Above: A 400 amp Messer Plasma cutter with two heads, one of the arsenal of saws, shears, lasers, plasmas, torches, press brakes, angle rolls, plate rolls and stamping machines at The Warren Co.
A people-centric approach has helped keep this shop in business for more than a century
February 2014 - The Warren Co. in Erie, Pa., has reached its centennial status under the helm of the Warren family, having rolled with the punches since 1913. Through the years, each generation has offered its own vision for growth and current CEO Robert Warren is no different, focusing on the power of appreciating workers and promoting education.
Growing up, Bob Warren says a lot of what he learned about the business happened around the dinner table. When he reflects on the history of The Warren Co., he remembers humble beginnings backed by hard, work-fueled ambition. “Back then my great-grandfather, Samuel Warren, was classified as a ‘tinner’ and started out doing slate roofs and metal flashings,” he says.
Samuel Warren later ventured into supplying sheet metal and as the company transitioned from father to son Robert C. Warren, Bob Warren’s grandfather, the direction of the company also shifted. Robert C. Warren built the 10th Street building, further expanding the company.
“The larger the company got, the more change became difficult, so it became more subtle,” Warren says. “When my father, Winston ‘Bumps’ Warren, took over, he viewed the company as a big hobby shop where he could do anything he wanted to do, build whatever he wanted to build—if someone brought him something they wanted made, he’d make a wooden model in his wood shop and then build it out of steel.”
It was Winston Warren who brought the company to a full-line service center and job shop. “It became a fabrication shop as well as a service center,” Warren says.
In 2008, Winston Warren passed away, leaving son Bob Warren in a stable yet uncertain situation. “When he passed away, the economy went down shortly after and we dropped about 37 percent in sales,” recalls Warren. “I had to work through his death and also the business dropping, which was interesting. We came out of that ahead and I’m still figuring out where things are going to go and where I’m going to take The Warren Co. Luckily [Winston Warren] left the company in a good position and we were able to make it through.”
Plan for progress
With one son studying engineering at Virginia Tech, and the other son a junior in high school and planning on becoming a pilot, Warren realized the future holds a lot of opportunities for growth if workers are equipped with the right skills and education. “A company is only as good as its employees and we’ve had multiple generations of families work for us,” Warren says. “With 67 employees, seven or eight of them have actually worked here 35 to 40 years—so education is a worthwhile investment in our workers.”
To promote that change, Warren positions the company as both an educational resource as well as a service center and job shop. “We are educating our employees in the service center and job shop world and view ourselves as a training institution—that means helping employees achieve their GED or helping them progress through courses at a college or university level, whether for bachelors, graduate or a doctorate in engineering, for example,” he says.
“We believe that if we’ve hired that employee, they have the potential to grow, which is why we pay for our workers to learn—whether they stick with us or move on elsewhere,” Warren says, adding the company has rehired at least five employees who at one point left the company after receiving education benefits.
“I’ve started looking at the company like this because it’s clear to me that the experiences today’s employees have are far different from my generation and older,” Warren says. “I’m 46 years old and I can see that today’s youth are going to have a much different experience entering the workforce than I did.”
The Warren Co. is a part of the YES Certificate Program, a community initiative from the Manufacturer & Business Association in Erie, Pa. The program collaborates with local school districts, employers and business organizations to help students learn skills that prepare them to become tomorrow’s well-rounded employees. The 120-hour course includes staunch certification requirements taught during the senior year in high school. “There are kids out there that are taking apart lawnmowers or their hobbies are building models or centered around those types of interests—we’ve decided there’s value in nurturing that. There’s opportunity.”
The YES program’s value lies in its well-rounded approach, equipping students with not just skills, but an understanding of other important qualities of a good worker including reliability, attendance and work interview skills, as well as the importance of avoiding drug use.
“We’ve been working with the manufacturing association here to establish that program in high schools,” Warren says. “We’ve also worked with Central Tech High School to start up their welding program here in Erie, Pa., and also worked with other local career development institutions to begin their welding programs, developing these programs and others up to college-level curriculum. We also do robotic welding training as well as supply materials to continue it.”
‘Steel man’s playground’
While educating tomorrow’s workforce, The Warren Co. continues to provide services and materials for the locomotive industry, bulk food processing, tool and die industry, medical, aerospace, Marcellus Shale development and second tier automotive industries. “We supply all types of customers. Anyone off the street can come in and place an order, which is not always something a service center does.”
The Warren Co. has a 168,000-square-foot facility to back up its promises. “[That size] is pretty amazing when compared with other service centers,” Warren adds. “We have saws, shears, lasers, plasmas, torches, press brakes, angle rolls, plate rolls and stamping machines.” Its arsenal is so well-equipped that Winston Warren dubbed the facility a “steel man’s playground.”
Recently, a farmer walked into the shop with a cardboard cutout of a part he needed. The cutout represented the side of his manure spreader that had rusted out. “We made the part and he was on his way,” Warren says. “He needed a part that was ±1⁄8 inch and we’ll handle parts for the aerospace industry that need 0.0005 inch tolerances—we handle a wide range of tolerances.”
The company has cut 0.003 inch shim stock all the way to 3⁄4 inch plate using its laser cutters. “Or we’ll go up to 10 inches on our flame cutter—stainless, aluminum, bars, channels, beams, sheet, cold drawn, hot rolled—you name it, we’ll cut it.”
The farmer’s part is just one example of how The Warren Co. helps customers solve problems. “We’ve had lasers since the 1980s and have developed a certain expertise in this area,” he says. “We were willing to share that knowledge by sending a cutting supervisor to [another] customer’s facility to help them program their lasers for material they purchased elsewhere but were unhappy with their cutting results.”
Warren says the company also sent its project engineer to a local OEM to fix shears. In another instance, during a training session, one of Warren’s sales managers was able to obtain an order from an oil and gas field customer that was having capacity issues getting sand hogs retrofitted with duct exhaust systems and back into service. “These tanks cost the customer $1 million a day by not being in service,” he says. With no room for error, The Warren Co. welded and retrofitted the parts right the first time, delivering the parts in a timely manner.
The company is undergoing another expansion, scheduled for completion this spring, allowing for an extra receiving dock with a stacker crane that can turn corners on both ends of the 30-foot storage racks for greater efficiency. Bob Warren’s master plan for the building is to have all three steel receiving docks on the perimeter store and process material internally and channel it through the shipping dock in the midsection.
With investments in education and expansion, as well as buying new lasers, The Warren Co. is equipped for another 100 years. MM