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Steel Tech: From small beginnings

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By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

In the beginning, there was just one steel slitter in an 8,000 square foot warehouse. There was no crane, only a forklift.

Now, Steel Technologies, Inc., in Eminence boasts a facility measuring more than 200,000 square feet. Spools of flat-rolled steel weigh about 25 tons — nearly 10 times the weight of a standard Ford F-150. They are moved not by forklifts, but cranes capable of lifting 75,000 pounds that also can lift the spools to machines, including a 1,500-ton press, that almost reach the warehouse ceiling.

According to Plant Manager Jim Krinock the steel is slit, flattened from 5/16” down to a paper-thin consistency and/or pressed into different configurations, then shipped to different markets.

According to a pie chart on its Web site, Steel Technologies’ main markets are automotive supply and automotive direct at a combined 46 percent, 19 percent agricultural and 15 percent appliance and HVAC.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brad Ray is the eldest son of founder, Merwin Ray — who retired in 2001 at the age of 72, passing on his chairmanship to his son. Brad Ray said his father never slowed down. “He basically worked absolutely full-time until he retired,” he said, “then stayed on the board until 2007.”

According to the Web site fundinguniverse.com, Merwin Ray is an Ohio native who studied industrial engineering in the early 1950s at Ohio State and Kent universities. Later he went to work for Shenango Steel and then Worthington Industries.

Merwin Ray worked his way up to the executive vice-presidency during his 15-year tenure at Worthington.

In 1970, he made the decision to venture out on his own in Louisville, where he had overseen some of his employer’s interests. Steel Technologies’ corporate offices are still headquartered in Louisville.

Brad Ray said Merwin Ray purchased the property on which he would build his plant in Eminence largely due to local Farmer’s Deposit Bank executive Chuck Kaiser. “The land was priced right and they had become friends,” he said. “He was 42 and wanted to create his own industry.”

“He wasn’t afraid to take chances,” General Manager Russell Parrish said.

He said that in 1971, the facility, then called Southern Strip Steel, housed just one steel slitter in an 8,000 square foot warehouse. “The road coming into this place was a mud hole,”  Parrish said. “We didn’t have a crane, we used a forklift.”

Things have changed over the years. After more than a dozen additions, the current building measures 233,000 feet.

Steel is now compartmentalized on computer according to job. “We used to have to physically look for the correct coil,” Krinock said. “Now they are coded like UPC.”

A robot measures the thickness of steel to ensure job specifications have been met. “This used to take 15 to 20 minutes per job,” Parrish said. “The robot cuts the time down to about two.”

Ray said Steel Technologies Inc., now includes 24 manufacturing operations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It went public with its stock in 1985 and the company’s name was changed to Steel Technologies to better reflect its broad presence. “The name has a little more pizazz,” he said.

In 1986 a joint venture with Mi-Tech, an Indianapolis affiliate of the Japanese corporation Mitsui USA, gave Steel Technologies even more advantages.

Ray said his brother, Stuart, was instrumental in the merger. “He was president at Mi-Tech and had a strong relationship with Mitsui,” he said. “This gave us a foot in the door with Nissan, Toyota and Honda.” Stuart Ray is currently Steel Technologies Inc., Executive Vice-President.

In 2007 Mitsui USA acquired all of Steel Technologies’ shares after being its partner for 20 years. “They have been a great partner,” Brad Ray said. “We share the same vision to grow the company. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

Still, top executives and workers at the Eminence plant share a camaraderie usually reserved for family-owned community businesses.

Parrish said ex-president and chief operating officer of 30 years, Mike Carroll, along with Brad and Stuart Ray worked right alongside the crew. “They came out and worked in the facility,” he said, “all the guys banding coils, building skids.”

Royce “Roscoe” Pyron of Smithfield, a crane operator at the plant, said he values his relationship with the Rays.

Pyron said the owners and employees there are a tight-knit group. “You can’t find no better people,” he said. “When Merwin was here I’d have grease all over me and he still shook my hand. Brad would do the same thing.” Pyron will celebrate 35 years at Steel Technologies on March 24.

Krinock said many employees have worked for Steel Technologies for decades. Parrish has been at the plant 38 years and many others have racked up at least 30 years.

“There is no question the workforce is as good as anywhere,” Ray said. “That’s why we keep investing in Henry County.”

Unfortunately, even a great workforce and terrific management could not stop the plant from suffering the economic woes affecting so many businesses. “From November on it’s really hit us pretty hard,” he said. “We are down across all sectors.”

Ray said Steel Technologies was forced to lay off 22 people the second week of Jan. “We didn’t want to, and we hope we don’t lose them,” he said.

Lay-offs were determined by lowest seniority. Even so, many already had been with the company for several years. “We don’t know when, but we will come back,” Ray said. “This was as abrupt as anything we’ve seen.”

Parrish said he believes the company will learn new and better ways to operate. “I think it’s making us better,” he said. “We’re doing stuff we normally wouldn’t.”

Parrish said, for example, they are looking for cracks in the walls to seal. “If we can see daylight, we’re losing heat, which means we’re losing money,” he said. Parrish said they are being more conservative about turning off lights and looking for other money wasters. “I think it’ll carry on after the crisis is over,” he said.

“At the end of the day we’ll come out stronger,” Ray said, “and consolidate the steel industry.”

 

E-mail us about this article at news@hclocal.com.