Q&A: Bruce Iredale

VP and General Manager

By Jan Mitchell

Describe what your company does. How many employees do you have?

We’re a producer of steel plate and coil that are then processed by our customers to make distinct products ranging from rail cars, barges, cranes, heavy equipment, armored vehicles, storage tanks and wind generation towers to fabricated beams and girders for high-rise buildings – really just about anything that needs steel. We also produce spiral pipe, mainly for the oil and gas transmission industry.

The only final product we make is spiral pipe. Everything else goes to customers to finish in final form. We melted our own steel from scrap until 2003; now we purchase slabs for our rolling mill on the world market. Our heat treat facility quenches and tempers the steel and transforms the steel microstructure, improving its strength and abrasion resistance.

One recent project is developing the next generation of armor for military use. When approached, we responded quickly, changing production schedules and lining up fabricators with short lead times to get the armor into production.

We currently have about 675 employees and we’re hiring to be fully staffed at 710 to 720 employees.

How did your business get started? Why Oregon? How long have you been in operation?

We were founded in 1948 by Gilmore Steel. They built a rebar mill along Front Avenue in Portland and also had a steel service center. Our current property in the Rivergate Industrial area was purchased in 1969, where we built a rolling mill. Management bought the company in the early 1980s. For many years it was employee-owned and eventually went public, trading as Oregon Steel Mills. In 2007, we were purchased by EVRAZ, with its North American headquarters in Chicago. We have one of the most diversified product portfolios for a steel plate producer in North America.

We’re the only presence in the West for a plate mill and the Western U.S. is our natural territory. It helps our Western customers to have a local mill. Our closest domestic competitor is east of the Mississippi River. Our location on the Columbia River allows us to cost-effectively obtain steel slabs for our mill.

What makes your product unique?

We have one of the largest rolling mills in North America and our location provides advantages to customers in the supply chain. We offer one of the largest assortments of plate products and a very large size range. We can offer other services too, including heat treating, shot blasting and priming, custom size plates and working to different specifications – a lot of capability of products and a variety of businesses.

What other businesses are dependent on what you do? How has the local community benefited?

A lot of the businesses that use our products are located in our area, including Gunderson, Vigor and Vestas. This helps shorten the supply chain, resulting in efficiencies.

As a large firm, we provide many jobs to the area. Community outreach has included working with fabricators to provide steel at cost for the building needs at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. As environmental stewards, we’ve just finished clean-up of our portion of the river bank along the Willamette River, a holdover obligation from the former owner of our site, and we installed a state-of-the-art storm-water treatment plant.

How has your business changed since it began?

It’s much more competitive and challenging. We have new competition, including new domestic and off-shore mills. Quality requirements have increased, there are technology improvements to stay on top of and there is a much stronger focus on safety in the organization. Also very challenging are changes in labor and environmental laws, as well as uncertainty, especially with tariffs and not knowing how long they’ll stay in place. These changes can happen very quickly and have impacts, especially since we no longer have a melt shop and must buy our steel slabs.

What do you think your business will look like in five years?

Quality expectations will continue to increase and we’ll need to be more efficient. We will focus on technology and strategic investments so we can continue to be competitive and offer a higher quality product while reducing costs. There is always new technology being developed, and we are investing in R&D to look for the next product to serve our customers. We also will be putting more focus on training. We used to be able to hire people with manufacturing experience but now with low unemployment we need to put more focus on training our future workforce.

What are your thoughts on the current state of manufacturing? Thoughts on the future of manufacturing?

It is more challenging to be a manufacturer in Oregon. Recent changes in labor laws have been disruptive, especially overtime rules. We’re also concerned about how Oregon’s cap & trade legislation will play out – we’re legislated by the state yet we compete globally; will the legislation put us in a noncompetitive state?

Manufacturing such as ours will continue to be challenged. People often don’t want us in their backyard, yet they forget they use these products every day, driving across bridges, advocating wind generation. We need to continue to educate on the importance of manufacturing and its role in diversifying our economy. It may not be as sexy as a computer chip or software, but it is core to our economy.

Why is it important to have manufacturing in Oregon?

It’s good to keep a diverse economy. Manufacturing provides family wage jobs and provides opportunities to people from all walks of life. For every employee a manufacturer hires they create approximately three more jobs in the local economy. Having a local manufactures often leads to other downstream business locating in Oregon.

What makes you excited to come to work every day?

I like that we’re making something tangible that supports the building and maintenance of our infrastructure. I get a lot of satisfaction to see our product used to protect the lives of our military personnel or used to create wind energy. I have the privilege to work with a diverse, dedicated group of people. Everyone plays an important role, from the person operating a piece of equipment to the Ph.D. working on the next steel product. Manufacturing always comes with challenges and I’ve never been bored.