From laborer to machine shop chief

At the turn of the century, Ken Mebane was the facilities director at Colonna’s Shipyard in Norfolk, Va. He spoke with his boss Bill Colonna Jr. about the possibility of starting up a standalone machine shop in the yard.

“We thought we could support it given the scope of the machine work we already had and the depth of talent here,” Mebane said recently. Colonna’s formed Steel America and Mebane now runs the facility.

Today, Steel America employs 160 people and has 58,000 sq. ft. of indoor fabrication space along with a machine shop featuring a CNC lathe that extends to 130′ with a 200-ton capacity.

Steel America specializes in heavy machining. Simply put, they make very large and heavy items out of metal to extremely close tolerances. The facility built the giant and complex caisson gates that were used to drydock the USS Constitution in Boston. Steel America also builds for power plants and machines the shafts of aircraft carriers.

Mebane credits the apprenticeship program at Steel America for its continued growth. There are currently 62 people enrolled in the training program that includes a welding school and certification program. As the average age of welders in the U.S. climbs, Steel America’s strategy of training and retaining is crucial.

“Colonna’s and Steel America believe in growth from within,” said Mebane. “Look at me. I started here as a laborer earning $4.12 an hour and just kept moving up.”

From a suggestion to start doing outside machine work to building 150’x60′ caisson gates is a long way to come in 15 years. “Looking back, I didn’t even realize how big we were getting,” Mebane said with a shake of his head.

About the author

Kathy Bergren Smith

Kathy Bergren Smith has been a correspondent with WorkBoat since 2002. She is also a writer and photographer for the Port of Baltimore Magazine covering shipping and port activities. Smith, also a noted commercial and fine art photographer, resides in Annapolis, Md.

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