By LARRY RINGLER
WARREN TOWNSHIP Armed with the name of its new parent Tata Steel Group, and toughened by surviving the nations worst economic recession in 80 years, Thomas Steel Strip is gearing up to meet greater demand from key automotive and consumer battery customers.
Rich Durbine shows the coating of steel sheets on Thomas Steel Strip's nickel plating line.
One of Trumbull Countys oldest companies it was founded in the 1920s Thomas Steel also is prepared to show workers, area residents and others that its not the typical grandfathers steel products maker.
We have two messages our commitment to Thomas Steel for its long-term future, and our commitment to the environment and the community in which we operate, President and Chief Executive Officer William Boyd said in discussing the plants outlook as it goes through the rebranding campaign as part of Tata Steel, a unit of India-based multinational Tata Group.
People driving past the plants West Market Street entrance soon will see visible evidence of the change; the Tata name is scheduled to go on the sign that once bore the names of past owners Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., Germanys Hille-Mueller and British-Dutch conglomerate Corus Group Plc.
Tribune Chronicle / Larry Ringler
Rich Durbine of Lowellville explains computerized equipment that controls how steel is run through the nickel-plating line at Thomas Steel Strip.
Tata took over Corus in March 2007 and gradually has been rebranding its holdings under the corporate name. The process was slow because Tata bought Corus as the recession of 2008-09 was unfolding, but it got underway in late September amid signs of a business upturn.
Boyd said the West Market Street sign could be done in the next couple of weeks, depending on the weather, with all signs slated to be changed by year-end.
Theyre doing it on an economic basis; theyll wait until a sign needs painted or work needs done, he said.
Bearing the Tata name carries great value, Boyd said. Companies must earn it by committing to five core principles integrity, understanding, excellence, unity and responsibility.
Thomas Steel, which began the process by discussing those values in meetings with all workers, is embracing those concepts, Boyd said.
Responsibility means we place the highest importance on safety. Its responsibility to our work force, he said.
It also means responsibility to the environment. Louis Capuano, vice president of manufacturing, noted the company is certified by the ISO 14001-2004 international environmental standard.
We report our carbon footprint monthly based on all facilities worldwide, he said. He added Tata reports on climate change and sustainable recycling efforts. Were expected to be responsible to the environment beyond the law.
Responsibility to the community is another key factor, the executives said. Capuano, who has 44 years of steel industry experience, said workers are involved in United Way payroll deductions, the Salvation Army and collecting for armed forces families.
The company donated nearly 10,000 books to help children around Ohio learn to read. Some 15 to 20 Thomas Steel hourly and salaried workers in November read to first and second grade students at Willard Elementary School in Warren to encourage them to read.
But business success at Thomas Steel remains paramount. Boyd, 54, a former British Army officer with 24 years of steel experience with Corus plants in the United Kingdom, Turkey and Czech Republic, expects about 5 percent growth for the 12 months ending March 31, the companys fiscal year, over the prior period.
He estimated the company should grow with the nations overall Gross Domestic Product in the next 12 months ending March 31, 2012.
Fueling the rebound will be customers, chiefly makers of batteries, autos and sporting ammunition, rebuilding their supplies after the recession, along with the plants cost reductions and productivity gains.
The biggest factor is the cost reduction measures we took in response to the economic recession, he said.
The plant had 230 to 235 hourly workers and 105 salaried employees before the recession; it now has 204 hourly and 78 salaried.
Boyd said he doesnt see the company adding workers, even with rising demand, but he said management is seeking capital investment from Tata. He declined to say how any money might be spent but noted infrastructure, productivity gains and quality are considerations.
A lot of capital spending is needed to maintain buildings. We also have to invest in environmental systems to stay abreast of regulations, he said.
Thomas Steel is the only Tata plant that does nickel-plating of paper-thin steel sheets used to make casings of consumer batteries, its number one product. It also makes tube systems that carry brake fluid and fuel in vehicles, as well as casings for shotgun shells and other sporting ammunition. The three segments comprise nearly 90 percent of its business, Boyd said.
The operation, which includes a cold-rolling mill to reduce steel coils it gets from Tata in The Netherlands, isnt into vehicle electric batteries but is exploring the market for making solar panels, although how big of a business that might be remains cloudy.
We think renewable energy is quite a good market, but its still in the trial stage, Boyd said.