Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm
Heavy industry in Milwaukee has taken a pounding since the 1970s. Some large manufacturing companies such as A.O. Smith Corp. and Allis-Chalmers Co., which employed large numbers of workers, have closed their Milwaukee production plants. Some of those facilities remain vacant, decades after the last workers went home.
However, Super Steel Corp. is not one of Milwaukee’s industrial shells.
From its two Milwaukee facilities, Super Steel has produced more than 300 passenger rail cars for the Chicago-area Metra commuter rail system and is currently making 61 passenger cars for Virginia Railway Express, a commuter system that serves the Washington D.C. metro area.
For those jobs, Super Steel serves as a subcontractor to Japan-based Nippon Sharyo Ltd. and Sumitomo Corp., which have been contracted to provide the cars. Super Steel does the final assembly of the rail cars, which are shipped to its Milwaukee plant as empty shells. Once there, workers install heating and cooling systems, create bathrooms, install handrails and passenger seats.
Super Steel generally serves as an outsourced manufacturer and assembler, taking on jobs other manufacturers aren’t able to do on their own.
“We have a variety of skill sets, and we couple that with our unique partnership with Nippon Sharyo,” said Keith Trafton, president and chief executive officer of Super Steel.
When Super Steel was awarded the subcontract for the Metra cars in 2002, workers traveled to Japan to meet with Nippon Sharyo and Sumitomo Corp. officials. The first cars were built in Japan so that the American workers had real-world experience with them before returning to Milwaukee, said Paul Stack, vice president of sales and marketing at Super Steel.
Passenger rail cars are just one of the jobs Super Steel routinely works on.
The company also works extensively with both Electra-Motive Diesel (the diesel division of General Motors Corp.) and G.E. Rail, America’s two manufacturers of freight rail locomotives.
“We do the whole mix,” Trafton said. “We could get just a shell, then assemble and test it. Or we can make the shell, then ship it to the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), and they equip and test it.”
“What makes Super Steel different is that the entire product can be made here or just a number of parts,” Stack said. “We can take the level of complexity to the furthest extent.”
About 70 percent of Super Steel’s work is done in the rail industry. A significant portion of the company’s rail work is in freight locomotives, both domestically and for export.
Super Steel has done work for railroads in China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, England, Wales, Scotland, Brazil, Venezuela, Poland, Germany, Australia and Kazakhstan.
At Super Steel’s Calumet Road plant, workers are building conductor’s cabins and cooling units for locomotives, which will be used on freight trains all over the world. In the company’s Tower Avenue facility, specialized welders are building frames that will be used on 80-foot locomotives to be built in China.
Although there may be perceptions in the United States that domestic freight railways are in decline, the opposite is true, Trafton said. In fact, Super Steel is banking on it.
“Our opportunities in the rail market, both in freight and passenger, appear to be strong for the coming years,” he said. “We feel, based on what we can do, that we can take many of our skills and apply them to many other applications. If we take the knowledge and experiences we have, we can help other industries, creating a diverse customer profile.”
Although Super Steel handles fabrication for many customers, it also can handle engineering, complex assembly and painting. The company has several paint booths large enough to accommodate rail cars, so the entire car or locomotive can be painted at once.
Super Steel anticipates more than $100 million in revenues for 2006, which will be a 10 percent increase over its 2005 revenues, Trafton said. The company’s revenues have held relatively steady in recent years, he said.
To further boost revenues and help the company’s long-term prospects, Super Steel is working to diversify the clients it serves.
At the same time, the company does not want to jeopardize its contracts in the rail industry.
“Our good fortune is that the railroad market is very robust with long-term sustainability,” Trafton said. “To create a balance (with diversification) is a challenge. When your current customers are growing, you look where it makes sense, where you can lend your expertise, where it does not adversely affect your current customers.”
Aside from the passenger and freight railroad markets, Super Steel also does contract fabrication, assembly and other work in construction and agricultural equipment and industrial applications.
“We’re trying to find customers that focus on our core competencies, who want to focus on the core of what Super Steel does – heavy metal fabrication that handles a high model mix,” Stack said. “Every project is almost a special project. A good example is that we make blower housings for the railroad market. We can also make them for a car wash. The blowers and ramps for most car washes (in the U.S) were probably made here.”
Super Steel was founded in 1922 in downtown Milwaukee as a metal fabrication shop. In 1966, the company began focusing on the rail industry under the leadership of Fred Luber, who retains a piece of ownership in the company and serves as chairman of its board of directors today.
“He took a huge risk to make it succeed,” Trafton said. “The company is what it is today, much to his credit.”
Luber also helped Trafton finance his purchase of the largest share of the company in October 2005. Trafton previously had served as the company’s chief financial officer.
Super Steel has about 780 employees, including 580 at its Milwaukee facilities. The firm’s remaining employees work at a plant in Schenectady, N.Y.
Super Steel is planning to add workers to its Milwaukee facilities in coming years.
“It’s part of a market plan density,” Stack said. “It’s more than just having more customers. It’s diversifying contracts and types of work so you have enough overlaps and no gaps (in work).”
To find qualified workers, Super Steel partners with several Milwaukee area universities and technical colleges. The company also has its own in-house training program, allowing it to hire unskilled workers who are then able to work their way into skilled positions as they become available.
“The purpose is to create a farm system, a continuity of labor supply for us and a greater sense of ownership for employees,” Trafton said. “We know that trying to develop our employees is the best sustainable solution.”
Eric Decker is a reporter for Small Business Times. Send news about manufacturing to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling him at (414) 277-8181, ext. 144. News can also be sent to Eric Decker, Small Business Times, 1123 N. Water St., Milwaukee, WI 53202.