Local precision metal manufacturer could be affected by proposed federal tariff on steel

This Tualatin-based manufacturing company has a new owner, new location and could be affected by the proposed federal steel tariff.

It's Northwest Fourslide precision stamping and wire forms, which manufactures anything that's a formed metal part, thin gauge metal or wire form.

Kershaw knives, Leupold scopes and Tektronix test and measurement equipment are among the company's Oregon-based customers.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Jan Mellinger, owner of Fourslide of Tualatin, says she is not sure yet how President Trumps steel and aluminum tariffs might afftect her family business.

"We have 160 customers and they're all over the place — Florida, we ship parts to China," owner Jan Mellinger said. "Originally our main customer was HP. When we started in 2000, they were 75 percent of our business."

When HP moved its entire printer division overseas, Northwest Fourslide lost three-quarters of its business over a couple of years.

"That was good because now we're so much more diversified, we don't have anybody over 10 percent," Mellinger said. "Any industry: automotive, medical, we do defense, aerospace. We don't always know where that final part goes — it might be a contact or a spring, we don't always know."

Especially for the military pieces. The company makes all of its components out of metals, so the steel and aluminum tariff proposal recently announced by the U.S. Department of Commerce will hit home.

"We buy more domestic metals than we do foreign metals, but it still affects the whole economy," Mellinger said. "The supplier last week was saying they hope that they don't raise their prices the same amount just because everybody else is. To try to take advantage of that and still raise prices — it will hurt. There are two sides to that and I don't know for sure."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Two big blue boards mounted in the new Tualatin warehouse showcase every single precision metal piece the company has ever manufactured.

Although no one knows the exact effects of the steel tariff yet, Mellinger said her suppliers are already saying it will affect pricing a lot.

"It would help us more to compete with China if they had a tariff on parts that came in and were a finished good — then we'd get more local work, and maybe people wouldn't go to China to get their parts made," Mellinger said. "I don't know if it's going to affect that at all, but they're not going to have to pay a tariff on raw materials to make the parts and ship them here — that's where we have a really hard time. We're getting closer to competing with China, but it's still hard."

According to Reuters, steel and aluminum users that depend on imported products not available from U.S. producers may have to wait up to 90 days for an exclusion from the Trump administration's new metal tariffs.

Currently to participate in the global economy overseas, Northwest Fourslide has to fill out standards of being an ethical employer, which includes questionnaire items such as child labor.

"Overseas suppliers, they have to ask. It doesn't pertain to us, but we still have to do it. It would be nice to have a more level playing field to bring parts back and make them here," Mellinger said.

Under new management

A few years ago, Tom Malolepsy, the former owner of Northwest Fourslide (based nearby in Tualatin at the time) was looking at his succession planning: he decided he didn't want to keep the business because nobody in his family wanted to continue with it.

"Finally one day, after working on it for a few months, I said would you consider selling it to me? I've worked here for over 30 years and hate to see it be gone," Mellinger said. "He thought about it, talked to his advisors and thought yes, we might go down that path."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Northwest Fourslides skilled workers create precision metal parts with their hands, tools and machines. Mellinger said the best way to find workers is a Were Hiring sign in the window — because of the low unemployment rate, the best skilled laborers are already employed.

It took a couple of years to get everything settled after the initial discussion, but as of Dec. 1, 2017, Mellinger became the official owner of Northwest Fourslide.

"I started (here) in accounting at the front desk," Mellinger said. "I got laid off from Nike, and (Malolepsy), he was very old-school and he hired me right there in the interview — I didn't have tons of experience, I had minor accounting experience, and there were only 10 employees at the time."

Since it was such a small operation, she was able to learn everything on the job about the inner workings of the business.

"I was able to learn the whole accounting process by doing it with a little help from a prior lady who did it," Mellinger said. "It wasn't like I was intentionally going into manufacturing, it was what was there and I learned it. When it (the company) was that size, there would be times I didn't have anything to do so I'd help in packaging, help do something — that's how I learned."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Rows of fourslides and other precision machines line the companys new warehouse floor in Tualatin.

Now in her late 50s, Mellinger's feet got cold after she decided to take the plunge to become a business owner.

"Do I want to just take my retirement and go? One of the determining factors was my husband, of course — he was excited about it," Mellinger said. "I don't want to do it all by myself. I talked to my two sons and daughter: is this something you'd be interested in? It's more than what I want to do on my own."

But her family was all-in, so Northwest Fourslide continues to be family-owned and -operated in Oregon.

"We purchased and moved in January: part of the sale agreement was Tom's family also owned the (former Sherwood) building," Mellinger said. "I wasn't able to purchase both the building and the company — the (former) building was twice as big as what we really needed. We didn't downsize, we right-sized. This building fits what we have right now."

With the change in ownership came the move for the firm: Now, they've relocated to a smaller center nearby in the Tualatin industrial district.

Talent discovery and retention

"You cannot find toolmakers, you cannot find operators, so we decided to start an internal apprenticeship program — we're having an apprenticeship for toolmaking and also one for machine operators," Mellinger said. "We always have an ad out for a fourslide operator. There's nobody who knows what a fourslide is, and to find someone is almost impossible."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Northwest Fourslide hires some skilled laborers from Exceed, which helps people with varying levels of ability connect with employment opportunities. Mellinger said the best way to find workers is a Were Hiring sign in the window — because of the low unemployment rate, the best skilled laborers are already employed.

Although there is a decent amount of toolmakers on the job market, this particular skill is very niche.

"There are a lot of toolmakers, but that doesn't mean they understand the fourslide," Mellinger said. "We're going to the community colleges where it's required in our apprenticeship program they take certain classes, it's a source for us to find people."

A sign in their window attracts skilled people who are already employed.

"It's hard and kind of crazy, but the best avenue is the job sign in the window: they already have a job, but they come and ask us," Mellinger said. "Right now unemployment is so low, people there are not always the ones you want to bring in. The best results are right off the street, or referrals."

Northwest Fourslide's sales are at about 25 percent of its machines' capacities, but is full-time work for all the employees — and there's currently a two-week backlog.

"Our plans are to grow, and we'd like to see every machine out there running to full capacity," Mellinger said. "We could really increase our capacity if we have trained employees and increased sales, but we can't do that right now — we're just trying to shore up what we have and make sure we're really efficient in the jobs that we do have."

By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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