Created on Sunday, 26 January 2014 Written by DAN GEARINO, The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — If you need a big magnet to pick up an even bigger piece of metal, a Columbus factory is ready to help.
Walker Magnetics, with a plant near Rickenbacker Airport, is the country's leading manufacturer of magnets for the steel industry.
Inside the walls of a nondescript building, workers fabricate magnets capable of lifting more than 100 tons.
These are electromagnets, supersize versions of the grade-school science project in which you magnetize a nail by wrapping a wire around it and touching it to an alkaline battery. An electric current creates a force that either attracts or repels other metals.
"All the magic is in the design of the coils," said Eric Klein, the plant manager, referring to the wiring system that energizes the metal surface.
Walker was started in 1896 in Worcester, Mass., which remains its headquarters city and home of its largest plant. The company became active in Columbus in 1988 when it bought the magnet-manufacturing assets of National Electric Coil on the Northwest Side.
Walker has 120 employees, 22 of them at the Columbus plant.
"They make arguably one of the best lifting magnets out there in the world," said Bob Bedard, president of the Nasco-Op in New Philadelphia, a purchasing cooperative for a scrap-metal trade association. "I don't think there's another company that has the engineering depth, the experience and the manufacturing capability that Walker has."
His organization distributes products made by Walker and its competitors. Among Walker's peers is Ohio Magnetics in Cleveland. It also competes against a wide array of companies based overseas.
Every factory has its share of caution signs, but working in a magnet plant means some of them are unusual.
On the way to the manufacturing floor, a visitor passes a sign that says, "Magnets may interfere with pacemakers."
The main room where workers weld and assemble equipment is three stories tall and covers about 45,000 square feet, with heavy-duty cranes hanging from tracks along the ceiling.
"It's neat stuff," Klein said. "A lot of people don't know we're here."
While many magnets are in the room, they are activated only in a testing area on the far side of the floor. So, if you have any fantasies about being lifted up by the coins in your pants pocket or watching your cellphone fly across the room, you will be disappointed.
The magnets can range from big (2,500 pounds) to huge (more than 75 tons). Prices range from $7,000 to more than $300,000.
Since the economic downturn, sales have been "running in fits and starts," Klein said.
The main customers are companies that sell steel and scrap metal, along with a growing business serving recyclers. About 50 percent of sales are to customers outside the United States.
Last May, Walker was purchased for an undisclosed sum by Alliance Holdings, a private-equity firm based in Pennsylvania. The seller was a company controlled by the Engelsted family, which had owned Walker since the 1950s.
Almost everything else has remained the same for the company, including its president and CEO, Dick Longo, who has been in those roles since 2005.
The company's current structure is largely the result of changes made by Longo. When he arrived, Walker was struggling with a number of unprofitable business units.
"In 2005, we were doing too many things, and we were trying to be everything magnetic to everybody," Longo said, interviewed by telephone from his office in Massachusetts.
He sold all of the assets except for the core magnet business, whittling the company down to the plants in Worcester and Columbus.
The company was leaner and profitable, but it still had some big problems. It was closely tied to the fortunes of U.S. steel mills, businesses that tended to be volatile and slow-growing.
To get more stable footing, the company initiated what it called a "follow the steel" strategy, Longo said. Walker's sales force began to focus on attracting customers in the industries that transport and process steel, as opposed to just steel mills. This includes companies that make bridges and railroad equipment, and a wide array of other businesses.
The strategy has been good for the Columbus plant, Longo said.
"We're further expanding what is our largest product line and our largest market area, which is all done at the Columbus plant," he said.
Over the next few years, that likely will lead to new hiring and the building of a new wing at the plant.
The company has said that the next senior executive — the person who will eventually replace Longo, 68 — will be based in Columbus.
Does that mean the headquarters is moving to Columbus? Longo would say only that the Columbus plant is the "flagship facility" and is growing in its importance in the company.