October 01, 2017 4:00 am UPDATED 9 HOURS AGO
Werner G. Smith Co. is able to ‘switch with the times’
By JAY MILLER
It wasn’t long after D.L. Meckes and her husband, Bill Grulich, took over her family’s business, the Werner G. Smith Co. (WGS), in January that the pair learned the city of Cleveland planned to rezone the area near the company that included the Scranton Peninsula, a long-undeveloped area considered ripe for change.
The plan, as developed by the city’s planning commission, was going before Cleveland City Council for approval in April. It would have stalled expansion of WGS, a company that has operated on Train Avenue in the Walworth Run industrial area in the Flats since 1950, though existing facilities would be grandfathered in.
Walworth Run, where the original Standard Oil Co. refinery once operated, is near a growing recreational area where several under-construction bicycle and pedestrian trails — the Lake Link Trail, the 101-mile Towpath Trail and the proposed Red Line Greenway — converge along the Cuyahoga River. Also close by are two large parcels — one 20 acres, the other 25 — where developers are poised to create a new residential neighborhood.
“There are parts of the rezoned area that are meant to be green space, and you’ve got the residential potential,” argued Kerry McCormack, the Cleveland councilman who represents much of the near West Side, including the Scranton Peninsula. “But, also, you’ve got the people at Werner G. Smith.”
So council tabled that plan and came back in August with a revised plan.
“To (the planning commission’s) credit, they came back with a plan that would allow (WGS) to grow,” McCormack said. “I think it turned out well.”
Grulich and Meckes were relieved.
“The rezoning will allow us to replace our tanks,” Grulich said.
The pair took over the reins of WGS on the retirement of Peter Meckes, D.L.’s brother. She became president, with Grulich becoming CEO. They said the company’s sales are between $5 million and $10 million a year.
The business had been founded in 1914 by Werner G. Smith to sell sand for foundry molds, and it quickly became a processor of the vegetable oils used to harden sand molds. It expanded into processing other fats and oils, including fish oils, most especially sperm whale oil. Werner Smith sold the company to Archer Daniels Midland Co. in 1924 and ran the business for ADM until 1950, when he bought it back.
Smith was succeeded by Waldemar Meckes, his son-in-law and the father of D.L. and Peter Meckes.
Now, it’s the last vestige of the string of refineries that once ran up and down Walworth Run.
“It seemed like a really good business,” said D.L. Meckes at a desk in the office once occupied by her father and brother, which she now shares with her husband on the second floor of the site’s aging brick main building. “We’re very excited about the whole thing.”
“The whole thing” is a 10-acre site dominated by 80 oil storage tanks, ranging in size from 250 gallons to 110,000 gallons. Nearby are five reactors, or kettles, that process the oils by heating them to upwards of 500 degrees and injecting various gases — oxygen and nitrogen among them — to produce oils and waxes that go into Vicks VapoRub ointment, lip balms, cosmetics including lipstick, and other products and processes.
This is all new to Meckes and Grulich. Neither had been working in the business until Peter Meckes’ retirement. Instead, they had been involved in marketing and media. The pair were executive producers of “Ain’t Done Yet,” a 2013 documentary on the homeless shot in Cleveland that appeared on a number of PBS television stations, including WVIZ.
But they saw an opportunity to grow this family business.
“We’re really working in a big way to increase our capacity and grow our business.” Meckes said. “We’ve got technology that everyone else has forgotten about.”
Grulich said that one thing about this old technology is that most of their products use earth-friendly raw materials that are “bio-sustainable, bio-renewable and biodegradable.”
Added Meckes: “In everything we do, we’re looking to become a greener company. We’re very serious about that.”
To shape up the business, they are spending $2 million to upgrade the site. They’ve taken down some of the oldest storage tanks and upgraded the rail spur that is allowing the Flats Industrial Rail Road to bring tank cars of oil onto the site once again. They have also purchased several new reactors.
“I love Werner Smith,” McCormack said. “It’s a prime example of the kind of manufacturing we need to promote and to allow to grow.”
Grulich and Meckes have already grown the staff from 13 to 18, plus a number of part-timers, and they expect to add even more.
They also have begun, after years away, taking a booth at the annual trade show sponsored by the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers. Tribologists study friction and lubrication. Tribology is the science of interacting surfaces in motion.
WGS has been able to meet the demands of customers over the years by being able to adapt its century-old processes to 21st-century products.
However, they are uncomfortable talking more specifically about their expansion plans and the products they sell and are developing. Many of the company’s processes are proprietary and its products are often ingredients in the proprietary or patented products of others. So most of their customers require the company to abide by non-disclosure agreements.
But a look at patent records give some clue to the company’s customers and to the kinds of up-to-the-minute end products their oils and waxes go into.
For example, a 2014 Lubrizol Corp. patent for a “corrosion-inhibiting composition comprising a (diluting agent) and a mixture of organic salts of half ester-half acid” mentions a tallow oil obtained from WGS.
Similarly, an explanation in a recent patent filed by Allergan Inc., an Irish pharmaceutical company, for an ophthalmic product for dry eye (which fits the description of the company’s Restasis prescription eye drops) includes “Nonionic Emulsifier T-9.RTM, which is available from Werner G. Smith Co.”
“This business has had as its focus a number of products over the years, and we’ve been lucky,” Meckes said, as Grulich finished, “to switch with the times.”
The most critical rebound the company has had to make came in the 1970s, when the federal government banned the importation of sperm whale products. The company turned sperm oil into a product called Spermaceti, a high-volume product that WGS sold as a lubricant and as an additive to auto transmission fluid. A story in The Plain Dealer at the time, warning that the plant might have to close, said the company supplied 36% of the nation’s supply of sperm oil and that it accounted for 70% of Werner Smith’s business.
The story said the company was working off a three-year supply when importation ended. Fortunately, before its supply ran out the company developed a synth