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CHANGES MESH INTO GROWTH FOR BUFFALO WIRE WORKS

It was just six years after the Battle of Gettysburg when Buffalo Wire Works opened its doors on Seneca Street, making wire mesh for sieves.

Today, 135 years later, the plant remains in Buffalo, now on Clinton Street near Bailey Avenue. The 70-job plant still weaves screens from strands of wire, some as thick as your thumb. The heaviest screens are used in mines and gravel quarries to sort stones; lighter ones strain flour, paint -- even sand for the glass in fiber-optic cable.

Plenty of Buffalo-born manufacturers have slipped through the cracks over the years, and the wire works may have been in danger of following them down.

But a new management team has staunched losses and restored growth in the past few years by bringing a new approach to the old-economy business -- buying materials cheaper, streamlining production, winning new customers and opening plants. Now, much of the lighter mesh is imported from Asia and finished in the U.S.

"You can't sell until you've dealt with operational problems," said Joseph M. Abramo, chief executive and owner of a controlling stake in the company since 2000.

A Massachusetts native with an MBA from Salem State College, Abramo took over from the fifth-generation of the Scheeler family. Rather than taking a radical new approach, he said he -- together with a new management team -- refocused on fundamentals.

"He has an ability to question everything," said Robert L. Stevenson, president of Eastman Machine Co. in Buffalo, where Abramo worked previously as chief operating officer. "Companies tend to get comfortable doing things in certain ways."

Wire mesh for stone and gravel quarries is dominated by fewer than 10 companies in the U.S., according to the National Sand, Stone & Gravel Association.

Abramo said that Buffalo Wire is among the larger suppliers in the approximately $200 million market, and is aiming for a bigger share by opening new plants around the country. He wouldn't discuss the company's sales, except to say they have grown from the $10 million annual level that was made public before he took over.

The company is also aiming for more sales in the industrial market, supplying finished mesh for all kinds of factory uses, he said.

Inside Buffalo Wire's cavernous, 150,000 square foot plant, wire glides through spools into powerful loom-like machines that weave it into mesh with a crash. Some of the hulking machines look like they might have been original equipment when patriarch Martin Scheeler opened in 1869.

One of the new tools for success has been a computer system that tracks orders in detail, Abramo said. The system allows managers to see orders' status and price. Managers meet daily to analyze the orders and figure out what they indicate about the business, Abramo said.

Another innovation was to look abroad for sales by hiring consultants from the Buffalo Niagara World Trade Center. The team's multilingual marketing expertise helped grow sales in the Caribbean and South America by 35 percent, Abramo said. Now exports make up about 5 percent of total sales. Since the service works largely on a commission basis, "there's nothing to lose," he said.

While some things change, others stay the same, however. Abramo said he sought concessions from the machinists' union, which represents about 45 production workers, without success. The plant continues to pay wages of about $18 an hour, plus health and pension benefits to production workers.

The wire works expanded in 2002 with a plant in Birmingham, Ala. that will help supply the growing South American market. It also has sites in Fitchburg, Mass. and Fort Wayne, Ind., and is opening another plant in Seattle. Nationwide, employment is 120, nearly double the Buffalo job total.

The strategy is to locate plants near the country's gravel producing centers. The heavy screens needed for sorting stones are expensive to ship, protecting the business from overseas competition. The screens also need to be replaced regularly, making gravel and stone industries the source of 90 percent of the company's sales.

Abramo expects to take market share from slower-moving competitors in the wire weaving industry. "We have a lot of family-owned companies to compete with," he said.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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