon’s story. That belief is central to everything we do because, with hope, we know that anything is possible no matter the challenge.”
Stavis also wrote a book called “When Hope Is Your Only Option” that chronicles his journey. He believes it’s his positive outlook—and a backbone of steel—that has helped Paragon Steel endure through good times and bad.
He concludes, “I believe we all have a purpose, a reason we are here. I encourage our employees to find what drives them and explore with our customers what is important to them. There is more to life than just selling a little steel. And like Mission San Juan Capistrano, we will thrive with character and resilience.”