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Friday | 13 February, 2015 | 10:07 am

Promising proficiency

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Churchill Steel Plate Ltd. co-owner and Vice President of Sales and Operations Kirk Mooney (left), President Jim Stevenson, and co-owner and CFO Jim Fleming say engaging customers daily is a key component of the company’s service ethos.

Flexible plate fabricator grows 1-year-old shop with customer-oriented service

February 2015 - Churchill Steel Plate Ltd. hit a stagnant market with a splashy startup in February 2014 and has been making waves ever since. The Twinsburg, Ohio, company has more than doubled its workforce and  added a second shift in January 2015 to support a growing customer base. 

Its secret? “We went back to basics,” says President Jim Stevenson. “We make it easy for customers to do business with us, something that is not prevalent in this industry anymore.” 

The warehouse and fabricator has a lean footprint and, like a greyhound, it is built for speed. 

“Manufacturing is under constant pressure to continually reduce overall production time in a very competitive global market,” he says. “Our strategy is to offer shorter lead times and faster response to customer inquiries. We feel our role is to help our customers get their products to market more quickly.” 

Nearly 5,000 tons of steel on the floor and an arsenal of equipment and delivery trucks help keep the processed plate flowing. “Our inventory philosophy is different than larger distributors in our business,” Stevenson notes. “Inventory on the floor positions us to support our customers’ immediate needs. It’s quickly become one of our strengths.”

Heavy lifting

The company stocks steel grades 4140/4142, 4340 and 8620, C-1045, Clean-Cut 20, 572-50 and A36 up to 18 inches thick.

“We try to differentiate ourselves from the competition by stocking heavy thicknesses and alloy plate. This is our area of expertise and where we feel we have an inventory advantage,” says Chief Financial Officer Jim Fleming.

It’s hard to believe that little more than a year ago Churchill was just an empty shell. Property owners Jim Fleming and Kirk Mooney had retired but were leasing the building to Oliver Steel Plate. In 2013 when the lease agreement expired, Fleming and Mooney found themselves looking for someone else to occupy the industrial space.

“We tried to find new tenants,” recalls Mooney, “but we found ourselves with a vacant building. It soon became obvious that we had built a building to process steel plate but the leasing market was looking for distribution space. Prospective occupants didn’t have a need for 25- and 35-ton cranes and a warehouse.”

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Fleming and Mooney felt they ought to test the waters and contemplate a move that could pull them out of retirement and send them back into the plate business. “We made some personal calls and ran a blind ad to see what kind of workforce was out there,” says Mooney. 

“We discovered that a lot of our former employees were looking for work,” Mooney adds. “They told us, ‘If you and Jim decide to go back into business we’ll be there tomorrow.’”

Based on this response, Fleming and Mooney began work on creating the new business Jan. 1, 2014. “[The building] was a blank space with cranes,” Mooney recalls. “The furnaces had been removed along with a 6,000-gallon oxygen tank.”

The pair’s customer-focused approach began with its own employees. Remodeling restored the building’s interior, giving it newly painted walls and carpeting, updating lockers, lunchrooms and making office space pristine yet functional. “It was very important to us that we provide a nice environment for people to work in,” according to Mooney.

A scant month later, on Feb. 1, 2014, Churchill shipped and billed its first order.

The 120,000-square-foot facility has eight overhead cranes from 10 to 35 tons. “We have six oxy-fuel burning machines that can cut up to 20 inches thick along with a new high-definition plasma cutting system,” says Stevenson. The company also built two furnaces that anneal, stress relieve and transform plate. The larger furnace has a capacity size of 128 inches wide by 292 inches long. Churchill also will take delivery of a new 150-ton straightening press this month. 

Thickness appeal

The company’s objective? “To grow our customer base and increase volume,” Stevenson explains.

Plate is widely used in the machine tool market and high-performance structures like steel mills, markets Churchill currently serves. Large fabricators and capital equipment builders also use plate, Stevenson adds. And while most companies would consider other service centers competition, Churchill looks on them as customers. “We service them the same as a machine shop or fabricator,” he says. “Same turnaround time, same pricing. A good portion of our business comes from our competition when they need to fill a specific plate order.”

Churchill’s appeal is its ability to process heavy carbon and alloy plate, something “few distributors can match in North America. Thickness is the key word,” says Stevenson. “The thicker the plate, the more processing operations and expertise the product requires. If it’s not done right, the part could be scrapped. We know how to do it and we have the skilled workers to carry out a customer’s requirements.” 

The company has made the short list of preferred suppliers for a number of major manufacturers following successful completion of several quality audits in 2014. “Our quality system is an important part of our organization,” Stevenson says. “Our steel is pedigreed. We supply original mill test reports with each order.”

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Value-added services are also part of the mix. “We don’t just burn plate,” Mooney says. “We can cut, chamfer and bevel while also providing furnace treatment, grinding and non-destructive testing. A customer can buy a part from us and perform finishing operations in-house or we can provide them plate ready to assemble into an end use product.”

Mooney notes several market changes for heavy plate since he left the business 13 years earlier. “Business for big machine tools in the Northeast is gone,” he says. “The tire mold and overhead crane industries seem to have moved as well, though special equipment is still viable.”

New markets

Churchill continually scouts emerging markets for its heavy plate, including railcar, alternative energy, power generation and food manufacturing. Close to 85 percent of all wind turbines are built with heavy steel plate. The American Wind Energy Association reported construction on an “unprecedented number of wind farms at the close of 2014.” Churchill’s aptitude for tight tolerances and accuracy—which greatly reduce the margin for error associated with processing complex parts—are criteria that wind farm and railcar builders, in particular, are looking for.

The Association of American Railroads wants federal regulators to adopt more stringent safety enhancements for oil and ethanol tankers. A decision by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on safety standards for new oil tankers and for retrofitting legacy cars is expected this May. If implemented, demand for plate fabrication will likely strengthen.

In addition to new markets, Churchill plans to add grades and thicker varieties of steel to its inventory. The company easily exceeded its 2014 projections and is on a fast track for growth. “We’re happy with our results,” Stevenson notes.

The adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder must also be true for Churchill’s owners. “I’ve known Jim and Kirk a long time and they are having fun,” Stevenson says. Fleming sums it up, “It’s not often you get the opportunity to do this twice in a lifetime.” MM

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