Transformer Industry Endures in Shenango Valley
SHARON, Pa. — Though the Sharon, Pa. plant that Westinghouse Electric Corp. once touted as the longest single building in the country stopped making transformers in 1985, the transformer industry is very much part of the Shenango Valley’s future.
Just ask Jim Landino. Signs and placards taken off old transformers from over the decades are arrayed on a counter at his JCL Energy in Sharon.
Landino, the electrical equipment company’s founder and team leader, has collected them for years. Among them is the circular logo of Westinghouse. Other names are less familiar, such as Allis-Chalmers or Moloney Electric.
“When I moved to Sharon in 1995 and started collecting and selling transformers we would buy a lot of stuff, and a lot of stuff was vintage,” Landino says. “Whenever we came across stuff that we knew that the manufacturer was out of business, for example, or they were just super cool, we collected them.”
The Westinghouse transformer plant operated in Sharon for 73 years. When Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant couldn’t keep up with demand in the early 1920s, the company acquired land in Sharon to expand its transformer manufacturing capabilities, says Taylor Galaska, president of the Sharon Historical Society. At its peak, the plant had 10,000 employees.
“Westinghouse ruled the farm for a long time” and the Sharon plant was considered “the country club of transformer plants,” Landino says.
While an electric vehicle technology hub is taking shape in Lordstown, Ohio, roughly 20 miles away, in what many consider the original “Voltage Valley,” three companies that recondition, sell or service transformers are operating.
Both Landino’s JCL Energy and Sunbelt Transformer operate in Sharon, while Fortune Electric America, the North American division of Taiwan-based transformer manufacturer Fortune Electric, is based in Hermitage.
Landino, whose background was in tool and die, got into transformer sales in Rochester, N.Y., during the 1980s and eventually was hired by the founder of Sunbelt Transformer. “He made me an offer to come work for him and set up the shop in Sharon,” he says.
Sharon was a “natural fit” for Texas-based Sunbelt Transformer – which last year merged with Solomon Corp. to become Sunbelt-Solomon Solutions – when the company wanted to expand in 1994, says Tricia Schweiss, vice president of sales. The area provides a strong talent pool for transformer companies, from welders and fabricators to transformer coil winders.
“This area has always been strong to get talent,” she says.
Additionally, Schweiss, who joined Sunbelt in 2009, points to personal ties to Sharon’s transformer legacy. Her grandfather was an auditor for Westinghouse and her husband’s grandfathers both worked there as well, one as a draftsman and the other as an engineer. “I think this industry was in the blood and meant to be,” she says.
The Shenango Valley’s transformer legacy also spawned the launch of Fortune Electric America. The company’s office in Hermitage, which handles sales, service and logistics, was founded by a member of the family that owns Fortune Electric who lived in Hermitage.
“He was an engineer here and he decided to open the business here,” assistant manager Matt McCarthy says.
Landino rose through Sunbelt’s ranks and eventually acquired majority ownership of the company. He later sold his stake in 2014 and turned his attention to downtown Sharon redevelopment, acquiring companies like Steel Valley Lifts and other ventures before re-entering the transformer industry this year, after a five-year non-compete clause expired.
He considers the startup – which buys, sells, distributes and repairs transformers – an “underdog” in the industry.
“Construction is strong, residential in particular,” Landino says.
In addition, data mining has become big, with companies like Facebook and Google setting up data farms where they can get cheap electricity. Wind and solar have also emerged as strong segments since he got back in the business, he says. “And you just have base industrial stuff,” he says.
“Our goal is to build a $5 million to $10 million business in the next couple years,” Landino says. “We have the likelihood of a $20 million business in the next five or so years if we can stay on it, the market comes around and the economy stays strong.”
JCL Energy is set up to ship within 500 miles of Sharon, Landino says. He already has shipped product to as far as Texas and anticipates “no trouble going into Florida,” he says. “We’re going to be very much east of the Mississippi because we know a lot of people in that region.”
“We serve a variety of industries that either need electrical equipment in a hurry, for project work, or your everyday new construction needs,” Schweiss says. “We are nationwide and sell internationally.”
Sunbelt’s customer base includes utilities, electric cooperatives, municipalities, industrial and commercial clients, companies in the energy sectors, including oil and gas as well as renewables, data centers, manufacturing, mining and government.
“Business is good for us,” Fortune Electric’s McCarthy says.
Fortune Electric’s clientele includes Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and Dominion Energy, and engineering and construction firm Kiebit. The company also does work for Berkshire Hathaway, McCarthy says.
“Business remains consistently on the growth side,” Schweiss says. “Every year, I get amazed on how as a company we continue to grow in the right areas and lean on our teammates to help get us there. While oil and gas has declined, we have seen a strong pickup with the renewable side of the business, focusing heavily on solar/wind projects.”
“There’s a draw toward efficiency so everything has to meet the new [Department of Energy] efficiency ratings,” Landino says. Other than elements such as “maybe a different steel core” or using more aluminum than copper, there have been few changes in transformer technology over the years, he says.
Though no longer manufacturing transformers, local leaders are working to breathe new life into the former Sharon Westinghouse building, which is now owned by the Winner Companies.
Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp. has a master lease for about 600,000 square feet of the property, which it is developing and marketing as The Landing.
A roofing project is underway and the development group has created a new lobby, installed new windows at the front entrance and created a community conference room, reports Clancy Atkinson, president. Tenants include an operation that extracts rare earth metals from coal ash.
“We’re currently in talks and planning with two different aquaponics operations that are interested in the property,” he says. One would be a full-scale production operation with a classroom attached that would be affiliated with Penn State University while the other would produce seedlings that would be distributed across a network of aquaponics facilities.
Pictured at top: Jim Landino stands in front of used transformers that JCL will recondition at his company’s warehouse in Sharon.
Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.