Happy 120th Columbia Steel! Part 4: Into the Modern Age
How does a company endure for 120 years when so many others fail? It takes good leadership, great products, the flexibility and foresight to meet changing market conditions and plenty of good fortune. Columbia Steel has been blessed with all of that since its doors first opened in 1901. Over twelve decades, the company relied on hard work and the ingenuity of its employees to overcome significant challenges and opened new markets when opportunities arose.
As our 120th-anniversary series concludes, Columbia Steel faces the dawn of the twenty-first century by continuing to refine its products and innovate to meet customers’ changing needs. The company also saw its first leadership change in nearly seventy years, which would carry Columbia Steel into the modern age.
1990 – 1999: Globalization Drives Specialization
During the nineties, the drive towards globalization brought Columbia Steel new foreign competitors. To continue thriving, the company began refining its offerings to produce higher quality, better performing parts. Columbia Steel engineers also launched customized product lines for specific market segments. Xtralloy™, its premium manganese steel alloy, was refined.
During this period, growth in crusher part sales for aggregate and mining industries and wear parts for auto shredders necessitated substantial expansion of production facilities. This also allowed increased focus on the cement and coal-fired power plant industries.
With the emergence of new digital technologies, the company evolved to incorporate them in its operations. In 1996, Columbia Steel launched its first website and began using computerized three-dimensional drawing programs and solid modeling. These moves improved the company’s design and collaboration process by allowing engineers to see products before casting them.
The nineties also established Columbia’s leadership in chain and rigging for draglines used in surface coal mining. It launched innovations like the Dogbone™ Hoist Chain, Triple-Pitch® Drag Chain and EZ Out® rope socket wedge system. By the end of the decade, a new foundry dedicated to chain making was built.
2000 – 2010: Environmental Advancements
As Columbia Steel entered a new decade, new century and new millennia all at once, the company received recognition for the environmental improvements that have long been a cornerstone of its corporate philosophy.
In April 2000, the company received Portland’s BEST (Businesses for an Environmentally Sustainable Tomorrow) award for its water conservation accomplishments, which had reduced consumption rates by 98% since 1982. In fact, the company’s total water and sewer bills were the same in 2000 as they were in 1978, despite a 300% increase in production and a 2,300% increase in water and sewer rates. In the spirit of conservation, Columbia Steel had also worked diligently to reduce the plant’s air emissions. Through those efforts, emissions were lower in 2000 than they were in 1978.
2011 – 2020: A New Leader and an Unprecedented Challenge
When the company exited the first decade of the twenty-first century, it experienced its first leadership change in more than six decades. In 2012, Bud Bird retired after taking over the company in 1946 when his father, Hobart Bird, suddenly died. Bud’s daughter, Martha Cox, immediately took over his role as company president and CEO.
As a third-generation employee of Columbia Steel, Martha was no stranger to the operation. She started her career in the company’s accounting and data processing department in 1972 while pursuing a master’s degree in finance. Before taking over as president and CEO, Martha worked her way up through the company like many other people at Columbia Steel. From the accounting department, she became the IT Manager and then CFO. By the time she assumed leadership, Martha had been with the company for nearly 40 years.
That experience helped Martha lead the company through its most significant challenge since a fast-moving fire nearly destroyed the company in 1957. In early 2020, COVID-19 began spreading worldwide, forcing many businesses to close temporarily. Fortunately, the government designated Columbia Steel as an essential business and allowed the company to remain open. However, access to scrap shredders, cement plants, mines, and quarries — the company’s core markets — was heavily restricted. International travel was also impossible, which put the company at a disadvantage to its foreign competitors.
Columbia Steel responded by investing in virtual training for its engineers and sales force to stay in contact with their customers, sharing product designs and enhancements. The company’s HR and safety personnel also maintained an environment where people could safely continue working. They kept up with the Centers for Disease Control, state and county health guidance, juggling shifts and break times to avoid overcrowding. Thanks to these efforts, the company kept the disease from spreading internally and continued serving its clients throughout the world.
2021 and Beyond
As Columbia Steel concludes its 120th-anniversary observations, attention turns towards what’s to come. The company will continue focusing on core markets and its unique ability to continue client innovation. Flexibility will also become more critical, with current production levels allowing for the creation of 2,000 new products every year. To continue that pace, the company will implement more sophisticated project management and quality assurance practices.
Conservation will also continue to be a priority. Reducing consumption will not end at Columbia Steel’s current level of recycling 50 tons of scrap steel, tons of foundry sand and approximately 1 million gallons of water every day. As the company pursues those goals, it will continue focusing on making the best product in the most efficient way possible.
A Focus on the Future
Of course, the true legacy of Columbia Steel’s 120 years is the people who’ve passed through its doors. Since 1901, the company has helped support thousands of families and infused millions upon millions of dollars into the city and community at large. Today, Columbia Steel employs about 250 people, some of them second and third-generation workers. By continuing to focus on the qualities that have helped Columbia Steel succeed for 12 decades — fourth, fifth and maybe even sixth generation employees will likely join the ranks. Their voices will help the Columbia Steel story continue into the next century and beyond.