NJ steel company looks to expand with support from state
By PHAEDRA TRETHAN
Mar. 05, 2018
CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — When Mike Amato and his partner Alan Kanoff first visited the massive building along the Delaware River that would become their company's home, they found it already had some ... tenants.
"There were pigeons here as big as me," Amato, a not-small guy, said, laughing. "They looked at us like, 'What are you doing here? We're the residents!'"
Amato and Kanoff's company, Camden Yards Steel, has operated in the building since 2002 and, thanks to a generous tax break from the state Economic Development Authority, they won't have to fly south and leave the former New York Shipbuilding space to its feathered former denizens.
Giving a tour of the facility recently to a Courier-Post reporter and Camden County Freeholder Bill Moen, Amato talked about Camden Yards' operation and how tax credits will help the company expand — and add to its workforce of about 40 people.
"There's so much history here, it gives me chills," Amato said. New York Shipbuilding, at its height, employed more than 34,000 people in Camden, many of them in the massive structure where Camden Yards now exists.
Camden Yards, which has a smaller facility in South Carolina, wanted to remain in the building, which dates to 1898. Camden offered advantages few other places could: proximity to a river and a full-fledged port operation; easy highway access for trucks; rail lines that go right through the port, making for easy loading and offloading.
"We didn't take a big risk coming to Camden," Amato said. "We felt like this was home from Day One. We knew we needed to be in a port area. We knew we needed rails to compete. And how many existing buildings out there are 80 feet high and 110,000 square feet?"
The EDA money will help Camden Yards with equipment upgrades, as well as updates to the fire suppression system in the building, which it leases from South Jersey Port Corporation. It will also update its computer software and is building new office space that overlooks the manufacturing floor.
Crane operator Benjamin Ruiz, 25, of Camden, works to move 40,000 pound slit coils inside Camden Yards Steel Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 in Camden, N.J. The company makes an effort to hire workers from within the city, offering job training and sometimes even a trip to the bank to help open a checking account. Joe Lamberti/Courier Post
But, more importantly for the city, the tax incentives will keep the company from moving all its operations to South Carolina.
Camden Yards takes giant steel coils weighing as much as 80,000 tons and cuts the steel to specially sized sheets for use by HVAC, refrigeration and automotive manufacturers. The steel comes from both foreign and domestic suppliers and rolls in on rail cars, unloaded by South Jersey Port Corporation workers.
Amato didn't want to speculate how many jobs the upgrades might create for the company in Camden, but he and Kanoff said the capital improvements would mean they'd need to hire more workers.
"The ultimate goal is to become a 24-hour operation," said Kanoff. Adding a third shift means adding people to work the machines that measure, cut and package the steel. It means more crane and forklift operators, more workers to load and unload the raw steel from rail cars, more truckers to move the finished product to clients.
Jamal Whitfield lives in Whitman Park and worked as an automotive technician, but was frustrated because there was little room for advancement. His brother-in-law, who worked at Camden Yards for years, told him to apply.
After 7 months on the job, he's training to use new machinery and looking forward to becoming a father.
"There are a lot of opportunities here if you're willing to work for them," he said. "It can be tough sometimes, but you just have to stay focused and on task."
Omar Estevez worked in steel manufacturing since he was 17. The machine operator and father of three said the job "makes a big difference."
"I'm working so my kids can go to college someday," the Cramer Hill resident said. The days can be long, he said, but the work isn't that difficult.
Amato said Camden Yards hires through Labor Team, a staffing agency based in the city. Pay ranges from $14.50 an hour at the entry level to well above $20 an hour for more senior employees, and they offer generous health care and other benefits. Workers go through a 450-hour introductory period before they're considered for a permanent job.
"We've always been very cautious in our hiring," Amato explained. "But at the same time, we've never had to lay anyone off. Everyone is trained on more than one machine and they all train each other so we can keep turnover down and retain people.
"I always say, you can't steal talent. You have to pay people and keep them happy."
"The jobs created (at Camden Yards) are not like the ones in the tech or eds and meds corridor," acknowledged Moen.
"These are blue-collar jobs that require training, but are still more within reach than a lot of the technical and medical or educational jobs.
"Camden needs to have that dichotomy and cultivate it."
The port in South Camden is "a perfect ecosystem for companies to thrive and feed off their shared synergies," said Cooper's Ferry CEO Kris Kolluri.
A smaller company like Camden Yards, though not employing hundreds like a Holtec or Subaru, is still "so important to Camden, quietly creating jobs and changing the economic landscape of the city and the region," he added.
"Camden is not a city that's relying on just one sector to grow," Kolluri said. Its resurgence depends not only on rebuilding a manufacturing base, but also on continuing to develop the "eds and meds" backbone downtown and nurturing a new, entrepreneurial class of tech startups and small businesses.
"The city is relying on a multitude of sectors to ensure its resurgence is sustainable for the long haul, and includes more of its residents."
Camden Yards is repurposing an industrial building that would otherwise be a blight on the Waterfront South landscape, the last thing a city already pocked by abandoned buildings needs.
In 2017, more than 4.3 million tons of cargo passed through South Jersey ports, including Camden, Paulsboro and Salem, Kolluri said. It was the port's best year in terms of tonnage.
That's good news for Camden and for the region, he noted.
"This isn't a one-off," Kolluri said. "What's happening at the port is happening system-wide and it's not just one type of business. There's growth and there are different types of raw materials and finished goods coming in, which is reassuring."
Moen hopes Camden Yards' long-term use of a once-abandoned building, and its commitment to remain in the city is an example for companies big and small.
"It kind of ties into a weaving of Camden's history and its promise of tomorrow," the freeholder said. "There are these older companies and new entrepreneurs coming into the city, and Camden Yards is sort of both. They've taken an old building and used it for a new purpose, something that's symbolic of what's happening downtown," where an architecture firm turned an old bank building into a co-working space, and where Rowan University renovated another historic building into its alumni center.
Amato and Kanoff hope that, with new equipment, software and other improvements, they can expand on the 120,000 tons of product they now ship annually up and down the East Coast.
"There's a lot of business out there," Kanoff said. "We'd like to expand into the Midwest."
His business partner smiled.
"We'd like to sell steel to Holtec," Amato said. "We could put it right on a rail car and roll it right down Broadway."
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/