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Level 1 Fasteners puts down roots, finds room to expand in Huntington

Sep. 01, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The largest building of a thriving glass factory that once provided hundreds of jobs in the Tri-State is again filled with the hum of a busy manufacturing plant.

Now breathing life into the warehouse of the former Owens-Illinois glass bottling facility is a company with no shortage of story points. Level 1 Fasteners is a bit of a rarity because it relocated to Huntington from across the country in the 1990s while many companies were doing the reverse. Also, it creates fasteners -- nuts, bolts, screws and more -- for projects as noteworthy as the U.S. Navy's new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, as well as being involved in the overhaul of the Navy's USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. It's done Navy submarines and work for NASA, including the Ares I rocket in recent years.

Over the years, it's also manufactured stock fasteners for military, aerospace, aircraft, medical and oil drilling applications. According to its website, which also is being overhauled this year, Level 1 Fasteners is approved by Boeing Rocketdyne, Lockheed Martin Marietta, Raytheon and others.

All this, and its new administrative offices have the makings of a fine art museum, which company President and CEO Jack Bourdelais said is a collection compiled by him and his wife, Angelina, who is quality assurance manager at Level 1 Fasteners.

Level 1 is a name that reflects the high standards of the Navy, which through subcontractors, is Level 1 Fasteners' biggest customer.

"Level 1 is something the Navy put into place that basically says you have to track this from start to finish," said sales associate Ben Thacker.

And that's what happens in the company's facility at 777 10th Ave. West, near the League 3 youth baseball field. Machinists take designs sent in by each customer and use automated C&C machines and other machines to shape the parts. Level 1 makes parts from a variety of metals, but the most common are the nonferrous metals of Monel and K Monel.

"We also do stainless steel, alloy steel, specialty work and titanium," Thacker said. All the parts are less than 2 inches in diameter, with the smallest being .1 inch or less.

The parts are then cleaned, treated to help them stand the test of time, and then they go to a lab, where inspectors put them through a battery of tests intended to break them down, just to make sure they hold up.

Every step is carefully documented before the parts are packed up and shipped to their destination, which is often Newport News, Va.

Bourdelais said he's not sure of the number of parts the company produces each year, but said it's high. An aircraft carrier requires probably 100,000 fasteners or more, Bourdelais said. The Challenger space shuttle, for which Level 1 did work in the 1980s, required 20 million fasteners.

The company's recent move from 300 3rd Ave. is a relocation that took months and brings an expansion from 109,000 to 250,000 square feet.

It's no small feat to move dozens of machines across town, taking a few months to get each machine down and back up again. But it pales in comparison to the move that brought the 54-year-old company from Los Angeles in the early 1990s. That move took 53 semis full of equipment, Bourdelais said, not to mention all the workers who came along. Many are still on board. Of the 27 workers who made the cross country trek, 17 are still there, Bourdelais said.

The move from California occurred shortly after the Rodney King riots, Bourdelais said. The plant was forced to shut down for three days, he said, and he decided it was time to move to somewhere with less crime.

There was a plant that made bolts in Huntington that was going out of business, and Level 1 decided to move into that spot.

The move "had its pluses and minuses," Bourdelais said. "West Virginia had the lowest crime rate in the country at that time. It's climbed a lot."

George Monge was among the machinists who made the original move in 1993 and is still with the company.

"It worked out pretty good for me. I can't complain," he said. "It's peaceful, easy living here. Less expensive. The weather I still don't care too much for, but there are more pluses than minuses."

The company has about 70 employees, and the skills they have are hard to come by, Thacker said.

"The knowledge set that these guys hold is so vast," he said. "They're really one-of-a-kind types of workers."

Machinist Jerry Smith has been with the company 13 years and said the company has been good to him and he enjoys the job.

"It's not for everyone. It's tedious," he said. "Not everyone can do this type of work. It takes a lot of experience."

They don't always know what the parts will help build, but there's a certain amount of pride that goes into doing work for the military, said Thacker, who spent years as a Naval Aviator.

The Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), is the first ship in the newest class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, set to be christened on Nov. 9. The Ford is a switch from steam-power catapults to electromagnet catapults used in launching aircraft. The Navy fleet, which has 11 aircraft carriers, will gradually transition to the new "Ford Class" over the next 50 years.

The USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) has begun its four-year overhaul, a process all Nimitz-class aircraft carriers must go through near the midpoint of their 50-year life cycle.

Level 1 Fasteners is in the largest building of the 30-acre Owens-Illinois complex, which includes 545,000 square feet of space in six buildings. It became vacant when SNE, a manufacturer of vinyl windows and patio doors, halted production in May 2008.

Now, the businesses there include Robert C. Jones Alloys and Koppers, a rail-products company that leases a small piece of land there.

United Wastewater Services moved its Nitro facility to the industrial center. The Cincinnati-based environmental services company specializes in the pre-treatment of non-hazardous industrial waste liquids and commercial recycling. Mission West Virginia, a Hurricane-based electronics recycling service, has warehouse space there as well.