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How one Buffalo manufacturer survived (and sometimes thrived) for 150 years

Buffalo Wire Works has more than a century of history to its name.

The company was born a few years after the Civil War ended, survived the Great Depression, endured a lengthy strike and persevered through five generations of ownership by the same family.

Technology, customers and materials have changed, but the company's production, at its heart, has stayed the same: making screens used for sifting and sizing products, including for mines and quarries.

Buffalo Wire Works is marking its 150th anniversary, a rare milestone for a U.S.-based manufacturer. The current owner, Joseph M. Abramo, relishes the history, from the faces of previous leaders peering out from the framed photos on the walls, to the weathered newspaper ads saved in scrapbooks. But he is very much looking to the future, through growth and acquisitions.

The company's workforce has become more diverse over time, to include refugees from around the world, and international students who graduated from the University at Buffalo. More than a third of its workers are refugees.

Over the past 20 years, Buffalo Wire Works has bought other companies and opened more locations, and wants to make more deals.

Buffalo Wire Works' history traces to 1869 and Martin Scheeler Sr., who founded the company as Scheeler & Sons. The business switched to its current name in 1903. In 1972, amid urban renewal, Buffalo Wire Works moved from Lower Terrace to its present-day home, on Clinton Street in the Clinton-Bailey neighborhood. Allan Herschell Co. once built amusement rides there.

A turning point in Buffalo Wire Works' history came about two decades ago. Abramo, a Massachusetts native with the accent to prove it, was working for Eastman Machine in Buffalo when Buffalo Wire Works hired him in 2000 as its chief operating officer. At the time, Buffalo Wire Works' future was in question, and Abramo was given the task of turning things around.

From left, Max Davis, vice president of business management, Erich Steadman, vice president of engineering, and Joe Abramo, CEO, inside Buffalo Wire Works' plant. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"We were a hurting group," he said. "It was tough. After five generations, companies sometimes, if they don't bring in outside, new ideas, it can be an issue." Abramo didn't enter expecting to buy the business, but that's how it turned out. In 2003, he acquired Buffalo Wire Works from Guy Scheeler, the last member of the founding family still active at the company.

Buffalo Wire Works' long history included labor conflict in recent times.

The company faced a nine-month strike by 38 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, angry over Buffalo Wire Works' push to cut wages, vacation and benefits. The strike ended in 2006. In a timeline posted on its website, the company calls the strike "a transformational period" during which its managers learned all facets of the business.

"It was a bleak period for us, but it was an event that had to happen or (the business) would have closed," Abramo said. "There's no way we were sustaining under the burden of that contract."

Buffalo Wire Works hired permanent replacement workers during the strike, a controversial move in a union town. After the machinists union called off the walkout, some – but not all – of the striking workers were brought back, Abramo said.

Under Abramo's ownership, the company revitalized itself by hiring a new leadership team, buying customized manufacturing machines and closely tracking the price of raw materials.

The company makes screens used on equipment for sifting all kinds of materials, separating what a customer wants to keep from what it doesn't, at the proper size. Abramo rattles off applications from sand, stone, gravel and cement, to paint, chemicals and gunpowder.

"We are recession-proof, really, because of so many industries we service," he said.

Buffalo Wire Works has about 170 employees locally, including 71 who are refugees hailing from 21 countries. Abramo said he contacts local organizations including Journey's End to find candidates.

"Not everyone wants to work in a factory," Abramo said. "They appreciate the opportunity to work, they want to get ahead, and boy, they are driven.

"They would work a full week, they would work every hour of overtime, and some of their cars in the parking lot have Uber stickers," he said. "They want to provide a good life for their families. It's refreshing and beautiful."

Omar Al Saleh came to Buffalo as a refugee from Iraq nearly four years ago. He got a job at Buffalo Wire Works and was subsequently promoted to supervisor.

"I enjoy it here," he said. "I respect everybody here, and whether I become supervisor or not, I still respect everyone. And they respect me." Al Saleh has met co-workers from places including Iran and Syria.

The company doesn't hire only refugees. The diverse workforce includes inner city residents, as well as University at Buffalo graduates with engineering degrees. Thirteen UB grads work for Buffalo Wire Works, including 12 engineers, eight of whom were international students.

Abramo talks about those engineers going to work on the production floor, "getting their hands dirty."

"I have to be an educator, a developer of young talent," he said. "They have the academics but they don't have the practical" experience.

The company produces screens made of wire, rubber or urethane, depending on what the customer requires. That breadth of product options helps separate Buffalo Wire Works from its competitors, who might only produce a single kind, Abramo said.

A screen made by Buffalo Wire Works in use at a job site. (provided photo)

The best part about the products, Abramo said, is that customers eventually must replace them.

"It's a consumable," he said. "It's like a Gillette razor blade – you use it and throw it away." How quickly the screens need replacing varies, depending on the material passing through them.

Abramo said he can often tell what's happening in other industries by the pace of their orders.

"In a way, we're kind of like a leading economic indicator," he said. "They have to buy my product before they make product."

Buffalo Wire Works has come a long way from the early 2000s, when the company was struggling to hang on, Abramo said. Now representatives of some of the biggest makers of mining and quarry equipment come calling at the plant, he said.

Buffalo Wire Works employees gathered for a group photo at the plant. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Buffalo Wire Works has added a second Buffalo location, on Babcock Street, and bought a plant in Colorado. The company also opened a plant in Nevada to serve the West Coast, and next year plans to open a location in the South.

Abramo spends a lot of his time looking for potential deals, entrusting the day-to-day operations to his executive team. He talks about possibly buying an operation in a big mining center outside of the United States, in Latin America, South Africa or Australia.

Would Buffalo Wire Works itself be a purchase target for someone else?

"We're not for sale," Abramo said.

Abramo is protective of Buffalo Wire Works' business specifics. He politely declines to share sales figures or name customers. He restricts photography of the manufacturing equipment used in his plant, in order to keep his competitors guessing.

After taking over from five generations of the Scheeler family, Abramo has begun a family tradition of his own. His wife and two daughters are involved in the business, along with Max Davis, his son-in-law.

Davis had a short stint at Buffalo Wire Works years ago, and spent several years with HSBC before he was drawn back to the company in 2015. He is now vice president of business management, and said he sees the company's growth potential as "immense."

"I enjoy being challenged at work and staying on our toes to stay ahead of the competition," Davis said.

Abramo recently gathered his workforce inside the Clinton Street plant for a 150th anniversary group photo. He always wanted one similar to a group shot taken in 1919 that is displayed in the offices.

"We are going to keep growing and investing in Buffalo," Abramo said. "We have some fabulous opportunities in the pipeline."

Buffalo Wire Works employees gathered for a group photo in 1919. (Provided photo)

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