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Ohio's Struggling Manufacturing Sector Finds Clean Energy Clientele

Bolt-maker Cardinal Fastener is a poster child for Ohio's manufacutring revival, with a new wind energy division that now makes up almost half its revenues

By Maria Gallucci

Mar 4, 2011
Wind turbine under construction

Tales of layoffs and cutbacks in Ohio's manufacturing sector are being eclipsed by a surprising new narrative, one of job growth and profits, as firms use old skills to court a new and 'greener' clientele.

Based just outside of Cleveland, is the epitome of the clean energy-driven manufacturing renaissance sweeping the Rust Belt state.

By adding a wind industry line to its production of hot forged bolts — which are used to build oil rigs, bridges, trains and construction machinery — the small firm has nearly doubled its annual revenues in less than four years.

Interestingly, the manufacturer's decision to enter the clean energy technology market was more happenstance than strategic.

John Grabner, who founded the firm in 1983 and is also CEO, received a desperate phone call in 2007 from a wind turbine company in Iowa. A European supplier had fallen through on an order of heavy-duty fasteners for the towers, and the turbine maker needed high-quality bolts — and fast.

Grabner filled the order, and then became "intellectually curious," he told SolveClimate News. He was soon reaching out to other turbine manufacturers and meeting with their suppliers overseas to familiarize his firm with the emerging wind energy market.

"We said, 'We need to structure our company to meet their demands and expectations.'"

Two years later, at Grabner's plant along his White House-bound inaugural train ride in 2009, during which he touted his plan for an and underscored the role of clean energy in creating jobs.

Grabner met Obama again last month as a participant in a small business forum at . While there, he also spoke with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who keeps a Cardinal Fastener bolt on his desk in Washington, the exact one the firm uses in its wind towers, Grabner said.

"The renewable energy industry is a cornerstone of [Obama's] reinvestment plan, and we were doing that and growing significantly in that," Grabner said of the 2009 visit.

'Poster Child' for Entering Clean Economy

"We're a poster child for how to grow a manufacturing company from what it used to be to what it needs to be," he continued.

Today, Cardinal Fastener's wind parts division has grown 900 percent since its first order and accounts for 40 percent of the firm's $10 million-plus yearly revenues. The venture added 25 new positions to its then 40-member workforce.

The company's bolts will be used in the 55 turbines built by , the Danish wind manufacturing giant, for a in northwestern Ohio by developer Paulding Wind Farm II LLC, a subsidiary of Houston-based .

The fastener maker also works with nearly 15 other turbine builders, including , a prominent Spanish firm, in addition to more than 100 global suppliers involved in the fabrication, transportation, construction and maintenance of the some 8,000 parts needed to build wind turbines.

Much like Cardinal Fastener, Ohio's are well positioned to add the clean energy supply chain to their traditional client base of automotive, aerospace and original equipment manufacturer, or OEM, industries.

Manufacturing Expertise Moves to Turbines

Manufacturing is the largest of Ohio's 20 industries and accounts for nearly 18 percent of the state's economy, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association in 2008. Ohio produced $84.1 billion worth of goods that year, ranking it third nationally after California and Texas for industrial output.

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