The foundry is loud and hot.
It is a world unto itself, with 44 acres under its roof. Lately, after decades of turmoil, it is a place of optimism.
Columbus Castings is in the process of adding 550 jobs. This would bring the head count to about 1,100, part of a plan to expand product lines and meet rising demand for steel parts from the railcar industry.
“It gets a little warm in here, but at the end of the day, you got a nice check, you know, so you get benefits to help your family and your kids,” said Nahshon Hamilton, 37. He spoke on the shop floor, pausing to step out of the path of an overhead crane, his voice raised to be heard over the clanging and grinding.
Hamilton came from Cleveland and lives in short-term housing while he gets acclimated to central Ohio. He started about three months ago, part of an expansion in which the company receives state and local tax incentives and works with local agencies to train people who might otherwise have a difficult time getting jobs.
Starting pay is $13 to $26 per hour, plus benefits, which feels like a windfall to many workers. The downside is the constant heat. Employees need to condition themselves to work in 100-degree heat while dressed in protective gear. Some people only last a few days.
“We understand that this work is probably not for everybody,” said Derek Dozer, the human resources director.
As of last week, 155 job openings remained.
“I like the foundry environment,” Dozer said. “It grows on you. You work hard.”
Antonio David, 47, worked at the company from 2003 until he was laid off in 2009. He came back in April.
“I feel like I’m returning home,” he said. “This is a wonderful place, man.”
He pointed at his green hard hat and explained the color system that marks all employees. Rookies have yellow hats, which tells others to look out for them. After six months, an employee gets a green hat. Managers have gray hats.
The company is getting financial help for the expansion from at least a half-dozen sources. Among them, the economic-development organization JobsOhio is providing a $500,000 grant, and the city of Columbus is providing a seven-year income-tax incentive, which has an estimated value of $257,000 per year.
More than a century of history
Since 1902, the complex has been there at the intersection of Parsons Avenue and Frank Road. For most of its life, it’s been known as Buckeye Steel Castings. One of its early executives was
Samuel Prescott Bush, grandfather and great-grandfather to Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Many of the employees lived on the South Side and walked to work.
“This was one of the most important factories in the city,” said Ed Lentz, a local historian and author. “It employed hundreds of people and had a huge economic impact.”
The business made tank components during World War II and went through several expansions. By the early 1950s, its head count exceeded 2,000.
“Columbus Castings is a reminder that, at one time, Columbus was a steel town,” Lentz said.
The main products and processes have endured. The plant’s workers take scrap metal, melt it down and pour it into molds for parts that are mainly used by the rail industry.
Most of the scrap now comes from junked cars that have been shredded. Industrial magnets grab the stringy metal bits, lifting and dropping them into a pot the size of a house.
The company describes itself as the largest single-site steel foundry on the continent. Those two qualifiers — “single-site” and “steel” — are meaningful because many foundry companies are spread out over several sites, and steel is only a small share of metal tonnage in the Americas.
U.S. foundries produced 12.2 million tons of metal in 2013, the most recent year available from Modern Casting magazine, a trade publication. Steel, which is a mix of iron and carbon, represented 1.4 million tons, or 11 percent, of the total metal. (The most common foundry metal is “ ductile iron,” which is often used to make pipe and auto parts.)
Competitors tend to have a series of smaller plants. For example, Amsted Industries of Chicago has 45 plants in 11 countries and does steel casting along with other metal work.
Most of the competition comes from outside this country, which has made Columbus Castings active in federal policy debates, seeking to reduce what the company sees as unfair advantages for Chinese foundries.
“The developing countries are significant players in this,” said Christopher Plummer, managing director of Metal Strategies Inc., a consulting firm in West Chester, Pa. “It’s just like everything else. It’s tough to compete with China and India, or even nearby with Mexico.”
Since 2008, Columbus Castings has been owned by Protostar Partners, a private-equity firm in New York.
“There is no question that it is the one company that has gotten a lot of tender-loving care from us,” said Joe Haviv, chairman of Protostar and Columbus Castings.
When he arrived, the plant had gone through generations of turmoil in the areas of labor relations and environmental compliance.
The foundry’s workers had long been represented by the United Steelworkers. Then, in 2003, following a bankruptcy and a brief closing of the foundry, the owner at the time removed the union by not offering jobs to most of the members. Ever since, Columbus Castings has been a nonunion shop.
Some of the plant’s greatest fights have been with state and federal environmental regulators. In 2007, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency cited the plant for 19 rule violations, showing high levels of smoke and dust, and malfunctioning pollution controls.
“We walked into a situation, quite frankly, that was, to our way of thinking, repulsive,” Haviv said of the clean-air problems.
Protostar settled many of the cases. It agreed to pay fines and has made improvements. And yet, Columbus Castings remains one of the largest polluters in central Ohio.
But the plant’s most-threatening problem was financial, Haviv said. He witnessed a history of boom-and-bust cycles, with the busts leading to layoffs and sometimes bankruptcy.
His immediate goal was to avoid a shutdown during the recession that hit right as Protostar was taking over in 2008. The company succeeded, although it had several layoffs, reaching a low of 344 workers.
All of this brought Columbus Castings to the current economic recovery, in which railcar sales are booming again.
“The marketplace has responded in an extremely positive way,” Haviv said.
And that leads to jobs, with plenty of positions yet to be filled.