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In tough times, foundry keeps proving its mettle

For years, the Neenah Foundry Co., Neenah, Wis., has been known for its tree grates (above), manhole covers and sewer covers.

For years, the Neenah Foundry Co., Neenah, Wis., has been known for its tree grates (above), manhole covers and sewer covers.

By M. Scott Carter
Dolan Media Newswires

Norman, Okla. — For years, the Neenah Foundry Co., Neenah, has made a good portion of the country’s manhole covers, sewer covers and tree grates.

Today the company is struggling to survive.

Founded more than 130 years ago by William Aylward, the Neenah Foundry produced its first manhole covers in 1904. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Neenah was one of the few companies in the nation that expanded, thanks to millions of dollars worth of government orders for ironwork. Since then, Neenah has become the de facto standard for civil engineers across the country.

In Norman, the foundry’s work is everywhere.

“We’ve been doing business with Neenah for years,” said Shawn O’Leary, Norman’s public works director. “They make manhole covers, tree grates — anything that is steel and has some type of application to water, wastewater or storm water.”

Norman, O’Leary said, buys more than 300 Neenah-made manhole covers per year. In addition, he said products from the Neenah foundry have set the design standard for civil engineers.

“From the time you’re a young engineer, you’re probably specifying a Neenah number,” O’Leary said. “They are the standard. When you write specifications, well, every civil engineer knows Neenah. You write the specs to Neenah standards.”

But while the Neenah Foundry’s products are wildly popular, the past several years have been difficult for the foundry. In 1997, after being owned by the Aylward family for 125 years, the foundry was sold to NFC Castings Inc.

A year later, NFC Castings began a period of expansion and growth, and in 2001 earned the Foundry of the Year award from Modern Castings Magazine. But growth and awards weren’t enough and Neenah was forced into reorganization via Chapter 11 in early 2003.

Since then, the foundry has struggled and its competition has grown.

“In the past 10 or 20 years, Neenah has gotten some pretty good competition,” O’Leary said. “They compete and they compete very well in the bidding process, but they’ve seen lots of competition.”

And fewer orders.

“We’ve haven’t purchased anything from Neenah in the past couple of years,” said Tinny Maker, street superintendent for the city of Guthrie. “In the past we’ve purchased manhole covers, but not tree grates.”

And while Maker can point to several street intersections capped by Neenah manhole covers, the foundry has seen its fortunes decline.

“Most of the public has never even heard of Neenah,” O’Leary said. “Engineers can all quote Neenah numbers and they all have Neenah catalogs on the shelf. But most of the public have never heard of them.”

That could be changing.

In November, the Financial Times reported that Wayzata Investment Partners, a Minnesota hedge fund, was pursuing Neenah along with the Grede and Elyria foundries.

According to the Times, Grede and Neenah are both high-volume operations that source steel scrap for gray iron castings used in auto parts and industrial machinery.

In the end, Neenah could end up in a merger with two of its competitors.

“It’s sad to hear,” O’Leary said. “For years they have set the standard.”

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