Editor’s note: This story first published on Dec. 8, 2019, following the announcement of Cleveland-Cliffs’ acquisition of AK Steel. It is being republished because of the topic’s importance in Butler County.
Since its beginnings in 1899, the success and fortunes of the company now known as AK Steel and Middletown have been largely intertwined.
When George M. Verity founded the American Rolling Mill Co., better known as Armco Steel, Middletown was already flourishing with several paper companies and a tobacco company, said Sam Ashworth, local historian and former Armco Steel employee who worked there from 1964 to 1979. He said it took about a decade before Armco found its niche providing steel for cars, appliances and other products.
“That’s when things took off,” Ashworth said.
The company saw the next major step in its history last week when Cleveland-Cliffs announced it was acquiring AK Steel. Officials said the AK Steel name and facilities will remain in the region, but after 120 years, it will be a subsidiary of a parent company.
That caused many in the community to reflect on the steel company’s history in Middletown, including its twists and turns, and ultimately how important the business and city have been to one another.
Ashworth feels that Verity’s early actions with his employees was inspired by his father, a preacher, to carry on his work to feed and take care of his flock. Verity believed that by taking care of his workers, he would have better workers and that would filter into the community, Ashworth said.
Others in the community felt that Middletown was “a company town” for most of the 20th century. However, Middletown enjoyed a lot of amenities that Armco provided. As Armco became successful and wealthy, the city benefited. The company’s influence led to amenities such as a downtown hotel for its clients, a park off Manchester Road, another employee park in Warren County, and a regional campus of Miami University to the community.
Ashworth remembers receiving a brochure when he was hired that Verity prepared in the 1920s that encouraged all employees, from executive leadership to middle management to the workers in the mill, to be involved in the community.
Even after the company moved its headquarters to New Jersey in the 1980s, many workers and retirees continued their involvement in events and organizations, from knothole baseball to the local school board, City Commission and state elected officials. The company had a presence on other boards such as the United Way or YMCA. On Founder’s Day, employees did community service projects. The company still has a scholarship program for the college-bound children of employees.
While Armco rarely weighed in publicly on issues, representatives used to attend public meetings as needed. But if the issue was important enough, the company’s top officials weighed in publicly.
Richard Wardrop, then chairman, president and CEO of AK Steel, did that in 2002 when Middletown Regional Hospital officials were determining if they should relocate the new hospital in Middletown or off Greentree Road in Monroe. Wardrop took the public stance to urge relocating in Middletown. The hospital later relocated what became Atrium Medical Center near the Ohio 122/Interstate 75 interchange that opened in 2007.
Over the last 120 years, the company has been there to help the city. In 1913, Armco lent its locomotives to help clear debris from the 1913 flood to providing a multi-year grant to build a splash pad at Douglass Park and subsidize the Sunset Pool operations in 2007.
That is still the case today as one example is the “Grandpa Gang” that sets up the annual Light Up Middletown holiday display is composed of many Armco or AK Steel retirees.
Tom Brickey, who worked at Armco/AK Steel for 33 1/2 years before retiring in 2007, said the company encouraged civic participation and was striving to be a good corporate citizen.
“It was quite common to see people at all levels taking part in many organizations,” he said. “I did so because I was interested in it.”
Brickey said many Armco/AK Steel employees would be active in major community events such as the former MiddFest and All-American Weekend and provide employees to set up the event, provide equipment and hook-up electricity or other utilities.
“In my opinion, I don’t see a time when the company won’t be involved in the community,” Brickey said. “They’ve been good to each other. If you look back over the course of time, you’ll find a long history of a relationship and involvement of its employees with the city. They have always believed in being a good corporate citizen.”
Ted Pollard, a retired Middletown Journal reporter, covered Armco Steel and AK Steel in the 1980s and 1990s. He said there was a time when one in five houses in Middletown was the home of an Armco employee and another 10 percent housed retirees.
“There were also rumors about Armco getting sold and people would call their real estate people about selling their house,” Pollard said. “When Armco coughed, the entire community felt it.”
He said when the company headquarters moved to New Jersey in the 1980s, the community lost a lot of leadership.
There are numerous reminders of AK Steel around the city. The AK Steel Pavilion, an outdoor music venue, is located on the banks of the Great Miami River, and the soccer fields at Jacot Park are named after AK Steel because its foundation donated $250,000 of the $1 million needed to renovate the park several years ago.
One of the schools in Middletown was named Verity Middle School in honor of George M. Verity, the founder of the steel company. The school has closed, been purchased and renovated by a local church.
When Dan Sack was hired at Armco in 1968 after serving in Vietnam, he lived in Cincinnati and his supervisor “strongly encouraged” him to move to Middletown. He applied for a VA loan and was told the paperwork could take at least 90 days.
The seller didn’t want to wait.
So Armco “floated” Sack the money for his down payment, and once the loan was approved, he paid his employer back.
“That was just the kind of stuff they did back then,” said Sack, who retired as public relations manager in 1992.
During his first evaluation, Sack said his supervisor asked if he was serving on any committees in Middletown. Sack took that as a hint, so he joined the Middletown Area United Way board, eventually serving as chairman of the communication committee.
Now Sack and his wife, Fran, are two of the most active people in the city.
He said Middletown and Armco/AK Steel have always been closely connected.
“That was baked in the cake from the beginning,” he said.
Armco also took time to recognize new mothers whose husbands worked at the steel mill, Sack said. He said a red rose was placed on the new mother’s tray every day she was a patient at Middletown Hospital.
When Sack, 74, heard about the sale, his first concern was his pension. He has been assured his retirement is safe.
Now he hopes the new company continues to allow AK Steel and its employees to be active in the community.
Lisa Jester, AK Steel spokeswoman, said the transaction in which Cleveland-Cliffs acquires AK Steel is expected to be completed in the first half of 2020, subject to approval of shareholders of both companies and regulatory authorities.
“The transaction presents an opportunity to create a premier North American company by combining Cliffs, North America’s largest producer of iron ore pellets, with AK Steel, a significant producer of innovative flat rolled carbon and stainless and electrical steel products,” Jester said in an email. “The Cleveland-Cliffs and AK Steel’s businesses are highly complementary, and the combined company will benefit from a more diversified base of customers, high value products, and less overall emphasis on commodity-linked contracts.”
Jester said, “As part of the integration process, we intend to consolidate overlapping corporate functions, reduce duplicative overhead costs, and procurement and energy cost savings, as well as operational and supply chain efficiencies.”
She said they do not anticipate facility closures as part of the expected synergies. “This transaction is focused on growth. We also plan to maintain our presence in West Chester and at our Research and Innovation Center in Middletown and of course to continue to make outstanding steel products,” she said.
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