LEWISTON – As the incandescent light bulb began to disappear from our lives in the early 2000s, Philips Elmet’s future was not so bright.
Parent company Philips would phase out production of tungsten filament bulbs in favor of more efficient LED bulbs as consumers begin to make the switch. This, in turn, reduced the importance of the Lisbon Street manufacturing plant to the Dutch-based conglomerate. After 60 years of owning the installation, Philips Lighting wanted out.
Fortunately for the employees and the factory, the company has always produced non-illuminated products. “We were able to survive as a stand-alone company without making light bulb filaments,” said Marc Lamare, vice president of sales and marketing at Elmet Technologies. “Thus, in the early to mid-2000s, Philips authorized the takeover of the company by the management team of the time, with a major majority investor: Jack Jensen.”
Jensen was Philips’ vice president of sales and marketing for the lighting division and was originally from Maine. At the time, he reportedly said the company’s lobby was “old, run down and tired” and reflected the company’s old-fashioned industry. He therefore revamped the hall and the image of the company, emphasizing innovation and technological growth.
BACK TO BASICS
Lamare, who has worked at Elmet for 39 years, said it was time to get back to basics. For Elmet, bases are two metals from the periodic table of chemical elements: tungsten (atomic number 74, symbol W) and molybdenum (atomic number 42, symbol MO). These are the two central elements around which the company bases the majority of its products.
Tungsten is the strongest metal in the world with the highest tensile strength. It is very dense and has the highest melting point of all metals. Molybdenum has similar properties, but to a lesser degree. Elmet Technologies is very familiar with tungsten and molybdenum and is the only fully integrated US manufacturing facility for flat and round tungsten and molybdenum products.
This gives them a huge advantage, because there are very few other sources of pure tungsten and molybdenum in this country, especially owned and operated by the United States, and the applications for the metals are huge and growing rapidly.
Elmet has the experience and machinery to take tungsten and molybdenum powder, which is semi-refined, and process it into wire, plate, sheet and foil, cubes and spheres. It does this by rolling it under pressure and heat treating it. The company also manufactures alloys from the metals as customer demand and applications increase.
Lamare said that historically the biggest market for these products was for high-temperature furnaces and it still is today. When one door closes, another opens.
As the demand for tungsten filaments for light bulbs has died out, semiconductors have largely supplanted vacuum tubes, although tubes are still made and used in some applications. Semiconductors are made from tungsten and molybdenum, and with no less than six companies building nine new chip factories in the United States, you can expect strong demand for these materials.
Intel is building four factories in the US, Micron is building a massive factory in New York, Samsung is building a factory in Texas, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is building a factory in Arizona, GlobalFoundries plans to build a factory in upstate New York and Texas Instruments opened a factory in Texas.
Tungsten and molybdenum also have applications in the medical field. Their density makes them effective at blocking X-rays, so they are used in imaging devices and radiation oncology equipment. And their high tensile strength – meaning they don’t stretch easily – make them sought after for the growing application of surgical robotics being pursued by major companies such as Stryker, Medtronic, Intuitive Surgical and Johnson & Johnson. .
OWNERSHIP CHANGES LEAD TO TURBULENT TIMES
Elmet Technologies experienced two other ownership shake-ups, one in 2006 when a sale to a Boston company fell through, and another in 2008 when private equity firm Liberty Lane Partners took over. Liberty Lane Partners has invested heavily in a potential Apple switch to a new type of phone screen called sapphire crystal, which is made in high-temperature furnaces made from tungsten and molybdenum. But when Apple shut down the project at the last minute, Elmet was left with millions of dollars worth of tungsten and molybdenum purchased in anticipation of the change.
Essentially, Liberty Lane Partners handed over control of Elmet to the banks, whose goal was to recover as much money as possible. They marketed it, but the only potential buyers wanted to sell off the assets and close the doors.
“It was a time when the business was very likely to fail and disappear,” said Elmet chief financial officer Derek Fox. The bank was about to be liquidated and the management team was nervous.
“Employees didn’t even know what was really going on behind closed doors,” Lamare said. “We were afraid to show up and find the doors locked by the banks.”
Lamare said the management team at the time knew the company had more potential as a permanent entity and did not want the approximately 150 employees to lose their jobs. They found Peter Anania, chairman and president of the Portland company Anania & Associates Investments Co. Talks began in December 2014 and on January 23, 2015, Anania & Associates was the new majority shareholder and remains so today.
In 2020, Anania & Associates acquired another Lewiston-based manufacturer, Poly Labs.
Lead investor Peter Anania likes to say “we don’t flip companies”. Instead, he said, they enjoy helping a business grow, create value and create jobs in Maine.
Over the next seven years, Elmet Technologies did well, according to Lamare. “We’re profitable, we’re growing like crazy.”
Elmet Technologies has 170 employees at its single production facility in Lewiston and aims to grow to 225. The company has 25 vacancies and is willing to train people for them. Starting pay is over $20 an hour with a full benefits package and no college degree required.
Like virtually every business today, hiring enough people remains a dilemma. The CFO fears they may have to turn down millions of dollars in business if they can’t hire enough people. One client actually offered to send workers from one of their facilities to help get the job done.
Elmet’s human resources manager said applicants just need to want to work hard, not physically hard, but work hard. Some basic math skills will also be helpful.
With the right staff, the company’s future looks bright.
“A lot of what we were able to do was build on existing customers and expand their offerings,” Lamare said, noting that Elmet’s online presence draws dozens of inquiries every day from the whole world.
The company supplies engineered products and materials to the military and defense industries and, combined with aerospace, is the fastest growing market for the manufacturer. When an Alabama company selling tungsten closed down a few years ago, Boeing had to find another source and came knocking on Elmet’s door. The aerospace giant remains a customer.
Lamare said the development of alloys has expanded their offerings and opportunities, as they are cheaper and easier to work with than pure form.
In 2019, U.S. Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, helped Elmet Technologies secure a $4.2 million contract from the Department of Defense to develop tungsten heavy alloy and molybdenum products for the military.
Elmet also manufactures components for diodes and builds a dedicated proprietary production line for a medical original equipment manufacturer. How they do it is secret and they are held to strict specifications. There are other new apps that are also quiet – things that management said they couldn’t discuss at this time.
Speaking of secrets, Elmet officials said they are working and supporting the “next level” of alternative energy development, but won’t say what or with whom.
“The people at this company have always been customer focused and delivering quality products, working hard, leveraging technology,” Lamare said. “I think that’s been the driving force behind this business for a long, long time, before I even got started. . . and I really think that’s what helped us stay here and succeed.