TALLMADGE, OHIO — Plastic processor Steere Enterprises is a safer place to work because of a grant from the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation (BWC). Other companies in that state now can do the same, thanks to $15 million in government funding.
BWC Administrator and CEO Steve Buehrer announced the funding during a Dec. 4 visit to Steere, an automotive blow molder and injection molder based in Tallmadge.
“The reason for our visit today is to highlight a company that got it right — a company that's made an investment in safety and is seeing a payback,” Buehrer said. “Because of [Steere], more moms and dads are coming home safe at the end of the day.”
In 2007, Steere received a BWC grant that the firm used to make its own safety equipment, including cutters and slicers. The equipment eliminated the need for hand knives, pliers and hammers, operations vice president Mark Stahl said. The firm used to report more than 100 accidents per year — mostly knife cuts suffered when workers removed flash from molded parts — but by 2012, the number of accidents had been reduced to two. Steere also eliminated processes that could lead to carpal tunnel injuries.
Investing in safety “is altruistic, and it pays off as well,” owner and CEO Bill Steere said. “It's a win-win.”
Steere blow molds duct assemblies for a wide variety of vehicles, using primarily glass-filled nylon 6 and polypropylene resins. It also does injection molding work, overmolding its own blow molded parts with rubber or steel. The 64-year-old firm generates almost all of its sales from the automotive market.
Steere also has applied for a BWC grant that Stahl said would further improve the site's safety and efficiency by installing a pair of cranes in its machine shop. Steere does most of its tooling and machining in-house, and earlier this year began offering those services to outside firms.
The $15 million being offered to Ohio businesses for safety improvements represents an expansion of the state's Safety Intervention Grant Program and is part of its Billion Back initiative. Companies that receive BWC safety grants report on average a 60 percent reduction in injury claim costs, Buehrer said.
BWC is on a record pace for safety grant applications. “We're thrilled that [Steere] is taking safety seriously,” he said. “Other companies ought to come in at this unique time and use that money to do something significant.”
The Billion Back program — initiated by Gov. John Kasich — offers cash rebates to employers who have paid into the state's Workers' Compensation program. The program has been made possible by larger-than-expected fund balances.
Like many auto suppliers, Steere was hammered by the recession of 2008-09. Pre-recession, the firm employed 250, but that number fell to under 100 as auto sales plummeted. Steere's sales bottomed out at $13 million in 2009. But from that point, the firm made a remarkable recovery.
“We picked up a lot of new business in the downturn,” Bill Steere said. “The whole industry has been on a rising tide.”
Steere Enterprises now employs more than 300 and will post sales of $48 million this year. Sales for 2014 are projected to hit $50 million, Stahl said. The firm operates two plants and a warehouse covering 115,000 square feet and is in need of more warehousing space, he added.
Steere is in the process of adding a 3-D blow molding line that can make long, snakelike ductwork. Some older blow molding machines also will be replaced with new ones during 2014, Stahl said.
Frank Steere Jr. — Bill's father — founded the firm in the basement of his home in nearby Akron in 1949. He was a chemical engineer with B.F. Goodrich Co. and wanted to work with vinyl plastisol, which was a new material at the time. His first products were vinyl-coated hex bolts, and the firm later hit it big making vinyl coin purses. Steere Enterprises made millions of them in the 1950s before transitioning into the auto market in the 1960s. It has been located in Tallmadge since 1962.
And a third generation of the Steere family now is active with the firm. Bill's sons Brock and Brian serve as co-presidents.