Faircast's Fresh Start

Brian Sandalow, Associate Editor

The staff at AFS Corporate Member Faircast (Fairfield, Iowa) didn’t really have a name for it, but it was a period that defined the company.

For the first three months after the facility was bought out of bankruptcy in the summer of 2017, Faircast was doing everything it could to get by. Workers were being re-hired, relationships with customers and suppliers required mending, much-needed capital investments were being planned, and just enough castings were being produced to keep clients happy.

It was a hectic and pivotal time for the company. If the effort had been unsuccessful, the restarted foundry likely wouldn’t have survived past the first quarter of its new life.

It did.

“Everybody pulled together and made it happen,” said board member Roger Vorhies.

In June 2017, the foundry (then known as Fairfield Castings LLC) had stopped pouring, was in foreclosure and the facility laid off the bulk of its 220-person staff. A plant that had roots going all the way back to 1892 was going to whither away and disappear, tearing a chunk of employment from its community while inconveniencing its customers in the agricultural, railroad, military, construction and industrial sectors, among others.

But a group of 13 local investors, nine of whom had business dealings with the foundry, came together to buy the dormant plant that restarted on July 6, 2017. If they hadn’t, it would have negatively impacted several local businesses.

But that wasn’t the only reason the foundry was saved and rebranded. The investors wanted to keep jobs in Fairfield.

“There’s great people and great ownership,” Vorhies said.

The first three months were crucial to the long-term survival of Faircast. That survival was partly helped by built-in strengths of the foundry, and the staff already in place.

The First Three Months
When the plant was bought out of foreclosure, the investors inherited a lot of the issues left behind. The sand system controls needed to be updated. Unexpected scrap issues cropped up, and the cupola baghouse was overheating. Molding machines are slightly aged and need updating.

But another issue was more intangible: trust.

Customers didn’t know whether they could believe in Faircast, even after it was bought and rebranded. Some had even taken their patterns out of the foundry and found new casting sources. Following the restart, one major customer had lengthy daily check-ins on Faircast to see whether they were casting their components.

Meanwhile, a few suppliers were owed money and didn’t want to do business with the new ownership of a foundry that had $5 million worth of unsecured credit. There were suppliers who preferred only to take cash from the plant.

Even the local phone company was wary of Faircast, highlighting the challenge ahead for the staff.

Like many of her colleagues who had been at the plant for years, production/operations manager Jennifer Wilson was counted on to sell the new Faircast to old contacts. Customers knew her, like they knew scheduling supervisor Jennifer VanCamp and others. During the end of the previous ownership, they weren’t able to keep people truly informed of what was going on.

So when they got the chance to use their contacts, their relationships helped.

“One phone call, one project at a time,” said Wilson. “Customers were in a panic. I had to remain calm.”

Wilson and VanCamp and others did things the old-fashioned way. If they needed to get in touch with a customer or supplier, they were willing to fly to meet them.

One pitch was to give the company a chance, that if Faircast got an opportunity it would deliver. There were reassurances about the new owners, that these were local people invested not just in the company, but the community.

“All of the comfort had to come from us, saying these guys are serious,” Wilson said. “They want to keep the foundry running.”

“Once suppliers found out the owners were local, it opened it up,” VanCamp said. “We built a level of trust by being open and honest with them. For the biggest suppliers, that’s what it took.”

That also helped with another group of important people who needed reasons to trust: the employees.

The workers had been put through upheaval. They saw their company go through bankruptcy and questions about its future. And those questions meant concerns about their own futures.

Makenzie Zeitler, the EHS/human resources manager, said employees felt like they needed a voice. To make sure it is heard, owners and management spend time on the shop floor, hearing what workers have to say. Incentive programs and monthly lunches reward the staff for their efforts. An open-door policy assures employees a chance to have input.

“The owners have tried to make sure employee morale is much better than it was before,” Zeitler said. “Morale is a huge component of this company. A place that people want to come to work is a big deal.”

The investors were aware of that. They knew getting as many workers back as possible was a “big deal,” though a few employees were lost to other companies.

As of now, there are around 120 employees at Faircast.

That number isn’t what it used to be, but it could be much worse.

“It was wonderful to have all of that experience come back,” Wilson said.

The trust has come back, too. But it wasn’t easy and didn’t happen overnight.

“Employees trusting us has been one of our biggest complications and hardest obstacles to overcome,” Zeitler said. “Now they feel completely content we’re going in the right direction.”

Clearly, Faircast is on the right path. And it’s headed that way thanks to some of the long-standing strengths of the facility.

Quick and Agile
Though it was clear plenty of work needed to be done, Faircast and its new owners had a strong foundation to build on.  

The green-sand casting job shop pours gray and ductile iron, melting around 90 tons per day. The ductile iron is melted with an induction furnace, and the cupola is coke-fired. Faircast uses both shell core and isocure. On site are three vertical molding machines that can produce parts in both ductile and gray iron, along with three B&P match plate molding machines. For low-volume applications, there are two squeezers and two rota-lift manual molding machines.

That the facility has induction melting and a cupola means it’s versatile. Faircast can change jobs several times per day and because of that, the customer base is diverse. The largest customer makes up around 8% of business.

Faircast also has a system on its ductile inoculation that ensures iron is treated to the prescribed specifications. If it’s not, the system shuts down and a supervisor sees whether the iron is actually good. If it’s not, the alloy is adjusted.

Installed around 2012, the system prevents poor iron from getting into castings.

As for the master melt, that is where alloys are injected directly into the cupola and into the iron solution. Faircast does it continuously, allowing for complete control of the chemistry of the metal coming from the cupola.

Right now, it looks like Faircast’s chemistry as a whole is strong.

They’ve added a modern baghouse to clean the air, and there are plans to invest in new molding machines over the next 3-5 years. The customer base is stabilized, and the sales force is selling the company’s merits, not just asking for trust.

The first three months are in the past, which everybody relishes. Vorhies’ emotions bear that out.

“It’s somewhere between relief and planning and looking to the future,” he said. “Just exciting.” 

Click here to see this story as it appears in the December 2018 issue of Modern Casting.