3 Salem Manufacturers Find Their ‘New Normal’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It’s likely that consumer habits acquired during the age of COVID-19 won’t abate anytime soon, because businesses and individuals are more conscious than ever of spraying, wiping, and cleaning up contaminants that could compromise a person’s health.

For Milsek Furniture Polish Inc. in Salem, it inspired the development of an entirely new line of business for the 107-year-old-company – an environmentally friendly disinfectant to complement its already popular line of products.  

“Disinfecting isn’t going away,” says its vice president, Chris Herubin. “Our daughter has developed a whole new product – a multi-surface cleaner and disinfectant. It’s all-green, all natural.”

For manufacturers at the Salem Industrial Park, the “new normal” is at times a moving target, as they make adjustments to ever-changing markets and challenges related to issues with supplies and materials. Some of these adjustments have translated into internal efficiencies, new products and other adaptations now embedded into their business models.

Milsek’s product launch will first require the installation of an entirely new bottling line, Herubin says, gesturing to an empty space in the middle of the company plant where the line is planned.  

“A lot of this line will be automated,” he says. The non-aerosol disinfectant will be packaged in 32-ounce plastic spray bottles that are automatically filled and require little human interaction. The plan is to have the new line installed and the product on retail shelves by the end of the year, pending a review from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he says.

“We have five employees,” Herubin says.  “We’re looking to double that by the end of the year.”

Herubin and his wife, Joyce, purchased the company in 2006 when it was in a pole barn in Petersburg.  At the time, the company produced its flagship lemon-scented furniture polish and a holiday scented oil. By 2008, the Herubins expanded the mix to include new products such as a stainless steel cleaner, as well as a gun and rifle cleaner. Since then, the company has added a leather and vinyl cleaner and conditioner and an antique and restoration polish to the product line.

“We’re working to grow it nationally,” Herubin says.

While Milsek is a common brand name in northeastern Ohio, the company is trying to expand its appeal to markets outside this region. To do so, Milsek hired a marketing company, rebranded its label and is pursuing national sales more aggressively through online retail outlets such as Amazon.

“Last year, when COVID hit, it slowed everything up,” Herubin says. “Our business grew but lead times were extended significantly.”

For example, he says the turnaround time for bottling supplies would normally be between four and six weeks.  

“It went as far as seven months out last year,” he says.“We had to be more on top of our game in planning out our future.”

The pandemic has done little to squash demand and business.“Last year was a good year for us,” he says. “We were up 50% over 2019.”

Prospects are even better for 2021, Herubin says. Through the first four months, business increased 80% compared to the previous year. “Our business with existing customers is growing and we added new customers to our business,” he says.

Julie Needs, executive director of the Salem Opportunity Development Center, says many of the Salem-area manufacturers her agency works with introduced new processes and procedures during the pandemic that stuck.

“A common remark is that ‘We’ve learned how to do things better because of this,’ ” she says.

Businesses put in motion new processes and protocols, for example, that are likely to lead to cost-saving efficiencies in the long-term. At the height of the pandemic many manufacturers took the opportunity to introduce more advanced manufacturing – such as robotics – to their processes.  

The transitions haven’t replaced employees, Needs emphasizes. Instead they’ve enhanced the skills of workers who can now complete a task much faster.

“It’s helped them speed up the process,” she says.“There are still some bumps in the road regarding supply chain.”

Moreover, a critical challenge still exists in procuring a workforce, Needs says. The SOD Center recently received a grant through the Appalachian Commission to expand its training center. The expansion includes the installation of a computer lab and a partnership with Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition for an industrial maintenance readiness program that provides skill development for entry-level industrial maintenance jobs.

“We are in the beginning stages of recruiting employers for that program,” Needs says.

Adam Hickey, vice president of Hickey Metal Fabricating Inc., says it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified workers, especially as the market ramps up demand.

Among the changes his company made during the pandemic was installing new robotic welders in a recently constructed building at the Salem Industrial Park.

Company vice presidents Ben Peters and Adam Hickey at Hickey Metal Fabrication stand next to robotic welders the company recently added.

“We’ve invested heavily in automation and new equipment during the downturn, which helped us as our customers started ramping up last year,” he says. “But, even in our automation side we’re lacking people.”

Hickey is a metal fabrication shop that has expanded five times at the Salem Industrial Park.  A good portion of its business is devoted to the truck and trailer industry.  

The company’s order books are as robust as ever and its backlog is equally strong, placing additional pressure on the company to hire more employees, Hickey says.

“It’s a challenge,” he says. “Right now we have 175. We need to be at 195 or 200,” he says. “There’s so much pent-up demand in the marketplace.”

The labor market is also very competitive, Hickey says, with employees always looking for better jobs with higher pay.  

“I’d say that 19 out of 20 people that come here are already employed,” he says. “There’s a sense out there that someone is always offering something better.”

Hickey’s vendors report that supply is bogged down because of a shortage of workers on their end. “We’ve had one vendor that pushed out lead times multiple times – they’ve said that it’s due to labor. They can’t find people to keep up.”

Another pressure point manufacturers face is the rising costs of materials. “The price of raw materials is the highest it’s ever been,” Hickey says, noting steel mills aren’t booking adequate capacity to satisfy demand. “They can name their price,” he notes.

Other small manufacturers doing business in the Salem Industrial Park have successfully dodged the high prices and remain optimistic over the course of business in the near-term.

“We were really unaffected,” says Bruce Winters, owner of Salem Mill & Cabinet. The company manufactures and designs cabinets for new offices, many of them in the medical field. During the worst of the pandemic, Winters says his company was already busy with projects deemed essential, such as work at NEOMED and several hospital office renovations.

“We’re of the size that one phone call keeps us busy for a long time,” Winters says.

Quote levels have returned to their pre-pandemic pace, he says. At one point last year, he noticed that the number of requests for bids dropped from between five and 10 per week to virtually nothing. It remained that way until this January.

Bruce Winters, owner of Salem Mill & Cabinet, says he’s busy with work related to medical offices as order books start to fill up.

What’s different in this market is that he’s noticing more contractors based in the Cleveland and Akron areas are competing for local projects. “Contractors bidding the projects are from all over northeastern Ohio,” he says.

Currently, the company is building cabinets for a private medical practice in Boardman.  “We draw designs for the cabinets, cut the material, do the machining and then assemble them by hand,” he says.  “I have two full-time and one part-time employee. But we can do small to medium jobs pretty responsively,” he says.

The cost of materials isn’t much of an issue, Winters says, since most of his cabinetry uses particleboard, not lumber. “The price of a two-by-four is through the roof. But that’s not the material we purchase.”

Still, Winters says it’s a balancing act between how much work is too much, given the size of his company. “Our order books are looking really good and you don’t want to say no to your best customers,” he says.

“There’s always Saturdays and Sundays,” Winters says with a shrug. 

Pictured: Chris Herubin, vice president of Milsek Furniture Polish, secures a cap on one of the product’s bottles at the company’s manufacturing plant in Salem.