Sparks fly: Tahoe City welder builds business from the ground up
Special to the Sun
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — As a 25-year-old ski bum with a degree in resort management, Ian Mason was told it would be countless years before he would ever ascend the ranks of ski industry command.
Stuck on a professional plateau, Mason knew he had two choices: either coast along as he had been, or to find a new career ladder to climb.
“I was told that someone basically had to die for me to move up at that point, and if I didn’t like those odds, I should go start my own business,” Mason said. “I gave my notice on the spot.”
His abrupt departure from the ski industry was a decision that had begun to unfold some time before, but Mason said he needed the extra push to see it through.
“A lot of changes were happening in the ski industry, and everywhere I went people said, ‘you should have been here in the old days,’” Mason said. “I didn’t want to find myself 50 years old, broke, and looking over my shoulder and regretting that I spent so much time concerned about snowfall, budget cuts, and all the corporate drama that comes with it.”
SPARKS FLY IN A NEW FIELD
Through a combination of hard-work, motivation and discipline, Mason started learning the tricks of the welding trade with the goal of becoming a certified welder.
“I didn’t know much about welding, but I figured it was a business I could run by myself and it was something I was interested in,” Mason said, “A friend of mine from Alpine showed me some pointers, and I taught myself from there.”
With the launch of his company, Big Water Welding, in 2002, Mason started cranking out small-scale projects from a bay he rented on River Road just outside of Tahoe City, and things grew from there.
“It took a while to build up the business, but I never thought it would grow to the point where I’d need a shop manager or anything like that,” said the burly-looking handyman, in his characteristically laid-back tone.
Eventually, Big Water Welding grew out of the small bay and into the spaces adjacent to it, prompting Mason to hire not only a shop manager, but also a bookkeeper and eight employees, but it would take a handful of years before fusing it all of that together.
HUNTING FOR THE GOOD LIFE
Born in Long Island, N.Y., Mason moved with his family to New Jersey, where he grew up skiing and hunting with his brother until 1992, when he moved to Colorado to tackle Rocky Mountain skiing, and to earn a degree from Colorado Mountain College.
“In some ways that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made because the town I lived in during college had maybe thirty girls in it total at the time,” he said, laughing.
Needless to say, Mason’s college experience wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“I just wanted to finish what I was doing and get out of there,” said the now-husband and father-of one.
In his search for the perfect ski town, Mason stumbled on a job opening as a chairlift operator in North Lake Tahoe and immediately jumped on the opportunity to switch ski town gears.
“Tahoe had three things no other town like it had at the time — skiing, jobs, and women,” he joked.
WELDING TOGETHER THE PERFECT TRADE
Though Mason bid farewell to the ski industry, he walked away a little more than he had started with, including his future wife, his drive to own a business, and a slew of valuable business lessons under his belt — like how a business owner should treat employees.
“Working in the ski industry taught me to love what I do every day, and to appreciate those who help me do it,” Mason said. “You’ve got to take care of the employees who take care of you.”
Nowadays, Big Water Welding operates like a well-oiled machine with eight full-time workers, a hefty collection of welding equipment spread out among several bays, and an abundance of structural steel projects, most of them located in Martis Camp.
“Structural steel is all about the beams, so they have to be ridiculously sturdy to withstand earthquakes and the snow load,” Mason said. “It’s super dangerous and pretty much everything in this line of work is bad for your health, but I love it.”
Though the self-taught metalworker spends a lot less time welding, and a lot more time laboring away on the business side of things, he’s confident he won’t be looking over his back at age 50 wondering if he should have done things differently.
“I miss welding now that I’m spending most of my time on the business stuff, but I’m still my own boss and I get to make my own schedule, and nothing makes me happier than that,” Mason said.
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at email@example.com.