By John Reid Blackwell, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Service Center Metals, a manufacturing company in Prince George County, has a tradition of naming any big, new pieces of equipment after rock ’n’ roll stars.
When the company, a maker of aluminum extrusions, opened its manufacturing plant in the SouthPoint Business Park in 2003, it installed a 3,100-ton aluminum press. The company’s co-founders named the machine Elvis.
Within a few years, the company expanded and added another press named “The Boss,” after Bruce Springsteen, one of co-founder and CEO Scott Kelley’s favorite performers.
Then, when the company expanded again in 2014 and added two casting lines to produce aluminum logs, the machines were christened as Keith and Mick for Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones fame.
Soon, Service Center Metals will be bringing on board Jake and Elwood, also known as the Blues Brothers, of movie legend.
Those are the two new aluminum casting lines that will be added when the company completes a $25 million expansion later this year that also will create 35 new jobs.
After going through a rough period during the recession, when demand for its products dropped 40 percent, Service Center Metals has bounced back.
Construction is underway on a 190,000-square-foot addition to the factory on Quality Way in SouthPoint Business Park, which is owned and developed by The Hollingsworth Cos., a private developer. Service Center Metals leases the buildings from Hollingsworth.
The expansion will bring the total size of the company’s manufacturing operations to 426,000 square feet.
“We are obviously very excited about the expansion,” Kelley said. “Our company has had solid growth. It’s been a lot of fun. We have grown the company from just three of us to close to 200 people soon.”
Kelley co-founded the company with Chip Dollins Jr., who is vice president of operations, and Randy Weis, who is vice president of sales. The three had been employees of Henrico County-based Reynolds Metals Co. before its acquisition by Alcoa Inc. in 2000.
As Service Center Metals has expanded and added jobs and new production equipment, the co-founders have memorialized that by adding poster-sized, concert photographs of Elvis Presley, Springsteen and The Rolling Stones in one hallway of the company’s management office.
The key advantage that comes with the factory expansion is to make Service Center Metals vertically integrated and self-sufficient in producing the aluminum logs, or billet, needed to make extrusions, Dollins said.
Service Center Metals produces aluminum rods, bars and tubing used in various end markets such as the construction, transportation, machinery and equipment industries. It sells aluminum extrusions to metal service centers that supply those industries.
An 81,000-square-foot expansion that was completed in 2014 involved adding a remelt plant for melting the scrap aluminum that Service Center Metals buys from various sources.
The remelt operation has a furnace that heats the aluminum to 1,500 degrees. It can hold up to 60 metric tons of liquid aluminum, which glows orange and lava-like inside the furnace.
“Aluminum in its solid form is not magnetic,” Dollins said. “But in its liquid form, it is magnetic, so we use a magnetic field to stir it inside the furnace.”
The aluminum is then cast into logs that can be pressed into various shapes in the extrusion part of the plant. The logs also can be sold to other extrusion makers, which diversifies the company’s business.
The current expansion will add another furnace and two more casting lines. The total investment is about $25 million.
The plant is currently capable of producing about 75 million pounds of aluminum logs a year.
“That’s about half of what we need in our extrusion business,” Dollins said. “When we are done with this expansion, it will make about 175 million pounds, which is more than we need.”
“We are not only going to be completely vertically integrated, we will also be selling this log or billet to other extruders,” Dollins said. “It makes us much more self-sufficient.”
The expansion also enables the company to produce aluminum logs in a continuous process rather than the batch process that is more typically used in the industry.
“Once we start casting, we can run up to a week to 10 days,” Dollins said. “We think it is more efficient. Certainly, we get better quality with the (aluminum) logs.”
He said the expansion will make Service Center Metals “the largest horizontal casting plant in the world.”
Service Center Metals has 155 employees now. With the expansion, it needs to hire about 35 people in the next six months.
That’s where the company has run into a problem.
Despite the perception that jobs in manufacturing are not available in this economy, Kelley said Service Center Metals has struggled to find the workers it needs, especially skilled technicians and mechanics needed to keep the plant operating at top efficiency, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We need entry-level positions, but we also need experienced maintenance people, too,” Dollins said. “They are extraordinarily tough to find.”
Service Center Metals has looked far and wide for workers.
When Kelley recently read the news that Noranda Aluminum Holding Corp. was cutting jobs from its plant in New Madrid, Mo., he sent an engineer and a human resources manager to Missouri to recruit laid-off employees from that plant.
“This isn’t a job where we are trying to hire people to make minimum wage,” Kelley said. Entry-level jobs pay about $25 an hour, including base pay along with an incentive pay program. As employees gain skills, they can earn more, he said.
Asked what the company needs the most from job applicants, Kelley said “work ethic.”
Customers of Service Center Metals include such businesses as Yarde Metals, a Connecticut-based distributor of metals that is part of Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co., the largest metals service center corporation in North America.
Yarde Metals has about 23,000 customers. “We are supplying anybody from the aerospace sector to the auto industry, to energy and durable goods,” said Matt Smith, president and chief operating officer at Yarde Metals.
Service Center Metals has been a supplier to Yarde Metals since the Prince George company started operations, Smith said.
“SCM has always been very important to us going back to when they started,” he said. “They have been able to create trust and a partnership model with their customers.”
“Their response time is second to none in the industry,” Smith said. “Having a very good quality product and on-time delivery is very important to service centers.”
Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, said he considers Service Center Metals a “great success story.”
The company, he said, “has demonstrated that the quality of its products and its resiliency can meet the tough demands of the U.S. and Canadian markets” and proves that “Virginia manufacturers can compete anywhere.”
The founders said their message is that good jobs can still be found in manufacturing, despite a long-term decline in employment in the manufacturing sector overall.
“We like bucking that trend,” Dollins said. “We think manufacturing is sexy.”
“How many other manufacturers do you know who have Keith Richards and Mick Jagger hanging on their wall?” Kelley said.