Manufacturing Still Vibrant in Columbiana County

LISBON, Ohio – While anemic supply chains, higher commodity prices and a constricted labor market play havoc for businesses across the board, companies in Columbiana County say they’ve weathered these challenges and experienced steady growth over the past year. 

Businesses and economic development specialists in the five largest cities in the county – Salem, Lisbon, East Liverpool, Columbiana and East Palestine – say that business remains strong despite these circumstances and a resilient pandemic. Indeed, this strength is measured by activity in the form of expansions, fresh inquiries for development space, acquisitions and revenue growth.

“We’ve just finished a $4.5 million expansion,” says Ken Heestand, plant manager of the SMS Group Technical Service Division in East Palestine. The expansion consists of a 20,000 square-foot addition, some new equipment and offices.

SMS Group Inc. maintains its North America headquarters in Pittsburgh. The company is based in Germany and employs 14,000 worldwide.

Heestand says the business of SMS is tied directly to the steel industry, and right now the industry is thriving as higher prices have led to higher revenues for domestic manufacturers.  At its East Palestine plant, SMS reconditions equipment such as casters, molds, segments and some processing line machinery.

“Business has been very good,” Heestand says.  

SMS Group boasts 18 locations across the country and has secured business with about 80% of the new mills in the United States, according to Heestand.  

As an example, he points to the North Star BlueScope steel manufacturing plant in Delta, Ohio, near Toledo. “They’ve expanded their steelmaking capacity by 50%,” he reports. “It was one reason for our expansion because we maintain their equipment.” 

Among the greatest challenges facing SMS companywide is attracting qualified workers, Heestand says. The East Palestine plant, which employs 45, recently filled eight positions. “It wasn’t easy. But we were able to find the right people,” he says. 

Others that rely on steel as a feedstock for their products are experiencing some setbacks because of higher prices and tighter supply.  

“It’s slowed down since last year,” says Matt Skillman, owner of Ohio Flame Inc., Columbiana, which manufactures steel fire pits used in outdoor living spaces.  “The biggest issues this year are the shortages of steel.”

Skillman says 2020 was an “explosive” year for the company despite the challenges of the pandemic. Shortages at big box retailers for fire pits, plus the trend toward more homebound activities during the health crisis, led to a substantial increase in business for the small company.

“Our products were pretty popular,” Skillman says. “During the pandemic, our business quadrupled. A lot of people were looking to create more outdoor space at their house and property and fire pits were a real hot commodity.”

Skillman founded Ohio Flame in 2009 as a part-time business,  making fire pits from his garage. In 2012, he opted to devote full-time attention to the business. He manufactures fire pits from steel tank heads Ohio Flame buys from producers such as Compco Industries in Columbiana, where the company leases space.  The pits come in two core models – the Patriot and Liberty – and Skillman says he’s looking for ways to freshen up some of the designs this year as cooler weather sets in. 

Skillman says the company isn’t enjoying the record numbers of last year, but business is still ahead of pre-pandemic levels. “We’re working a lot of hours going into the fall season,” he says.

The manufacturing sector represents a strong backbone of the Columbiana County economy, recent statistics show.  According to a business overview prepared by Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration for the Columbiana County Port Authority, manufacturing jobs comprised 14.7% of total employment in 2017. That year, manufacturing employment stood at 6,576 total in Columbiana County.

Other major sectors include health care, which represents 11.8% of the labor force; educational services, 10.5%; accommodation and food services, 7.8%; and construction with 6.7%, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’ve stood the test of time,” says Rick Dieringer, owner of Tri State Supplies in East Liverpool. The company is a business-to-business vendor that supplies a variety of goods to restaurants, caterers, taverns, churches, concessionaires and county agencies.

“It’s been strong and steady over the last year,” Dieringer says.

During the pandemic, the spike in takeout orders spurred sales of products such as styrene food containers, while demand was high for cleansers and other sanitation items, he says.

The company began more than 40 years ago, supplying tobacco products, candy and other items to mom-and-pop stores across Columbiana County. As WalMart and other giant retailers moved in and replaced the corner retailer, Dieringer changed direction and targeted other businesses in the regional market.

 “We also provide all types of floor coverings [such as tile, vinyl, carpet and hardwoods.] We’re a pretty diverse company,” he says.

Increased demand in the pet nutrition sector has helped drive growth at Ohio Pet Foods, a subsidiary of BrightPet Nutrition Group, at its plant in Lisbon, says Matt Golladay, the company president. “We’ve grown so much. We’re approaching a 20% year-over-year gain,” he says.

Last year, the company brought in a new partner that committed more investment capital to the operation, Golladay says. This resulted in BrightPet’s acquisition of Miracle Pet, a freeze-dried pet food company in Dayton.

Aside from the Dayton acquisition, BrightPet operates another freeze-dried wholesaler, Phoebe Products in Kiel, Wis., and Southern Tier Pet Nutrition in Sherburne, N.Y., a kibble manufacturer.

Golladay says it’s likely the Lisbon and New York operations will be adapted one day to accommodate freeze dried pet foods. “We’re looking to invest and expand here in Lisbon,” he says. In the near-term, the company is assessing new equipment upgrades that could bring more efficiency and speed to its production lines.

The Columbiana County manufacturing plant employs about 100, Golladay says, while the four operations combined employ as many as 400.

“We’re always looking for more employees and we’re doing everything we can to fill open jobs,” he says. “It’s impacted us a little bit. It’s always been hard finding employees. But it’s been a lot harder over this year and-a-half.”

On the bright side, there’s no shortage of demand from potential developers searching for new sites in Columbiana County, says Julie Needs, executive director of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center in Salem. The downside is that it’s become difficult to find the proper facilities to accommodate these inquiries, she says.

“We are in need of space,” Needs says. “There is just a lack of buildings for sale or lease.”

Since January, the SOD Center has logged at least 14 serious requests for space in Salem, all from manufacturers. About 40% of those requests are from existing companies in the Salem area looking for more room to expand.  The remaining 60% of these inquiries are from businesses outside the area looking to relocate to Salem, she says.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Needs says. “Metals, fabricators, tool and die, electrical equipment manufacturers.”

Still, the challenge is finding the right fit for the business.

“We’ve been focused this year on trying to identify property for additional development, whether it be land or engaging some national developers for spec buildings,” Needs says.  

On average, these interests require buildings that hover around 50,000 square feet, Needs says. “We’re looking at acquiring property. But there’s no real property on the market, either,” she says.  These options would include greenfield sites, provided there are landowners willing to sell.

There are some buildings available, but many would require substantial rehabilitation or demolition before making it suitable for a modern manufacturer.

“We’d have to explore grants for demo and rehab and assess what we could put into those spaces,” Needs says. “We’re looking at what we can repurpose and how to meet the need.”

Pictured: SMS Group recently finished a $4.5 million expansion at its East Palestine site. The company’s fortunes are tied to the steel industry, plant manager Ken Heestand says.