St Marys Foundry’s Employee-Owners Aim Big
The company has rebuilt a century-old business into a trusted supplier of highly engineered cast iron parts.
Denise Kapel, Senior Editor
(Click here to see the story as it appears in the September issue of Modern Casting.)
St Marys, Ohio, is home to a company celebrating its 30th year successfully running an employee-owned metalcasting operation in a facility that has poured iron since 1917.
When the original St Marys Foundry Co. closed its doors in December 1983, a group of 29 employees and a few outside investors bought it and reopened in 1984.
During their first year back in business, a nearby company in the natural gas industry closed its metalcasting operations. St Marys bid to cast natural gas compression parts for the company, did its job well on a challenging water-jacketed component and earned more of that business. Now, the majority of its products are used for natural gas compression in the U.S. and global markets.
The startup management team studied metalcasting operations across the globe, gathering ideas for best practices and market strategy. They navigated rough economic times and built a solid reputation as a provider of high quality, intricately cored parts used in demanding applications.
Today, 135 employees cast parts for the pump and valve industry, food processing and military applications. From flasks through pit molding, the facility’s largest jobs include things like a diffuser for the world’s largest pumping station.
For the past 10 years, the St Marys facility has undergone major renovations. A nobake operation, it pours gray and ductile iron in about equal quantities, as well as specialty alloys. The company runs two 20-ton coreless induction furnaces and produces iron castings ranging from 500 to 60,000 lbs.
The Benefits of Team Leadership
St Marys Foundry aims to serve as a leading casting provider, within the scope its management team has determined.
“There’s a certain amount of busy you don’t want,” said Angela Dine, president and CEO, whose family has held a majority interest since the company’s revival in 1984. Dine took the helm 10 years ago, following her father’s retirement. “With our current strategy, we can make money when business is slow or when it’s busy. But most of our success can be attributed to the generations who created our name and our reputation in the industry.”
When the company changed its product mix to focus on difficult castings that must meet rigorous standards, scrap was a major concern.
“Changing the mix of work, concentrating on what we make best, was important,” said Terry Lenhart, vice president of operations. “But we were concerned about the potential for more expense in scrap castings.” After a brief uptick in scrap, it’s now below the target at less than 4%. “A lot of it is the data collection we’ve always done but have made more available and clear, now,” he said. “It can be tailored to the job.”
ISO 9002 Quality Certification taught the management team a lot, in 1992, and today St Marys Foundry maintains compliance as well as its own rigorous quality and safety standards. Paul Bergstrom came on board as quality manager eight years ago, bringing more technology to that role and documenting processes in a more clear and accessible way. Quality control begins with the quote and progresses through shipping.
“With detailed process information from the electronic system, we can track all castings by serial number,” said Bergstrom. Sampling is done on each job to check for defects, which often don’t show up until they’re machined at the customer’s facility. “It’s just as important for us to know when we have good castings as a casting with a defect,” he said. “Hydrotesting often is the last step, and customers give us feedback on those results so we can track back to data about the individual castings.” The company retains testing samples and records for customers, as well as housing patterns in two large facilities.
“We have a tremendous amount of data,” said Dine. “When our customers audit us, they are impressed by our traceability, the amount of data we have and the fact that the data is actually being used. We have daily meetings and a process for ideas or suggestions from employees, to make sure they’re discussed and potentially implemented.”
Another big push introduced in Dine’s tenure was a move from the old firefighting maintenance mode to preventive maintenance. “We also
do some predictive maintenance, where you try to have everything on hand that you’ll need,” she added. Having the weekends mostly free to perform maintenance has been a boon to operations. “We’re not wearing the equipment out, so when something breaks, we can fix it properly,” she said. The company’s computerized maintenance management system generates work orders based on time and flow. A staff member who is responsible for scheduling maintenance interfaces with the program and manages it.
