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Tariffs complicate paint can manufacturing business

If you've ever bought a gallon of paint, there's a chance the can was made in Springettsbury Township by BWAY Corp., one of the largest manufacturers of metal paint cans in the U.S.

Tariffs, however, are driving up the cost of tinplate used to make the cans, prompting the manufacturer to consider sending some of its production overseas.

“We’re not doing that and don’t want to do that, but it’s an option we have to look at,” said Leslie Bradshaw, executive vice president of procurement and logistics for BWAY. “We’re still fighting the fight.”

In June, the U.S. imposed a 25 percent tariff on steel imports, forcing BWAY, like other manufacturers, to pass the cost onto customers.

The company has relied traditionally on foreign sources of steel, Bradshaw said. It would turn to U.S. sources, but tariffs have made those sources harder to find as they race to meet demand from other manufacturers.

The tariff-driven price increases have put a dent in the company’s competitive edge, said Bradshaw. Though BWAY isn’t looking to move its operations, it’s something it has had to consider as a result.

Based in Illinois, the company has 26 manufacturing facilities in North America and 5,800 employees – 130 of which are in Springettsbury Township.

What has made the tariffs sting even more for companies like BWAY is the fact that duties are levied on raw steel, not the final products. So if an overseas competitor decided to start making metal paint cans and shipping them to the U.S., the company could do so without paying any duties, said Lance Taylor, BWAY’s Springettsbury Township plant manager.

“That puts us at a big disadvantage,” Taylor said.

Instead of just sitting back and waiting for its customers to consider other options – or other companies – Bradshaw and Taylor recently recounted the effects of the tariffs on BWAY as part of a discussion at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association headquarters in Harrisburg. The forum, hosted by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), allowed companies to detail the impacts of steel and aluminum tariffs, as well as what happen as a result of further proposed tariffs on China.

How it's made

Whether it is for Valspar, Behr or some other brand, BWAY creates an entire metal paint can, from the lid to the handle.

The steel for the cans comes in coils shipped to a port near the company’s Trenton, New Jersey plant. There, workers unwind and cut metal into sheets the size of a pallet, explained Taylor.

When the sheets arrive at the Springettsbury Township plant, workers run machines that cut and roll the metal into cylinders. Each cylinder is then welded together, clinched to create a base and fitted with a ring. Each cylinder is also fitted with what’s known in the industry as “ears.” The ears are mounted on either side of the cylinder and hold the handle in place.

BWAY then provides the product to a paint company, who will fill the can with paint, connect the handle and seal the lid.

On any given day, BWAY could be making cans for a number of different paint companies. While Taylor couldn’t speak to the impact of tariffs on any specific contracts, it’s something he knows is coming within the next year. Every BWAY customer has a separate contract. Each contract is typically good for a year, Taylor said. As BWAY’s products rise in price, its customers will re-evaluate what that means for their customers.

“We know we need to be competitive and the steel tariffs are hindering us significantly,” Taylor said. “We’re going to do all we can here to continue being competitive here in York. If we can’t, we’ll have to look at other options.”

Those options, he said, could include alternative products. Paint may traditionally come in a metal can, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way, said Taylor. Paint companies may also consider using containers made from plastic or other byproducts.

What's next?

In the meantime, BWAY is working to ask the U.S. Department of Commerce to revisit its request to exclude its products from the tariffs on steel and aluminum. BWAY applied for an exclusion earlier this year, but was turned down, said Bradshaw. Though the company isn’t sure why, Toomey’s office is working with BWAY to see what else the business can do to navigate the current tariff regime, whose impact could grow.

President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he would impose a 25 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. Those items range from food products to steel and aluminum.

As a result, China has warned that it could hit the U.S. with $60 billion in retaliatory tariffs as early as September.

Those retaliatory tariffs would directly strike one of the commonwealth’s top industries: lumber, said Nicholas Bisaccia of Bingaman & Son Lumber, Inc. based in Middlecreek Township, Snyder County.

The company manufactures kiln-dried Appalachian hardwood logs, lumber, and strips as well as specialty-cut pieces, for furniture and cabinet manufacturers and small woodworking shops. Bingaman & Son Lumber exports its hardwoods globally, including to China.

“China is the primary consumer of American hardwoods. They take 60 percent of everything we can produce,” Bisaccia said.

The company’s exports to China, however, have declined since the trade war began.

Over the past month, he said $40,000 in deposits have been returned and 50 orders canceled. The market uneasiness has cost the company an approximate 10 percent loss in revenue and 25 percent loss in sales volume compared to the same period last year, said Bisaccia.

Toomey said he plans to relay stories like those of BWAY and Bingaman & Son Lumber to Trump to share how tariffs are threatening Pennsylvania workers and companies.

Manufacturing, though less of a behemoth than it once was, still employs 9.6 of the state’s workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

Toomey also hopes to advance legislation he co-sponsored that amends the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and requires congressional approval before the president limits imports that are deemed a threat to national security.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, according to Senate records.

“I will be taking the anecdotes I heard from BWAY and other Pennsylvania workers and companies that are threatened by actual tariffs or retaliatory tariffs,” Toomey said. “Both are doing real harm and the administration needs to hear that.”

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