Recession? What recession? Vista Metals of Adairsville was created in 2009 and is ready to take a significant expansion on line within the next week.
Vista Metals’ corporate headquarters is in California. The company decided to establish a facility at 800 Martin Luther King Drive in Adairsville five years ago to meet the growing demands of an aircraft industry customer in North Georgia.
Plant manager Jim Stewart said the company came to Georgia seeking a location specifically to supply its Cherokee County, Georgia, customer.
“This piece of property was available, and it was ideal for our operation,” Stewart said.
The property, very close to I-75, had previously housed a concrete sewer pipe manufacturer that had gone out of business.
“They ran cylinder shapes which, coincidentally, is just like what we make,” Stewart said.
Vista produces aluminum billets and delicate, hard aluminum alloys. Its core customer in Canton is in the aerospace industry.
“They take the billets that we make, put it into a press, and extrude it out into parts,” Stewart said.
Those lightweight, yet super-strong aluminum parts are used throughout airplane fuselages.
Stewart came to Bartow County with half a dozen employees to start up the plant. He added some eight new employees and took them to California for training before production started at the Adairsville plant late in 2010.
Over the course of four years the workforce grew to approximately 65 employees prior to the expansion project, which involved the construction of another 20,000-square-foot building and addition of another 30 employees.
“We’re very proud to say the employees we hired in 2010-2011 are now our foreman and superintendents of the departments,” Stewart said. “They’re all local people. They did their part to learn the process, and we’ve promoted them into positions to where now my role is more administrative and they’re actually running the plant.”
Stewart said that aircraft build rates are up.
“If you watch Airbus and Boeing, both are making a record number of airplanes,” said Stewart. “Then, with the automotive industry moving more toward aluminum, the demand for aluminum has gone up.”
He said that as other companies shift gears toward production for the automotive industry, it opens more room in the aerospace industry for Vista.
The Adairsville plant manager estimates that the aerospace industry accounts for close to 80 percent of Vista’s business, with the automotive industry picking up the remaining 20 percent. As more automakers demand higher quality aluminum, the opportunity for Vista to capture a growing share of that market is available.
“Our processes are a little different than most aluminum processes, and it sets us apart,” Stewart said.
A side note to the choice of Adairsville for the Vista operations east of the Mississippi is the fact that aluminum comes from bauxite and the area around Barnsley Gardens is full of old bauxite pits that were mined out years ago.
Vista gets its raw product from a variety of locations today — some domestic, some from Canada, Australia and other locations.
Vista is also significantly involved in recycling aluminum products for use in its billets. In fact, Stewart estimated its raw product mix is probably 50-50 between fresh aluminum and recycled or scrap metal.
“The integrity of the alloys we make is critical so, oftentimes, scrap aluminum, whether it’s something from the process or picked up — iron or silicon or calcium, whatever, from the environment — we have to dilute that and use pure aluminum,” Stewart said.
Much of the scrap or recycled metal that Vista uses comes back from its customers.
“They have waste that comes back to us,” Stewart said.
The plant manager said he’s been very pleased with the caliber of the workforce that the company has been able to attract, though he admits that most prospective employees don’t have to have previous experience.
“We recently hired a safety manager and they have to have some training for that,” Stewart said.
There are some forklift operations where prior experience is helpful and Stewart said that anyone with foundry experience is helpful. After all, not everyone can work around furnaces that are running at between 1,800 and 1,900 degrees. Most of the workforce has to be trained to Vista’s standards anyway.
“There’s not another industry in the area that does exactly what we do,” Stewart said.
New employees undergo an orientation period then go into the plant for 90 days, where they observe and get practical experience, before they are allowed to work on their own.
“Because it’s a unique process — all geared toward aerospace — safety, housekeeping and quality are paramount here. They need to have a good clear understanding of that,” said Stewart.
The Vista plant in Adairsville currently churns out approximately 70 million pounds of aluminum billets a year, and Stewart estimates the expansion will allow the company to increase its capacity by approximately 60 percent, close to another 40 million pounds.
Adairsville City Manager Pam Madison said Vista is the city’s largest water and gas customer.
“They are also very benevolent in the community. They certainly have been a good corporate partner for the city,” she said. “This expansion is going to be very positive for the city.”
Stewart said the 28-acre site where Vista sits still has some limited room for future expansion and he wouldn’t rule that out.
He said the build rates in the aerospace industry remain strong and they will continue to need the aluminum. The use of various aluminum alloys in the automotive industry is also expanding as the automakers look to enhance fuel efficiency, so there also is room for growth in that segment of Vista’s portfolio.
In the meantime, Stewart is focused on getting his new facility into service. He said components are coming on line almost daily and he expects to be in production before Christmas.