The trucks leaving Central Plains Steel, near 37th and Rock, are piled high these days — and that's a good thing. The supplier of steel plates, sheets, bars and tubes to manufacturers just finished an extraordinary month, the culmination of an increasingly healthy 2010.
"In April, we shipped the most tonnage since March '07," said the company's manager, Gary O'Neal.
Year-to-date, O'Neal said, Central Plains deliveries are up 37 percent over the same period of 2009.
Business is up because its customers' business is up, he said. Those customers include Collins Bus Corp., CNH, Excel Industries, Great Plains Manufacturing and others.
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Excel Industries, which makes Hustler-brand mowers, saw its business snap back in late 2009, and it continues to grow, said president Paul Mullet, in large part because dealers cut inventories so deeply in 2009.
His suppliers followed suit, cutting staff, Mullet said. Now some — not Central Plains — are having trouble ramping up.
That's because Central Plains cut only two positions during the downturn. The rest took pay cuts.
"Last year was a terrible year," O'Neal said, "for us and for the whole economy."
The company, which has 32 employees, cut hourly workers to 30 hours per week during part of the year. The company made arrangements with the state for those employees to be paid unemployment insurance for the remainder. Managers took a 10 percent pay cut.
But that's now in the past. Production workers are working overtime.
The effect of the upturn on Central Plains is subtle to the eye.
The plant is a cavernous 100,000-square-foot building holding rolls and stacks of steel. The relatively few employees in that vast space operate large overhead cranes and large cutting machines, moving and trimming the steel to fit customer orders. Every month it receives, trims and ships thousands of tons of steel.
The company is owned by Reliance Steel & Aluminum, a publicly traded company based in Los Angeles. The company also owns Bralco Metals and AMI Metals in Wichita.
The trucks run just as often in good times and bad, O'Neal said, but they are now carrying a lot more steel in each load.
What has changed, he said, is that his customers continue to run lean, taking delivery only on what they need in order to conserve cash, as they did during the recession.
"I think we're seeing a paradigm shift," O'Neal said.
But, he said, that's good, because it means companies will need Central Plains to deliver their steel for a long time to come.