MCKEESPORT, Pa. — The Norris family has built a thriving enterprise from businesses that former owners abandoned in frustration.
The latest phoenix for Dura-Bond — the family owned company founded by J.M. “Buster” Norris in 1960 — to rise from the ashes is U.S. Steel’s former pipe mill in McKeesport.
Dura-Bond is in the process of getting the refurbished plant certified to produce small diameter pipe that meets the oil and gas industry’s specifications. Once production begins later this year, the plant is expected to employ about 100 people. That number could eventually rise to 200, according to chairman Wayne Norris, the son of the company’s founder and father of president Jason Norris.
“We’re looking at McKeesport as a great opportunity for us,” Wayne Norris said. “We have a challenge to face, but we think we’ll be able to do that.”
His father founded Dura-Bond due to a similar challenge.
Back then, Pittsburgh-based Koppers was in the business of producing tar, a coal byproduct that could be used as a corrosion-resistant coating for pipes used in pipelines. In addition to selling tar to companies that coated pipe, Koppers was in the coating business and its employees included Wayne Norris’ father and uncle.
Faced with losing their jobs as Koppers shifted focus, Buster Norris’ bought Koppers coating equipment and went into business as Dura-Bond.
At first, the company installed the equipment at the plants of pipe producers. In 1985, it opened a coating plant in Export and made the Westmoreland County community its headquarters. Eventually, Dura-Bond began fabricating steel used in the marine and heavy highway construction markets.
Coating pipe remained Dura-Bond’s core business. In the 1990s, it began coating pipes with fusion bond epoxy, which has a consistency similar to talcum powder. The epoxy resin provides better protection, is easier to apply and is more environmentally friendly.
About the same time, the company acquired a plant in Steelton, Pa., that coated large diameter pipe produced at a Bethlehem Steel mill located there. Wayne Norris said the venture worked out well — until Bethlehem went into bankruptcy.
Faced with the loss of a major customer, Dura-Bond bought that plant for an undisclosed sum and went into the pipe-producing business. Wayne Norris declined to say how much cash Dura-Bond paid for the mill, noting that bankers would have asked a lot of questions and might not have financed the leap of faith.
The Steelton plant provided the pipe for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile underground pipeline running from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina.
Wayne Norris said the project drove employment at the Steelton plant to 400. It has since dropped to about 200 after Dura-Bond completed its share of the work, he said. The company’s other operations employ about 300, he said.
Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale boom provided opportunities for more growth.
When executives of U.S. Steel’s McKeesport pipe business advised Dura-Bond to ramp up coating capacity to meet the demand, the company opened a new coating mill in Duquesne in 2013 on the site of U.S. Steel’s former Duquesne Works.
The 700-foot production line begins with rust being removed from pipe and the surface being roughened so that the coating adheres. Then the pipe is heated to 465 degrees and the epoxy powder is sprayed on. The pipe is quenched with water, creating a smooth green protective coating.
Plant manager Dan Swearingen said about 70 workers are on the job from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m., producing about 22,000 to 26,000 feet of coated pipe per day.
“It’s a nice shift because you can go home early. That’s what these guys like,” Swearingen said.
U.S. Steel idled its McKeesport plant in 2014, idling about 175 workers. While Dura-Bond also coated pipe made by other producers, U.S. Steel’s decision “put our coating mill in jeopardy,” Wayne Norris said.
Once again, Dura-Bond stepped up to the plate, acquiring the U.S. Steel pipe mill in late 2016 for an undisclosed sum. The small-diameter pipe produced there will complement Steelton’s large-diameter pipe, Wayne Norris said.
News that the McKeesport mill was reopening prompted more than 1,500 job seekers to apply online for the 100 positions the plant will offer initially.
Among those to be hired were former U.S. Steel workers who helped refurbish the mill, Wayne Norris said. Finding workers with the right skills for jobs that pay from the low $20s to lows $30s per hour — with health benefits and a retirement plan — has been a challenge.
“Electricians and millwrights are our biggest challenge right now at all of our facilities — and welders,” he said. “The trade schools need to ramp it up.”
The McKeesport mill will enter the market just as President Donald Trump imposes 25 percent tariffs on imports of steel as well as steel pipe and tube. The tariffs, as well as 10 percent tariffs on aluminum imports, are designed to create jobs in the two industries. Critics contend the import penalties may jeopardize more jobs than they will create.
Jason Norris said that while he would have preferred a more targeted approach to the import issue, there is no doubt that domestic steelmakers are being victimized by imports and need help.
“It is imperative that we have a strong domestic steel industry and downstream manufacturing that consumes steel,” he said.
Swearingen started with Dura-Bond 20 years ago as a laborer. He said he’s stayed because the company takes care of its workers and provides opportunities for advancement. He took over as manager of the Duquesne plant in 2014.
Wayne Norris said employees enjoy working in a small, family owned operation where decisions can be made more quickly.
“Our culture is very important to us. Equipment is extremely important, but the most important component of our business is our employees,” he said. “It’s amazing how having one or two right people in the right place makes such a difference in an operation.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com