Free to Be Flexible and Innovative
Time is a precious commodity in a demanding industry, and working smarter affords room to think up new and better practices. Working with customers at the engineering level also binds them to the metalcasting operation.
“If we can work with our customer, the process is much more satisfying and successful for both parties,” said Dine. “If we can’t solve their problem with current technology, then we’ll invent something.” For example, Jim Perts, vice president of technical services and metallurgy, has created custom specifications for metallurgical requirements, and Lenhart has invented ways to ensure quality, including a proprietary filtering system.
“We’re a job shop, so we make a lot of different parts and every week is essentially different,” said Dine. “But we’ve become specialists in pressure vessels that are tested with very stringent requirements. The pieces have a lot of changes and setups to them, depending on whether they are off-the-shelf products or others that are custom, yet highly engineered.”
“We find ourselves saying ‘no’ more often to parts that we feel other people could make and be competitive at, [while we] focus on things we do well and are competitive at,” said Dine. “Many of our people have been here for a long time and are highly skilled. We rely on them to do these jobs by hand. Everybody has the right and the responsibility to stop something if they don’t think it’s right. In our processes, they rely on looking at pictures, because we don’t run certain things all the time, so their skill level is very valuable to us here.”
Revamping the Business
The new management team’s cost-saving efforts were offset by their need to retain skilled workers. The co-owners share profits among all of their employees, today.
“My focus is creating balance for our employees,” said Dine.
“In the past, we’d been in here on weekends quite often,” said Lenhart. “Angela eliminated weekend work except when necessary, and I attribute that in huge part to our success.”
Within Dine’s first year, the facility’s capacity increased 25% just as a result of working on flow and repairing equipment.
“Part of our philosophy has been working leaner and smarter,” she said. “We’re landlocked, so we try to make use of our space. With improvements, we found we could stop using an area for one process and create an opportunity to do something else there. That was how we added a heat treat furnace, which was a big investment, but our customers valued it.”
A new tumble blast machine, revamped blasting equipment and new finishing booths brought the cleaning area-the final stop for castings-into the modern era.
“It made a sweeping change in that whole area, taking it from a bottleneck to a space that’s clean and where work moves through very smoothly,” said Perts. Finishing is equipped with individual air makeup and sound attenuation in each booth, which doesn’t eliminate the need for powered air purifying respirators but improves the conditions and the work.
In December 2012, the company revamped its sand system in a continuous effort to modernize the operation to run cleaner and more efficiently.
St Marys Foundry employs mostly local people who are trained internally as well as by equipment suppliers and a local college.
“We try to move people around, if there’s an interest in another area of operations,” said Dine. When an employee moves from one area to, for example, metallurgy, first there is a 12-week course on the melt department.
Melt training covers all facets of melting and metallurgy, and how that relates to gating and risering in the casting. “They get exposed to all of [the information], but the real focus is the metal quality and what goes into that based on the different types of castings that we make,” said Perts.
“The turnover has gone way down in the melt department,” said Dine, “I think because when you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, it makes you feel more a part of the process.”
St Marys holds classes for customers, also, many of whom don’t know much about the casting process.
An initiative to increase safety took place once the company’s financial turnaround was in effect. The company targets excellence in both safety and quality.
“I emphasize to our employees that you can get a lot of things back, but it’s really hard to get your reputation back, so that’s why we follow the processes and work safely,” said Dine.
Turnover among the established employees is minimal, according to Lenhart. “When you spend money on people to train them, they see that they’re valuable,” he said.
Since making improvments outside the facility and in overall operations, he added, “We get a lot of very positive comments from the community, as well.”
“You feel the pride here,” said Dine. “We’ve made this plant what it should be the hard way. If we wanted something fixed, we earned the cash. We have no debt and have completely overhauled the plant. The next phase will be coming soon with one of our core rooms.”
As St Marys Foundry progresses, it is continuing to look to process improvements as well as opportunities in new markets like energy.
“We’re at the stage now where we can do the things we want to do,” said Dine.