By JAKE MILLER
Wausau Daily Herald
SCHOFIELD, Wis. (AP) — At Merrill Iron & Steel, the recession seems to be fading quickly into history.
Workers at the Schofield-based steel fabricator often put in 50 to 55 hours a week to fill job orders.
Recently, they’ve been making the steel parts used to construct a towering, 11-story building that will house a biomass power plant at the Domtar Corp. paper mill in Rothschild.
But the biomass plant, a $255 million joint project of Domtar and the Milwaukee-based utility We Energies, is only one of the latest projects for Merrill Iron.
The company has clawed its way out the recession by specializing in the fabrication of steel frames for buildings used by the utility and energy industries. That focus has led Merrill Iron to begin hiring additional workers, as the number of projects continues to increase, said President Roger Hinner.
“All of this work is going to generate 40 to 50 new jobs in our facility here in Schofield,” said Hinner, who with his brother Rick Hinner, co-owns the business.
The nearly 50-year-old company, which moved from Merrill to Schofield in the mid-1990s, found its niche in the utility business in the early 2000s when Wisconsin Public Service Corp. hired the fabricator to provide steel for its new Weston 4 power plant in Rothschild.
That opportunity opened the door to enter deeper into the world of construction for utility companies, Roger Hinner said. Now sales to the utility industry comprise about 50 percent of the company’s business.
“That was just an enormous shot in the arm for us,” he said.
With many utility companies needing to upgrade facilities to meet federal emission standards, Merrill Iron has begun to land more and more multimillion-dollar jobs in the field, especially during the past year.
“Things are definitely picking up, and our future looks very bright,” Hinner said. “As our country continues to clean up the old coal-fired plants, in terms of emissions, it generates a lot of work for us.”
The volume of work is welcomed at Merrill Iron, where the number of available projects slowed down in the middle of 2009.
At that time, after workers — mostly welders and other production staff — completed a backlog of projects, Merrill Iron had to cut its staff from about 180 to 120 people. But with the new work, Hinner expects to be back up to about 200 workers in Schofield, he said. The company primarily is looking for welders and painters.
Hinner said he sees no reason for the workload to slow anytime soon, especially with the company branching into Canada, where it recently landed a contract to provide the steel for a structure that will be used in oil sand drilling.
Also, the company has continued to gain market share in the construction of large industrial buildings. Recently, Merrill Iron secured a 16-month fabrication job to provide about 19,000 tons of steel for the construction of a steel mill in Pennsylvania, he said. By comparison, the biomass project required about 2,200 tons of steel.
And throughout Wisconsin, Merrill Iron has continued to enhance its reputation in the utility industry.
For instance, the biomass project isn’t the first time We Energies has turned to Merrill Iron for the fabrication of large projects, including the construction of large air ducts.
The utility contracted Merrill Iron for three other multimillion-dollar projects in recent years, prior to the biomass plant. Those projects include the construction of the Port Washington generating station and the installation of emission systems at Pleasant Prairie and Oak Creek power plants, said We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty.
Merrill Iron’s ability to provide quality, custom-made steel parts at a competitive price has made it a go-to company for We, McNulty said.
“The quality of iron from Merrill speaks volumes,” he said.
Information from: Wausau Daily Herald, http://www.wausaudailyherald.com