A Century of Holding Industry Together

GIRARD, Ohio – Since 1998, Paul Kovach has been the sales manager and co-owner of Brainard Rivet Co. Inside the company’s 65,000-square-foot plant, Rob Fuller operates a thread roller machine in the company’s drill department. He too is an owner of the company.

So is plant engineer John Chetsko, office manager Joseph Lamanna, furnace operator Frank Gianetti, and the other 28 employees at Brainard Rivet, a manufacturer that has stood the test of time in the Mahoning Valley and is one of the first wholly employee-owned companies in Ohio.

“When I hire people, I’m looking to hire an owner first and an employee second,” Lamanna says. The company was established in 1916 and this year marks 100 years in business. “It’s a different culture,” Lamanna says.

Robert Byers, a semi-retired sales manager, says that employee ownership programs provide the workforce with a vested interest in what they do. Instead of a traditional pension plan, Brainard rewards its employees with stock in the company, a model that’s worked well since the manufacturer was resurrected in 1998 after its parent, Textron Inc., closed the plant the year before.

When Berea-based Fastener Industries Inc. purchased the plant that year, it had in place an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP.

“In our company, everybody is an owner and is sharing the same thing,” Byers says. “It makes a big difference. Everybody is committed.”

Brainard traces its roots to J.W. Brainard, who was a sales engineer for Andrew Carnegie’s Atlantic Iron and Steel Co. in Sharon, Pa. at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, a segment of that company’s business was devoted to manufacturing the steel hoops that fit snugly around wooden barrels to keep the staves in place.

At the time, barrels were the preferred mode of transporting dry goods or products, so business boomed, relates Kovach, the sales manager. Indeed, business was so good that rivet manufacturers – rivets were necessary to fasten the steel hoops – had a difficult time keeping up with demand.

“When they had trouble keeping pace, Brainard purchased eight riveting machines,” Kovach says, forming Fowler Rivet Co. in Braddock, Pa. Three years later, the company relocated to Warren as the J.W. Brainard Co. and in 1927 was acquired by the Townshend Co. and renamed The Brainard Rivet Co. In 1951, Brainard moved to its current site on Harry Avenue in Girard.

Today, the Girard operation employs 33, down from the 60 or so employed when Textron closed the plant. And, were it not for the intercession of former U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant, the plant might never have reopened. “He really stood up for us,” Byers notes.

An immediate challenge to rebuilding the company was restoring the company’s reputation because Textron neglected to notify Brainard’s customers that it was closing, leaving many clients in the lurch.

“We went from $15 million in sales a year to zero,” Lamanna says. “It took us many months before our first sale.”

Since then, Brainard has gradually built back its business. Its 65,000-square-foot plant is packed with hydraulic presses that range from single-die, single-blow operation to five-die, five-blow machines, Kovach says. About 95% of its customers were added after 1998, he says.

“We’ve been very good in recognizing where the market’s going,” Kovach says. Many of the products manufactured at Brainard are supplied to the automotive, agriculture, railroad, recreational vehicle, furniture and general metal working industries through distributors across the country.

And, the company still produces rivets for wooden barrels needed in the wine and liquor industry.

“We’re very nimble and we can respond to customer demands,” Kovach says. “Our pricing is competitive. We were lean before lean was invented.”

Many of Brainard’s rivets are custom-designed, so foreign competition doesn’t pose a significant threat to its operations. The company has the advantage of a quick turnaround time and shipping, Kovach adds.

“We’ve seen modest increases over the last several years,” he reports, “and expect to see a modest increase this year.”

Brainard purchases coils of steel rod from various service centers throughout the region. The coils are fed into the hydraulic presses, says plant engineer John Chetsko. The company works with traditional steel, steel alloys, stainless steel, brass, aluminum and copper.

Everything produced at Brainard is small – its largest product measures roughly half an inch in diameter and a single piece of equipment is capable of producing 80,000 to 100,000 rivets in an eight-hour shift.

The plant houses 22 single-blow header machines, nine double-blow headers, and six transfer headers – one of which is the largest, a five-die, five-blow header now manufacturing a new product, hex nuts. The plant also contains a drilling department that modifies pins used in the agricultural industry. Steel rod is fed into the machines, cut into small pieces and pushed through a die at high velocity.

“Then, there’s a punch at the other end to make the particular head shape that they need,” Chetsko explains. “Some of these machines can go up to 400 pieces a minute.”

As the shapes get more complex, they require more dies and more punches, or “blows,” in the metal forming process, Chetsko says.

Brainard’s five-die, five-blow header is the largest and most complex in the plant, and was brought in about two years ago, Lamanna says.

For the last year-and-a-half, the operation has produced hex nuts, a departure from standard rivet manufacturing but a market that the company believes it can compete in.

“It’s a totally different product line than what we’re used to making,” Lamanna says. “We’re trying to get our feet wet with this machine to see what additional products we can make.”

Once the hex nuts spill out into the machine’s hopper, they’re moved to a threading operation where the product is finished.

In another part of the plant, those products formed in the header presses that will be used for clevis pins are prepared for drilling.

“We call these ‘corn picker’ pins,” Kovach says, so named because of their traditional use in agricultural equipment. Today, they are used widely in the medical field as well, he notes.

Small-diameter holes are drilled into each pin through an automated process – the hole is to accommodate a cotter pin to hold the fastener in place – and if needed, the pins are shaved at one end to form a blunted point.

Those rivets, pins, or hex nuts that require stress relief are then run through a gas-fueled open-air furnace and heat-treated.

Ultimately, about 175 million rivets, hex nuts, and pins are manufactured at Brainard every year, Kovach estimates. Depending on the business, the plant typically operates between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., five days a week.

And while markets have changed for the company over the last 100 years, Brainard has remained a faithful manufacturer of the very item on which it built its business, Chetsko says.

“These are the original products we made in 1916,” he says as he pushes his hands into a large box and scoops up two handfuls of rivets bound for a customer that manufactures wine and whiskey barrels.

“A single box holds about 175,000 of these,” he says. “Just one of our customers orders two million of these per month.”

The craft beer industry is also using barrels to age beer. Says Byers,” It’s still a good portion of our business.”

Since it reopened in 1998, Brainard has successfully navigated in various markets, diversified its product mix, and positioned itself well for the future, Byers says.

“We got into making rivets for automotive and it kept on growing,” he says. “We saw an opportunity in the tractor market, then we expanded into special fasteners.”

As for the future, “We continue to grow and follow where we think the market will go,” he says.

Pictured: Paul Kovach, sales manager; Don Kirkwood, inside sales; John Chetsko, plant engineer; Chris Morrison, plant scheduler; Joseph Lamanna, office manager; Robert Byers, semi-retired sales manager; and all 27 other employees at Brainard Rivet Co., Girard, have a stake in the ownership of the 100 year-old-company.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.