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The Best Men You Could Imagine

The Best Men You Could Imagine

A 114-year-old company reinforces the timeless slogan ‘Newark Knows How.’

By Ty Boatman

Photography by Isaac Crosson

As Newark recasts itself as a 21st century city, reminders of its industrial heyday are fast disappearing. Only a handful of companies that were in business during the 250th anniversary are still in business this year as Newark celebrates its 350th birthday. And of those, New Jersey Galvanizing may hold the distinction of being the one that best illustrates what it takes to persevere during changing times.

New Jersey Galvanizing prepares, cleans and dips construction steel in molten zinc to form intermetallic, corrosion-resistant layers. The company opened in 1902 on Pacific Street with a single vat and a market limited to various small items, such as ice tongs. William Gregory was one of several partners in the operation, but over the years he managed to buy out the other owners and did well enough to send his son, William Jr., to law school. William Jr. left his Newark law firm after World War II to assume the helm at New Jersey Galvanizing. His son, Robert, has run the company since 1992, taking over from his older brother, who passed away.

Square-jawed and silver-haired, with a deep voice and magnetic personality, he could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood character actor. Everyone calls him Bobby. Bobby had worked for Proctor & Gamble before joining the family business in 1982. At P&G, he was in charge of all field operations, overseeing an army of test marketers trying out new products around the country.

“Proctor & Gamble was a master at developing administrative skills,� he says. “The coordination of new-products crews I did at P&G was a real asset when I came here in the 1980s.�

Soon after Gregory succeeded his brother, the galvanizing industry underwent a period of rapid consolidation. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when New Jersey Galvanizing was one of six galvanizing companies within a 100-mile radius. Now those five other companies are gone. What was once healthy competition soon turned cut-throat. A European company moved in and set up operations in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, as well as in Perth Amboy. They run modern, non-union plants that pay workers a third less on average, and do not come close to matching New Jersey Galvanizing’s benefits package.

In order to respond to this challenge, New Jersey Galvanizing identified a niche market that it was perfectly suited to serve: galvanized reinforcing bar, or rebar. Rebar is the ribbed steel rod that is embedded in concrete to enhance its structural strength. Steel is a great material to work with—it’s strong and workable and relatively inexpensive—its only flaw is that it rusts when exposed to moisture, which is why it must be cleaned and coated before it is shipped to a construction site. Galvanizing rebar accomplishes this very effectively and economically. The zinc coating is highly resistant to corrosion and, depending on conditions, can extend the life of steel by two centuries.

It is worth noting that galvanizing is more than a simple coating. It is a metallurgical process that creates a strong, zinc-steel alloy. Only the outer 15% is a coating.

The main competition to galvanized rebar comes from three other products: stainless steel, epoxy-coated rebar, and MMFX. Stainless steel is wildly expensive for major construction projects. MMFX, notes Gregory, doesn’t have enough history behind it (and is also in limited supply). The green, epoxy-coasted rebar you see at construction sites, has had a somewhat spotty history and is actually banned in some states. At about the time he took over New Jersey Galvanizing, these problems were just coming to light.

“That broke the market open for us,� he recalls.

The company’s galvanized rebar has since been used on several notable local projects, including the Pulaski Skyway, Verrazano Bridge and Tri-Borough Bridge, which was renamed in honor of Robert F. Kennedy in 2008.

Those turned out to be mere warm-ups for the mother of all galvanized rebar projects: the Tappan Zee Bridge, which connects Rockland and Westchester counties across the Hudson River. When the state engineers decided to go with this type of reinforcing material, New Jersey Galvanizing knew it stood a good chance of getting the job.

“This was the biggest project of its kind, ever, in terms of galvanized rebar, so we knew the challenge was going to be capacity,� says Gregory (left). “In the five months between bidding the job and when it was scheduled to be awarded, we had to spend a lot of money ramping up, not knowing whether we had the contract or not.

“Those were some nervous days.�

A stroll around the facility, located on four acres off Haynes Avenue across highway from Newark Liberty Airport and across the railroad tracks from Weequahic Park, has a time-travel quality to it. Galvanizing technology has gotten cleaner and smarter over the last few decades, but to the naked eye, there is still a “1902 feel� to the process. On one end of the main building are mountains of steel rebar of different widths and lengths, all bundled and tagged to identify which section of the Tappan Zee they will support. The steel goes through a cleaning and coating process in a series of vats, emerging bright and shiny at the other end of the building.

The men who work the machinery and tend to the vats are a cross-section of working Newark. The company’s 70 employees claim 15 different countries of origin. Many have worked at New Jersey Galvanizing since the 1980s. Ralph Smith (right) has been coming to work at this location for 48 years. When it came time to retire, he jumped on a forklift and has been operating one ever since.

“We have a 401k plan and pension program, so he could have retired very comfortably,� Gregory points out. “But he wanted to keep working. That’s the kind of people we have here. They are the best men you could imagine.�

The company, Gregory adds, also provides employees with free legal representation for real estate closings, estate planning and such, courtesy of his twin brother, Sam, a New York attorney.

Why go the extra mile for employees when your competitors gain an edge by hiring workers for $9 an hour? Because treating them right gives you an even greater edge, Gregory insists. He adds that, as Newark draws more and more start-ups and gets established companies to relocate, they will find a valuable workforce here. His advice?

“Invest in your people. Empower them. That’s my philosophy. Demand a lot from them and you will get a lot. You’ll find people who here are hard-working, honest and dedicated.