Our Towns

Manufacturers Still Making It in Columbiana County

COLUMBIANA, Ohio — The manufacturing sector across Columbiana County, much like the hilly terrain of this mostly rural patch of northeastern Ohio, has over the last decade experienced its share of high points and low points.

Many producers in the region are optimistic that the manufacturing economy has turned the corner as those tied to markets in growth mode have enjoyed steady prosperity over the last decade. This is exemplified by plant expansions, acquisitions and more opportunities for the local workforce.

Others are struggling, hurt by what they say are unfair trade laws and a dwindling labor pool that lacks the necessary trades and skills to carry this sector forward.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” reflects Rick Severs Sr., president of RBS Manufacturing Inc. in East Palestine. “It’s awful to see where we once were and how available work was. Blue-collar work has stagnated.”

RBS is a contract fabricator of heavy equipment. It works closely with engineering firms that design machinery for steel mills, rail yards and the mining industry, the latter of which has been hit particularly hard. “We have about 23 employees right now,” Severs says. “Normally, we’ll run about 40.”

Severs laments that sales are half of what they were about 10 years ago, noting that some of the work his company performs has gone to Mexico. Meanwhile, he says, RBS has to hold on tightly to its core employees because it is so difficult to find qualified workers in this market.

“We’ve seen a steady downturn in this area,” Severs says, adding that a sizeable amount of casting machinery is built in China and India and then shipped to the United States.

Still, Severs is confident the market will rebound – he’s hearing encouraging news from customers that next year should be much stronger. Moreover, his son plans to take over the company and steer it in new directions.

“Everything here is bought and paid for,” the older Severs says, “so he has a great opportunity.”

Other Columbiana County manufacturers that provide service work for industry agree that business in recent years has been lean, noting that customer orders have fallen significantly. “We saw a reduction of 20% to 25% of what our customers were producing,” says Bob Bertelsen, president of A Plus Powder Coaters Inc., Columbiana. “We saw an 8% downturn last year.”

But that’s not the case this year as business bounced back and A Plus Powder Coaters is on track for a 20% increase. The company dry-powder coats metal components manufactured by producers from throughout the country. “We’ve seen an increase in our customer base and our customer output is on the rise,” Bertelsen says

The company uses a more durable chemical compound than paint for an array of products such as electrical components, heavy equipment, architectural railings, structural components and parts for commercial trucks. “As of late, we’re getting calls from customers that are really busy,” Bertelsen says. “We’re diversified, and we see all our markets strong right now. We’re very optimistic.”

Evidence of a rebounding manufacturing sector is apparent with other producers as well. PHD Manufacturing Inc., which produces thousands of pipe hangers of different sizes, strut products and accessories at its plant on Columbiana-Waterford Road in Columbiana, recently broke ground on a 62,000-square-foot expansion of its plant.

“For us, business is very good,” says Anthony Kopatich, executive vice president. PHD’s market is nationwide, and the company has secured orders from new building projects spearheaded by dot-com giants such as Amazon and Google, not to mention initiatives by innovative automakers such as Tesla. “For right now, that’s where a lot of the building is.”

The expansion will house a new roll forming line with the capacity to produce the equivalent of the three roll forming lines that PHD currently operates, Kopatich says. The move will also allow for more stock and inventory on the floor.

“It’s about a $3 million investment and is going to take at least a year to build,” he says. “This year, sales are up between 12% and 15%,” he reports. This latest project will mark the company’s seventh expansion at the site. “We produced 13 million feet of metal channels last year.”

These products are then shipped to the 30 warehouses PHD operates across the country before they’re distributed to respective customers. Says Kopatich, “We have one of the largest inventories in our industry.”

PHD employs 120 at the plant and another 30 in the office, Kopatich says. The expansion will require 25 new employees once the new line is operational, he adds.

Despite these indicators of a strengthening industrial sector, overall employment in Columbiana County’s manufacturing base has yet to claw its way back from 10 years ago when more than 6,700 worked in manufacturing positions.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of those employed at Columbiana County manufacturers in September 2007 stood at 6,723. That number had collapsed by June 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession, when employment in the manufacturing sector bottomed out at 4,865 – a reduction of 1,858 positions in less than two years.

More recent data show significant improvement. By May 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the county’s manufacturers employed 6,268 workers. The latest numbers available show that in March 2017, the manufacturing sector employed 6,012 throughout the county.

Employment would likely have fallen further in 2017 were it not for the acquisition of at least one troubled company by another local producer.

In June, Quaker Mfg. in Salem informed its employees that it would likely shut down its plant there, affecting 120 jobs. Within two weeks, Compco Industries Inc., based in Columbiana, negotiated the acquisition of Quaker and is now poised to expand that business, says Compco President Rick Fryda.

“We’ve retained the customers that made this deal possible and most employees,” Fryda says. “The plant is running and people are working.”

Quaker makes large tools used in the stamping process, and Fryda notes the deal was both the right move for Compco and the community. “A deal like this is divine intervention,” he remarks. “Everything that had to happen happened.”

Compco manufactures tank heads for the pressure vessel, air, propane, and water storage industries, while another Compco-owned company in Salem, QFM, produces custom metal stampings. “Compco in the last six months has grown from 150 to about 300 employees,” Fryda says. “Our corporate footprint has doubled.”

The acquisition of Quaker made sense because it helps diversify Compco’s holdings, adds Greg Smith, Compco chairman. “Part of the reason we’re in these other businesses is to be less sensitive to recession.”

Other Columbiana County manufacturers are reinvesting in their businesses and planning to engage in more modern, advanced manufacturing as they prepare for the future. Humtown Products Inc., for example, recently renewed its lease at World Trade Park in Leetonia, where it operates a large-scale 3-D printing operation. The company manufactures sand molds for the metals casting industry and has partnered with Youngstown State University to develop new additive manufacturing technology that could apply to this business.

Indeed, economic development specialists say that momentum in the manufacturing sector has led to increased competition for talent – an asset in short supply across Ohio.

“Honestly, our manufacturers seem to be doing very well,” says Michael Mancuso, executive director of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center in Salem. “The challenge in the next three to six months is having qualified people fill these positions.”

Mancuso recently drove through the Salem Industrial Park, he says, and discovered that no fewer than five manufacturers with hiring signs in the front of their buildings. “There are jobs out there,” he says.

What is most encouraging is that Mancuso is fielding more interest from companies searching for new sites to build – an indication that manufacturers are no longer hesitant about expansion plans. “We just had a company – Milsek – who bought a site in the industrial park and is preparing to move in,” he relates.

Another company, Hickey Fabricating, is expanding its plant at the industrial park and a third manufacturer has the opportunity to locate in Salem. If the manufacturer takes it, Mancuso says that would result in “a sizeable lift in employment. …

“Heavy equipment, machine shops, fabricators – they’re working full bore,” he says. “Business is strong and these companies want to grow.”

Pictured at top: Bob Bertelsen says business at A Plus Powder Coaters is on the upswing.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.