If you’ve driven along the city of Erie’s West 12th Street corridor lately, you probably know American Tinning & Galvanizing.
The brick building at West 12th and Cherry streets has been adorned with a new mural every year since 2011. Robin Scheppner, company president, commissioned the first mural in honor of the company’s 80th anniversary. In the years since, the mural has changed to celebrate other aspects of the community, including the Perry 200 festival and the United Way of Erie County.
The current mural celebrates Erie’s manufacturing industry, proclaiming “Rust Belt? No way, think Robust Belt.”
The exterior murals might be new additions, but the business has operated from the same block since it began in 1931 – that is, since Scheppner’s grandfather, Fred Carlson, left his previous plating company and opened his own just down the street.
Carlson started his tinning business with just one employee, but growth soon followed – both in terms of expansion into different areas and into a larger portion of the space at 12th and Cherry. Today, the company’s divisions operate under third-generation owner Scheppner, who is the fifth family member to run the company.
The plant hums with activity, with workers busy using specialized techniques to provide protection on metal parts. In one room, aluminum pieces receive an acid bath. In another, heavier steel pieces are treated. The company no longer offers the tinning that remains in the name, but it has become a leader in galvanizing – using up to 40,000 pounds of zinc per month.
In the hot-dip galvanizing room, skilled workers use ropes and pulleys to send metal pieces through a vat of molten zinc – heated to over 835 degrees. This work is done by hand – not by automation, as it is at many other galvanizing companies, Scheppner says.
“This is a craft. It gets to the point where it’s almost intuitive” for the workers to tell when a piece is ready, she says.
Uniquely, American Tinning & Galvanizing also includes a fabrication division. The fabrication business got its start in the 1950s, when the entrepreneurial-minded Carlsons recognized that there was a market for the equipment – including racks and tanks – that was needed in the plating processes. That operation, Carlson Erie, lives on within American Tinning & Galvanizing today, and supplies not just internal operations but many external clients as well.
“Almost all of our competitors are also our customers,” Scheppner says.
About American Tinning & Galvanizing: The company specializes in anodizing, electroplating and galvanizing –all of which are metal finishing techniques used to prevent corrosion. In the fabrication department, the company is branching out and using plastics to create equipment for customers. The shelf life of plastic tanks is ten-fold that of the old steel tanks, Scheppner says. The company serves businesses in the Erie area but also competes for contracts, particularly in aerospace, from outside the region. American Tinning & Galvanizing has been accredited by the National Aerospace Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP), after a rigorous certification process. This accreditation “levels the playing field,” Scheppner says, when it comes to competing for aerospace contracts because it assures clients that American Tinning & Galvanizing has met the very precise specifications mandated for aerospace equipment.
Why Erie County: For Scheppner, one of the best parts about Erie County is the culture – generally friendly and helpful, with an emerging sense of a community coming together. There’s evidence of that in her latest initiative to boost the 12th Street corridor. Colorful signs have popped up along the street in recent months, thanks to a joint campaign by a group of 12th Street business. In addition, Scheppner appreciates that Erie County offers “the opportunity to make a great living” – and for her, that also includes the opportunity to “give a great living to 69 other people.”
Challenges of Erie County: Scheppner says that finding qualified middle managers is one of the largest challenges facing her business. She says that the company requires someone with both management skill and a knowledge of the metal finishings industry – a combination that is difficult to find. She is hopeful that in the future, a training program can be developed to teach both required skillsets.
Fun fact: When Scheppner’s grandfather left his previous company to open his own, he chose the name “American” so it would be listed first in the phonebook.