Westmoreland County manufacturing firms find success in specialization
Thin, anise-flavored pizzelles are a traditional Italian treat — and one that may not have caught on in all corners of America if not for a Westmoreland County company that has made the irons that shape the distinctive waffle-like cookies since 1938.
Started by Italian immigrant Carmen Palmieri in his West Newton basement, C. Palmer Manufacturing is now run by the third generation of the family. It's one of a number of little-heralded businesses in the county that turn out a variety of far-reaching products — exemplifying the spirit of National Entrepreneurship Month and of American Made Month, both celebrated in November.
Palmieri's granddaughter, Darcy Smouse, is in charge at the C. Palmer plant in South Huntingdon, where a small, experienced staff can finish and assemble more than 130 aluminum pizzelle irons each day. Everything but the electrical elements of the irons is made in the United States, she said.
Over the years, the company has expanded its product line.
"We get a lot of work out of here," Smouse said. "In the fourth quarter, it's pizzelle irons; in the first two quarters, we do finials for aluminum fencing. Our camping line of sandwich toasters starts revving up in May and June."
The company also produces Belgian cookie irons, ravioli molds and pierogie makers. Hempfield's Biscotti Brothers uses the company's irons to make its popular pizzelles, Smouse said.
C. Palmer, which has a tool and die shop, has a symbiotic relationship with a more highly automated die casting plant in Oakland, Md., run by Smouse's brother, Phillip Palmieri.
"I rely on him to do my casting," Smouse said. "He relies on me to build his dies."
Little engines that could
Jensen Steam Engines is another long-lived family company that has found success with a unique product. The small Jeannette firm, in operation since 1932, makes miniature steam engines as educational toys and collectibles for hobbyists.
Its handful of employees includes Dorita Guy, a 31-year veteran who fields phone calls and assists with production.
Guy said the engines are built one at a time, using brass and steel.
"We sell to colleges and universities, and a lot to avid steam lovers," she said.
The company has a familiar backstory. It was founded by immigrant Thomas Jensen Sr., who arrived from Denmark and initially worked in his basement.
Guy said workers still use the original jigs and tools created by Jensen, but they've managed to streamline the production process with the reintroduction of the company's large Model 50 power plant. It's capable of producing one-tenth horsepower and lighting a small lamp.
"We have an order for 20 of them, and we have six of them out so far in about eight months," Guy said. "It used to take six months to a year to make one."
Most of C-K Composites' products do their work behind the scenes, incorporated into the products or systems of clients in the medical, industrial, utility or military fields.
President Allan Bartek said items made in the company's 80,000-square-foot Mt. Pleasant Township plant include cast resin bushings that transfer electrical power for large computer data centers and tubes made of wound fiberglass filaments that support sensors on MRI medical imaging machines. The fiberglass tubes are ideal for that application, Bartek said, because "they're very stiff and very precise."
The company developed one of its most visible products in 1979, in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration. Bartek said orange fiberglass towers that support approach lights at airports, including one in Columbus, Ohio, are designed to withstand high winds and snow loads but will break away if struck by the wing of an off-target plane.
"If it touches one of them, it will basically disintegrate rather than taking the airplane down," he said.
The company, founded in 1956, has survived several changes in name, ownership and affiliation. Since Bartek's arrival in 1994, C-K has doubled its staff to 50 employees. He hopes to continue that growth with a new twist on the company's original line — wood laminates.
He said a manufacturer of archery bows has expressed interest in the colored, extra-dense layers of birch wood, which also would be suited for custom gun stocks.
Belgian immigrant Patrick Mercier closed one door more than a decade ago, when he sold the company he developed to manufacture sensors for automatic doors. After a five-year noncompetitive agreement lapsed, he opened a new door, re-entering the same field as founder and CEO of Tucker Auto-Mation, based in North Huntingdon.
"I decided to come back to the industry, this time to manufacture the entire (automatic) door package," Mercier said. "I'm not making the sensors anymore. I buy them from my previous company."
Mercier won accolades for his entrepreneurship at his former company, which captured an 80 percent market share.
He hopes to repeat that success in the North American market.
"I'm trying to compete as a new start-up against all the big door manufacturers," he said.
The potential is there, he believes, noting North America is behind Europe and particularly Asia in the use of automated entry systems. He pointed out that U.S. public facilities, including many dining establishments, have an incentive to catch up because of national regulations on handicapped accessibility.
Mercier said Tucker's growing clientele includes hospitals and pharmaceutical labs, Duke University, Giant Eagle supermarkets and At Home retail outlets, He's angling for a chance to bid on door contracts for major construction projects by UPMC and at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, email@example.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.