The metal casting industry has been one of the hardest hit by competition from China and India, but some companies have been able to survive and even prosper despite the combined onslaught of intense offshore competition and the Great Recession. That has now put them in the position to benefit from reshoring trend. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Megan McCuan, Communications and Development Coordinator, of Columbus Castings in Columbus, Ohio, which is the largest single site steel foundry in North America.
Columbus Castings manufactures steel castings for the freight and passenger rail cars, locomotives, mining equipment, industrial magnets, construction equipment, agricultural equipment, and other heavy industrial industries. They produce high-quality industrial castings from 100 to70, 000 pounds. The company has about one million sq. ft. of space in 14-15 buildings, covering an area of 90 + acres, including 22 acres under roof, with access to 19 miles of rail. Columbus Castings currently has 695 employees, and most employees have long time experience. Some of their employees have been there for as long as 30-50 years.
The company’s roots date back to 1881 when the Murray-Hayden Foundry, a small iron foundry, served a growing agricultural based economy. The business flourished when it began manufacturing iron couplers for the infant rail industry and in 1891, the name was changed to the Buckeye Automatic Car Coupler Company.
As the American rail industry expanded, the operation was relocated to a larger facility, and the name was changed to the Buckeye Malleable Iron and Coupler Company to reflect its new emphasis on iron couplers. As the American rail industry growth boomed through the early 1900’s, the demand for iron couplers soon exceeded capacity, and the business moved to the present day location in 1902.
As the industry demand for stronger, tougher products, the foundry changed to steelmaking and the name of the business was changed to the Buckeye Steel Castings Company. In 1967, Buckeye Steel became the flagship company of Buckeye International Inc., which was formed as a parent company for purchasing other non-foundry related businesses. Buckeye International was acquired by Worthington Industries Inc. in 1980, in a stock for stock merger. Buckeye Steel remained an operating subsidiary of Worthington Industries until 1999, when it was sold to Key Equity Capital in a leveraged buy-out. Buckeye Steel operated as a stand-alone entity until December 2002, when bankruptcy was filed after the double blow of a weak freight rail market in 2000 followed by the devastating economic effects of 9/11 and the intense competition from China, which proved too much for the debt burdened business.
That could have been the end of the story, but the former President of Worthington Industries, Don Malenick, had different idea. Don had recently retired after 40 plus years from Worthington, where he had held the position of President for the final 26 years. He had an in-depth understanding of the potential value of the facility and also maintained his love for the steel industry in the Central Ohio area. He assembled a team of investors to purchase the assets of the business out of bankruptcy, as well as a team of veteran railroad foundry men to start the new business.
The new entity, Columbus Steel Castings, was based on a business model designed to be the lowest cost and highest integrity supplier of cast steel products in the industries it serves. The business was formed with a “pro-employee”, “union-free” philosophy, created to engage its employee’s talents to the fullest. When the business does well and makes a profit, then all eligible employees share in the success. As a “Pay for Performance” company, the wage and salary compensation is based on an employee’s contribution to the bottom line. Employees are incited to work hard as a team and find ways to do their jobs better, faster and safer.
The company experienced a slight upturn in their rail business from 2004 to 2007, while their industrial market was slow and steady. In 2008, Protostar Partners, LLC purchased Columbus Steel Castings and renamed the company Columbus Castings.
Their rail business slowed in the fall of 2008 after the economic crash that led to the Great Recession in 2009-2010. The demand for freight cars dropped during the recession, and they had to lay off employees.
In 2011, they implemented a new sales plan and focused on their quality and on-time delivery. They responded to the shift of their customers from coal cars to tankers for natural gas in 2012 when the natural gas industry boomed in the upper Midwest. They are currently marketing more to tank car customers and featuring new materials for sand castings for this market.
Richard T. Ruebusch took over as President and CEO in 2012 after having held numerous senior level executive level positions that included 14 years experience at global foundries. In order to be more competitive in the global economy, the company became ISO 9001:2008 Certified. They also started lean manufacturing training as both Mr. Ruebusch and their V. P. of Operations, Randy Parish, have extensive lean manufacturing backgrounds. As a result of implementing lean, the company has achieved a 30% improvement in cycle times and reduced their lead times. Columbus can now produce and ship average components in less than 12 days, ad large components take only around nine weeks.
While, China is still a big competitor for rail car components, the company is getting some work back from offshore. As oil prices increased, costs to ship massive steel castings from China reduced profit margins for their customers and long deliveries became a disadvantage. Columbus can produce and deliver high-quality steel castings in less time than it would take to ship them from overseas. Ms. McCuan said that Caterpillar had a factory in India and brought the work back to the U.S. in 2012, and Columbus was able to get part of the reshored business.
In November 2013, Columbus landed the largest order in its 130-year history. The deal with Nippon Sharyo USA Inc. for railcar undercarriages could be worth up to $70 million to the manufacturer and added more than 50 jobs at the foundry. Nippon’s end customer is Amtrak, which is in the midst of an extensive replacement of its passenger railcars. “If they exercise all their options, this will keep us at full capacity until 2021,” CEO Rick Ruebusch said. “In addition to the Nippon deal, the manufacturer also has orders from additional Amtrak suppliers CAF USA and Hyundai Rote Co. for the same railcar components.”
Columbus utilizes “green” practices, such as thermal sand reclamation, and the company has two new design projects: one of which is a new “knuckle” that is a rail component that goes on the end of rail car to fasten it to another car. They are also working on reducing the weight of parts without reducing performance.
Their “Open Door” policy assures every employee an opportunity to voice his or her concerns about the business and their employment. The company’s management knows that their business is only as good as their people, and the development and recognition of the best people will assure continued growth and improvement of the company in the future.
Mr. Ruebush said, “The main factor contributing to the success of our company since recovering from the Great Recession was becoming a diverse manufacturer. In past times, our company was too focused on freight rail. We are building business levels in our industrial business unit, as well as in our mass transit (passenger rail) business as demonstrated with the recent largest order in the company’s history with the announcement of our $72MM contract with Amtrak and Nippon Sharyo.”
It certainly looks like Columbus Casting is well on its way to achieving its goal of being the best large steel casting company in the world. If the U. S. had a national manufacturing strategy that supported American manufacturers to help them become winners in the global trade wars, more American companies would be able to achieve the same kind of worthy goal for their industry. We need a strategy for prosperity for American-owned businesses and not just the large multinational corporations. It’s time for our elected leaders to address the predatory mercantilist trade policies of foreign countries, such as currency manipulation, product dumping, government subsidies, and intellectual property theft that put American manufacturers at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. This is the only way we will be able to create the higher paying manufacturing jobs we need to grow our middle class and reduce our trade deficit and national debt.