Business Highlight – Onex: Heating up the Refractory Industry

“At Onex, Inc. our consulting services start with using the latest tools and technology to detect wear and tear of normal operations of a furnace. Left untreated these issues can begin heating unevenly and develop dangerous hot spots. The operator is often unaware of these conditions which lead to increased fuel costs, irregularities in furnace operations,  unsafe environments, and lead to catastrophic failures. FLIR thermography is a highly effective tool for diagnosing furnace performance by giving our technicians a visual representation of your furnace in real time.
With early warning, you have an opportunity to proactively correct issues before the equipment fails and you incur costly maintenance down time.
Using technology such as the FLIR Onex can help our customers cut their energy costs, increase operational efficiency, improve quality and create a safer work environment. ”

There’s a business in Erie, Pennsylvania, that’s heating up the refractory industry.  Meet Onex, Inc., a company that’s found its niche in a competitive metals market and is growing rapidly.

“The precast portion of our business has tripled over the last few years,” said Ashleigh Walters, President of Onex, Inc.  As a supplier of parts and materials to the metals industry, Onex’s growth has eclipsed the industry’s growth as a whole.

Onex distributes a product line of refractory materials including castables, ceramic fiber products, firebrick and insulating brick, mortars, and plastic refractories.  The company sells and maintains industrial furnaces, too, with a workforce of 46 full-time employees.

Onex began in 1966 as a refractory distributor.  In the 1980s, Onex started serving the heat-treating industries, as well as becoming a solutions provider for its customers.  In 1992, the company started building furnaces under their Blue Diamond Furnaces brand.

“What makes us unique in the industry is we offer full refractory and combustion service on metal processing equipment, as well as do retrofitting,” said Walters.  She added that all of their precast shapes are made in-house.

According to Walters, Onex is currently registered to do business in 11 states, but most of its customers are in the tri-state region (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York).  However, the company gets called to many sister plants throughout the US, Walters added.

According to Walters, weathering the most recent recession was tough, but her business has improved significantly since then.  “We make suggestions on how to improve a company’s equipment whenever we visit a site, and the businesses appreciate that.  It has resulted in us being referred to their sister plants,” she said.

Walters said Onex began a cultural change in 2014, shifting to a more democratic management style.  Mike Bleil, the company’s production manager, said he now begins the day by having a meeting with the workers in the shop, going over the “game plan” for the day.  “It’s a ‘your opinion counts’ meeting,” he said.

Megan Noonan, human resources manager for Onex, said, “Since Ashleigh instituted these changes, we all feel more human.”  Noonan added that professional training is done yearly, and that the company increases pay with increased knowledge. 

According to Walters, she and her management team also instituted lean manufacturing principles.  One benefit of that system is increased productivity, to which Walters attests.  “In the shop, for example, we keep the tools needed for a job by that particular work site.  This way, workers aren’t walking around the shop looking for their tools.”

One of the noticeable things about Onex is the “now hiring” sign at the front of the building.  There are many opportunities for various types of workers, according to Walters.  “We tend to keep workers once we get them; we have a low turnover rate,” Walters said.

“If anyone has masonry experience, or past jobs working with form building, that person would fit with what we do,” she said.  Even though the materials used might be different at Onex than what a mason would be used to using, the process would be similar, according to Walters.

Regarding other job opportunities at Onex, Bleil said, “We are looking for general laborers as well as more skilled positions such as industrial electricians.”  Walters explained her hiring philosophy:  “We hire many families.  If mom and dad are hard workers, it’s likely that their children will be, too.”

Laborers in the shop might work in areas which are warm, but there are office positions available as well.  “We hire engineers and people with bookkeeping knowledge, too,” Walters said. 

One technical-certificate program that the Keystone Community Education in Oil City brokers is mechatronics, which Walters said is also a desired background for employees at Onex to possess.  “Industrial maintenance and industrial electrical skills would help with what we make in-house,” Walters said.

In 2016, the company moved to its current location at 917 Bacon Street in Erie.  With increased sales, a growing company, and a street named after a popular food, what’s not to like about Onex, Inc.?

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