Published On: Mon, Nov 7th, 2011

Saint-Gobain’s Northeast Ohio presence expands

When Boeing’s innovative 787 Dreamliner passenger jet took its first commercial flight late last month, it led the way with a Northeast Ohio


The twin engine, fuel-saving long-range jet is made largely of composite materials, seats 210 or more people and features a nose cone made in Portage County.

The Dreamliner nose cones, also called radomes, are more than just aesthetic and aerodynamic parts. They also protect vulnerable electronics underneath while allowing electromagnetic radiation to pass through easily.

And they are made in a tucked-away corner of Ravenna by a subsidiary of French industrial giant Saint-Gobain, whose roots go back to 1665 as a glass maker and which is one of the first incorporated companies in the world.

The Ravenna plant is also where Saint-Gobain just started making a new “engineered stone” from recycled materials that the company has high hopes for in countertop and other flat surface uses.

You could call Saint-Gobain (employees pronounce the name as San Go-Ban) a Northeast Ohio stealth employer, one that has been here for decades and expanded in recent years. The company recently offered a tour of some of its sites in Summit and Portage counties.

“I refer to it sometimes, from a North American point of view, as one of the world’s largest unknown companies, because inside North America, the Saint-Gobain name is not very well known,” said Thomas Kinisky, president of Saint-Gobain’s Performance Plastics group. He is one of three North Americans on what the parent company calls its CEO Liaison Committee.

“The headquarters of some of our global businesses are here,” Kinisky said. “We’ve got plastics in Aurora, crystals in Hiram, NorPro in Stow and Norandex in Hudson, all headquartered here. Which means that you’ve got infrastructure, you’ve got accountants … you’ve got engineers, you’ve got white-collar staff. And then we’ve got our manufacturing locations.”

Saint-Gobain has nearly 1,000 Ohio employees and a payroll of about $59 million spread among 21 locations in the state; most are in the Greater Akron area and make a wide variety of items, from the radomes to plastic tubing to crystals used in devices to detect such things as radiation. Northeast Ohio is a major hub for Saint-Gobain and is home to its Performance Plastics headquarters and other operations.

Globally, Saint-Gobain is a $53 billion-a-year business with about 190,000 employees in 64 countries. It makes glass and what it calls high-performance materials, construction products and more.

The Saint-Gobain brands, which include CertainTeed building products and Norton Co. abrasives, are known better than the corporate parent, Kinisky said.

“What’s at the heart of the company? It’s still a materials company,” he said.

But Saint-Gobain is expanding its reach into other areas and products as well, he said. The company’s focus increasingly is on energy-saving and environmentally friendly materials and processes for the habitat and construction markets, Kinisky said.

“We have seven significant manufacturing locations” in the area, Kinisky said. “A nice footprint in the area. It’s important to us.”

Saint-Gobain built a manufacturing and office plant near Hiram that opened in 2008 and now employs about 200 people. It put operations under one roof that had been taking place in numerous separate buildings.

The company also has built up its presence in the area by buying established local companies, including the Norton Co., Kinisky said.

“What we’re being asked to do is push materials technology,” he said.

“The reason why we stay is the skilled work force. “Northeast Ohio has an excellent skilled work force around manufacturing. It’s got a manufacturing culture, which really makes a big difference to us. It’s why we stay here.”

Thriving technologies

The Hiram building is where Saint-Gobain grows large crystals that are then used in optic, radiation detection ­— the crystals glow when exposed to radiation — and LED applications. It takes as long as 33 days to grow a massive crystal in a temperature- and moisture-controlled facility. It is then sliced and diced and put into electronic devices such as airport security scanners. One large sodium iodide crystal can easily represent hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

In Akron, Saint-Gobain’s Performance Plastics division has a plastic tubing facility on Gilchrist Road; the facility’s history goes back to 1939, when Chamberlain Industries started making plastic tubing in Akron. Norton Co. took over the business, with Saint-Gobain buying Norton in 1991.

The 120,000-square-foot plant has 135 employees who work three five-day shifts making flexible tubing of varying complexity, materials, diameters and lengths, depending on customer needs. The tubing gets used for IV drips and other medical needs, food processing and in such things as Camelbak hydration backpacks, where people use the tubes to sip fluids stored in the backpack.

“It’s not a mistake we’re here in Akron, one of the polymer centers of the world,” said Chris Mattern, plant manager.

Camelbak, for instance, wants tubing that resists bacteria and stands up to UV light because most users of the backpacks spend their time outdoors, he said.

“Coca-Cola is also a customer of ours for fountain dispensing,” he said.

Management at the Akron plant has a working relationship with United Steelworkers Local 731, which represents between 80 and 90 hourly workers there, said Steelworkers staff representative Bill Conner. The union members, formerly United Rubber Workers, overall are happy at how things are at the factory, he said.

“There are some ups and downs,” Conner said.

New products

Saint-Gobain’s aerospace Ravenna site, where 135 people work, holds part of the company’s present and future.

The 75,000-square-foot plant makes the highly engineered nose cones for the Dreamliner and other planes, while repairing and replacing nose cones that have been damaged by such things as bird collisions and in-hangar dings. The main focus is on radome manufacturing as well as similar pieces that are housed on top of aircraft to protect satellite telecommunications equipment that provides in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi technology. Southwest Airlines is a key customer.

It was in 2007, when the nation was in the early throes of the Great Recession, that Saint-Gobain realized its business in Ravenna was going to grow, said plant manager Steve Hoelzer. The plant was redesigned to use the latest “lean manufacturing” methods and expanded by 10,000 square feet to support business growth, he said.

Ravenna is also home to a new Saint-Gobain product that went into production just this year, a flat stonelike material called Grenite. The material, made out of recycled industrial waste and a composite, is intended for use as countertops and similar flat surfaces and can withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This is an incubator. We are learning to scale up the business,” said Patrice Lallement, marketing manager.

It takes less than three hours to make one large Grenite slab at the Ravenna facility.

Grenite is already being used in Wal-Mart stores and is being looked at by other businesses, including Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Grenite is a good fit technologically and operationally for Saint-Gobain, said Gregg Sallee, business manager. For one, it allows the corporation to use what otherwise would have been waste products from its facilities.

“It competes against natural stone,” Sallee said. “It’s much like a natural stone. It’s a very fast-growing segment. It’s made in the USA. We make it here. We expect to invest for further expansion.”

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