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MEN OF STEEL – The Register

Politicians like to talk about the importance of boosting employment, but some Lane County business owners are actually creating jobs, even in the weak economy.

Those employers include Tony Bloom and David Sheflin, co-owners of Mohawk Metal in Eugene. In the past three years, as the Eugene-Springfield area lost thousands of jobs, the metal fabricating company has tripled its employees, from 17 to 52.

It’s not a huge number or company, but every new job means a lot these days, said Brian Rooney, a regional labor economist with the Oregon Employment Department. Firms that are hiring people, such as Mohawk Metal, are beacons in an economy that is struggling to add jobs, he said.

“It’s good to learn about a manufacturing company that is expanding,” Rooney said. “Manufacturing tends to provide good-paying jobs, and you don’t necessarily need to have a college education to get one. And in this economy, that’s important.”

Mohawk Metal, off Prairie Road in northwest Eugene, has followed an aggressive plan to diversify its customers and use profits for investments in equipment to boost productivity. It’s also made a strategic acquisition to boost sales.

Bloom, 39, was brought into the company four years ago by Sheflin, Mohawk’s founder, to grow the firm.

“This was a business plan followed to a tee,” Bloom said.

Mohawk is doing so well that it’s looking to open a fabrication shop in the Portland area to better serve customers there, and to pick up others.

Still, the effects of the national recession, which began in late 2007, interrupted Mohawk’s growth for a while.

After two years of rising sales, revenue dropped 20 percent in 2009, before rebounding the following year, Bloom said.

The company does not disclose revenues, but Bloom said he expects this year’s sales to be up 40 percent over last year. “If the economy has taught anybody anything, it’s how to manage the business through the ups and downs, instead of just focusing on the ups,” he said.

In its cavernous, unheated 30,000-square-foot warehouse-style building, Mohawk employees use machines to cut and bend metal into a variety of shapes and sizes. It’s physical, noisy, blue-collar work.

About a third of the firm’s employees did not have metal fabrication experience when they were hired, Bloom said.

“If we can find people with a good work ethic, we will train them to work here,” he said.

Tim Sagmoen, 25, started at Mohawk Metal three years ago after working as a dishwasher in San Francisco. He now is a lead operator of a machine that bends steel.

Using a gloved hand to push buttons on the machine’s computerized display screen, Sagmoen said the job provides a living wage for his young family.

“If someone is willing to learn and has strong attention to detail, I’m sure they will do fine,” he said.

In recent years, Mohawk gained customers and a few employees from other firms that went out of business in the recession, including Foy Martin Sheet Metal in Springfield.

“They recommended their customers to us, God bless them,” Sheflin said. “They knew we would be able to take care of them.”

Mohawk Metal specializes in “just in time” manufacturing, which allows the firm to send smaller shipments of parts, thereby saving its customers money and warehouse space.

Diversified customers

Four years ago, Mohawk had only about 15 customers. Most of the firm’s work went to King Retail Solutions, a Eugene company that designs, makes and installs display areas for grocery stores and other retailers.

Since then, Mohawk has diversified its customer base and now does business with King and about 140 other firms, including those that make equipment for the construction, road building, logging, wallboard, heavy machinery, irrigation, recycling and furniture industries.

Hamilton Construction, the Springfield-based bridge and road contractor, used steel from Mohawk in the temporary and permanent Interstate 5 bridges it’s erected over the Willamette River between Eugene and Springfield.

Mohawk also provided and installed the metal-roofed structures and hand rails for Lane Transit District’s EmX bus stops in Springfield.

In 2009, Mohawk bought the designs and business rights to Hamilton’s EZ Bridge line of portable bridges for an undisclosed price. So far, Mohawk has sold eight of the bridges, which range in price from $70,000 to $400,000 apiece, to public and private customers in Alaska and Washington, Bloom said.

Between March 2008 and December 2009, the recession eliminated 8.5 percent of Oregon’s jobs. During that time, Lane County lost 17,300 jobs, or 11.2 percent of its employment, said Rooney, of the state Employment Department. Many of those job losses occurred during the closures or downsizings among manufacturers, including recreational vehicle makers.

Metal fabricators were not immune from the business downturn, Rooney said.

About 15 firms, most of them in Eugene-Springfield, went out of business between 2007 and 2010, he said.

The number of people employed at metal fabricators dropped from 1,200 before the recession to 859 last year.

The number has since rebounded slightly, with about 900 people working in Lane County metal fabrication shops as of last July, Rooney said.

Some metal fabricators have stayed in business because they were able to adjust to the changing times, he said.

At one time, metal fabrication shops relied on supplying parts to sawmills, wood product manufacturers and other traditional industries, Rooney said. Recently, however, some fabricators shifted to providing custom parts for the health care, technology and green energy industries, including windmill manufacturers, he said.

“The metal fabrication industry has an advantage,” Rooney said. “It can do a lot of custom work and change along with whatever is in demand from the economy.”

And even in a bad economy, parts wear out and bridges need to be replaced, which requires custom fabricated steel, he said.

Sheflin, 64, started Mohawk Metal 24 years ago as a one-man shop in the Mohawk Valley northeast east of Springfield, later moving east to Walterville.

Mohawk Metal did work for Eugene sheet metal contractor Ecklund Industries, where Bloom had worked his way up through the ranks, to branch manager.

Sheflin met Bloom, and they both agreed that Bloom would join the firm as a partner in 2007.

A few months later, Bloom moved Mohawk Metal to West First Avenue in Eugene, later opening a plant in Springfield to handle larger fabrication.

In late 2010, Mohawk consolidated operations in its present Prairie Road plant, the former site of Ecklund Industries, which had been acquired by Farwest Steel.

Putting profits back

Bloom said he and Sheflin have poured profits back into Mohawk, mainly by adding equipment and hiring employees to boost productivity.

The firm also used the state sanctioned enterprise zone program to save a total of $70,000 in property taxes on $1.8 million worth of equipment purchases over three years.

In enterprise zones, manufacturing and other firms that invest in new plants or equipment and boost employment by 10 percent can qualify for three years of property tax breaks on their new investments.

Mohawk invested more this year, buying two 10-ton overhead cranes at a cost of $150,000, and building a $30,000 paint booth so it does not have to send parts elsewhere to be coated.

It purchased an $800,000 high-speed laser metal cutting machine. And Mohawk is building a 5,000-square-foot storage building to free space in its plant.

Bloom said he expects to hire more people next spring or summer, when construction increases demand for custom made metal parts.

Wages are based on experience and skills, but typically range from $11 to $20 per hour, Bloom said. Benefits include medical, dental, vision and life insurance.

A 3 percent tax-free bonus is offered at year’s end, along with a profit-sharing plan, Bloom said.

Sheflin said he and Bloom are expecting their employees to help them respond to customer demands as the economy improves.

“When the economy turns around, we want to be in the starting blocks ready to go,” Sheflin said.

“This was a business plan followed to a tee.”


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