WARREN - Outside the corporate offices of RG Steel Thursday afternoon, more than 100 laid-off steelworkers broke into rousing applause when the soon-to-be owner told them he planned to winterize the plant.
That signaled hope to the workers, who are well aware that without that costly process to protect the mill's infrastructure during the cold months, the plant likely would be damaged beyond repair.
Charles J. Betters of Aliquippa, Pa., was in town Thursday to meet over lunch with local officials, then with media inside the corporate offices. He stepped outside in an impromptu meeting to address the crowd of laid-off workers who had gathered, some carrying signs urging the new owner to "run us" and not shut down the plant.
''You don't have to tell me what the jobs mean. I get it,'' he told the crowd. ''But whenever the opportunity does come, I want you guys to remember this day, and if we are lucky enough to get a restart, perform for them.''
Many of the hot and weary laid-off workers, who suddenly were given a glimmer of hope, shouted back that they would do that.
Betters was quick to point out that he was not a steel operator and told the workers he planned to look for someone with the knowledge to operate the plant, which he said he believes can be profitable.
Steelworker Heather Anderson of Poland, who worked in the melt shop, makes her feelings known while waiting outside the administration offices of the former RG Steel along Pine Avenue, Warren. Photo by R. Michael Semple
According to the purchase agreement approved last week by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Delaware, Betters cannot sell the plant for at least nine months. He said it is too early to tell if he would remain as part-owner or sell it outright to a new operator after that time.
Betters smiled, but quickly snuffed out cries from the crowd urging him to keep the plant and operate it.
Betters said he is hoping the sluggish economy will pick up following the presidential election and help them to find an operator. He said there is a customer list that can be used in a restart.
The newly formed business has three principals:
Charles J. Betters, operator of several western Pennsylvania companies including Beaver Valley Slag and Bet-Tech Construction. He has experience in environmental remediation and redevelopment of brownfields.
Stephen M. Muck of Grouse Ridge Capital LLC, a diversified Investment firm.
DiGeronimo Family, owners of Independence Excavating near Cleveland, which specializes in general contracting and highway earth moving.
BDM is expected to close on the purchase of RG Steel by the end of September.
''We are hopeful that the state of Ohio is very serious about retaining these jobs. We just need a little bit of luck,'' Betters said.
For now, many of the 65 workers still on the payroll will be used to start the winterizing process, Betters said. He plans to begin meeting with those workers and management today.
Betters and two business partners have the bankruptcy court's blessing to purchase the plant and said he hopes to close on the deal by the end of September for $16 million. He and his partners, Stephen M. Muck of Grouse Ridge Capital and the DiGeronimo Family of Cleveland, have formed a new company, BDM Warren Steel Holdings LLC.
For the past several weeks, Betters said he and his partners have been meeting with ArcelorMittal company officials to settle a court objection to the sale filed by the owner of the adjacent coke plant. ArcelorMittal had argued that a previous agreement called for portions of the mill, including the boiler, a shared piece of equipment, to be sold to ArcelorMittal for $1.
The deal they reached, Betters said, will allow the boiler to be sold to ArcelorMittal, but calls for a complex lease arrangement in which the equipment and steam it generates will be shared. Also, the employment of about 20 RG Steel workers from the boiler room will be transferred to ArcelorMittal.
''Those workers were part of the negotiations that they go to ArcelorMittal. That was important to us,'' Betters said.
The native of Aliquippa, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh which saw the steel industry's decline in the 1980s, said he knows firsthand what the loss of steel jobs can do to a community.
''There were four bidders at this auction. All of them did demo work. We are the only group committed to attempt to restart,'' Betters said. ''We know what we bought, scrap value, out there. All three of us agree if we could scrap a plant and triple our money, or find a way to bring the right players to the table ... and we only double our money, that decision has already been made.''
Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda, who attended the earlier meeting with the partners, said he believed they were sincere in their plans to save the mill.
''They really don't want to scrap the plant. We are very hopeful from what they said today,'' Fuda said.
After the meeting, crane operator Tammy Chasser of Niles, said she was going away feeling more optimistic.
''I am very happy about the winterizing going on,'' the 22-year employee said. ''He didn't have to come here today. It makes me feel better. But I am still without a job.''
Another long-time employee, Bill Moss of Niles, compared the winterization process to CPR. ''I think we can do it. I think we can make money. I don't want to be made to retire,'' Moss said.