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Tippins' liquidation melts away part of steel history

| Saturday, July 12, 2008

Another page has turned in the history of the region's steel industry with the demise of Tippins Inc., a once-prominent rolling mill manufacturer and repair company based in Etna.

After about 85 years in business, documents filed in federal court in Pittsburgh show a Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation plan for the privately held company located at 434 Butler St.

John Thomas, president of Tippins Inc., could not be reached for comment Friday. Court documents listed debts ranging from $10 million to $50 million, but assets of only $1 million to $10 million.

The documents show the company has between 50 and 99 creditors, but didn't identify then. They do not indicate how many employees worked for the company.

"They were an important company in terms of developing technology for the industry," said Scott Robertson, of American Metal Market, a metals industry trade publication. He did not know why the company has suffered, but theorized it was from a previous downturn for the steel industry, which ironically, is now prospering.

Founded in 1923 as Tippins & Springdale Inc., a small company that bought and sold coal power plant and coal mining machinery, the company eventually evolved into a major supplier of new and rebuilt equipment to steel and other metals industry customers throughout the world.

It was driven to its peak by the late George Tippins, son of founder Leon H. Tippins, who first redirected its business focus from coal into the supply of steel mill equipment after joining the company in 1946.

"The company developed very innovative technological solutions for the industry, most of them created by George Tippins," said George Knapp, president of Tippins Industries Inc., a holding company for other Tippins family interests.

"His innovations really helped the company compete with all the "biggies" in the industry throughout the world, particularly companies in Germany and Japan, their primary competitors."

However, members of the Tippins family have not been involved with the business since 1998, when George Tippins' two sons, William and John, sold their remaining 60 percent interest to Thomas, a member of the senior management team since 10 years earlier, Knapp said.

At that time, the company's employment was listed at over 300 with sales of about $115 million.

"What has happened since, we really don't know," Knapp said.

"I don't know what happened, but I believe employment there has been dropping for some time," said Mary Ellen Ramage, borough secretary in Etna. Ramage said the borough has not had contact with the company for some time.

At the time it was sold, Tippins Inc. was marketing a coil plate technology that allowed continuous coiling of steel plate, Knapp said. "It was quite innovative, but we were faced with was an option of investing substantially or selling it."

George Tippins was ailing, and the decision was made for his sons to sell the business to Thomas, who already held the remaining 40 percent.

Tippins, who died in 2005, also is credited with helping save Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp., now part of Allegheny Technologies Inc. It was in 1980 that he backed a management-led buyout of the specialty steel business of the former Allegheny International Inc. led by Richard P. Simmons. He served as board chairman and majority owner of the company from 1980 through 1986.

In 1984, Tippins founded Tuscaloosa Steel Corp. in Alabama, based on his patented design that more efficiently produced steel plate in coils, and sold the company in the early 1990s to British Steel.

Today, the Tippins family interests include Pittsburgh-based Stonewood Capital Management, a private equity firm, where Knapp, a long-time family adviser, serves as chairman; the Tippins Foundation, and Tippins International Inc., a company that is involved in real estate.

None of those entities are related to the bankrupt Tippins Inc.

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