By 2013, Kirk J. Lewis had 22 years in automotive and steel businesses. He embraced a vital role in municipal government, serving as deputy mayor of Detroit from June 2011 through February 2013 — which is why everyone was surprised when he left sweet home Motor City for a new life in the Magnolia State.
He was age 52 and chartering a new direction in automobile manufacturing. This is the world he knew, learned and grew with. Most of his career was spent with Ford, Toyota and the parts that assembled them. It still would be.
In addition to automobiles and municipal service, his resume includes president of Integrated Supply Chain Solutions and accountant with Price Waterhouse. But now the direction pointed South, way south, to Blue Springs, Mississippi. Michigan wished him well.
“Kirk has been an important part of my business career as well as my tenure as mayor, ” says Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, in a 2013 written statement, addressing the departure of his friend and business partner. “He has served well in both capacities. I know he has looked forward to getting back into the private sector. This opportunity is an excellent one, and I wish him well.”
Indeed, Lewis looked forward to the private sector, but he also planned it. Before leaving Michigan, he entered into discussions with Toyota about a possible partnership with a new business. “We had discussed this for several years, ” he recalls about negotiations.
“Toyota wanted new site locations and a warehouse/supplier/manufacturer to service it. We put together a deal where I could be a part of it.” His part was 51 percent ownership with Toyota Tsusho America Inc. owning 49 percent. Welcome to Mississippi.
In March, 2013, the company president opened the business, named for the town it resides in, after a street he makes products for: Blue Springs Metals, Blue Springs, Mississippi, on Corolla Lane.
Products include flat, hot and cold rolled steel, exposed and coated steel products and more. The firm uses leading technology in a factory that is ISO/TS certified, and it’s recognized by the National Minority Supplier Development Council as a minority-owned business. Suppliers are domestic and foreign steel mills. Customers are automotive and oil and gas industries.
Much of Mississippi’s automobiles begin life in a 200, 000-square-foot facility, with about 65 employees. Blue Springs is a full-service steel processing center. About 95 percent of the business derives from one customer, but a really good one customer to have: Toyota.
“We supply Corollas, ” adds Lewis. “We live or die by Toyota vehicle volume. If Corolla’s market is strong, so are we.” Like all business, the path is not always predictable. Toyota’s market drives on smooth trails and sometimes rocky roads.
“There are challenges. It is hugely competitive, ” the Detroit transplant says. “We constantly monitor and develop ways to do the job better, cheaper and more efficiently. It is a constant drive that you go through. You must always know what is happening and going on with your customer base.”
Blue Springs is a rare company that benefits from higher gas prices. “When fuel costs go up, people turn to buying smaller fuel-efficient cars, such as the Corolla, ” notes Lewis. “The opposite is true when gas prices are down. But we are doing alright.” He adds: “We have the ability to flex with volume.”
In addition to Toyota, much of the remaining five percent of sales derives from Nissan. Blue Springs annual total sales are $160 million annually from three main operations — slitting, blanking and warehousing.
In slitting, 72-inch wide steel master coils are sliced into narrower coils “Think of a roll of paper towels being cut into smaller rolls, ” explains Lewis. “That’s the concept.”
In blanking, coils — rolls of steel —are stamped into flat shaped steel, eventually becoming pieces for the body of Corolla. “For example, a ‘blank’ may be formed to look like a car hood when viewed from above, ” the company CEO says. “But it’s flat and usually sent off for stamping and adding dimension to form a real car hood.” The same goes for most other car parts.
In warehousing, Blue Springs stores vast amounts of giant coils and other products in various stages of completion. It ships to both domestic and international customers.
The company also offers products and services for the oil and gas industries. Offerings includes Oil Country Tubular Goods — manufacturing tubes used in oil and gas production, such as threading, couplings, heat-treatment, transportation, inventory management and technical support.
Lewis is also president and CEO of Georgetown Metal Processing, a full-service inventory management, steel and aluminum processing facility in Georgetown, Kentucky. Both Blue Springs and Georgetown centers have similar processes, have the same type equipment, and often assist each other in jobs and production needs. He commutes a lot.
“Most of my work life is divided between Blue Springs and Georgetown, ” notes the company president of both. “I am usually found in one of those two plants at most given times.”
There are also partner plants in Indiana and Texas. Says Lewis, “Together, we have a broader reach.”
Blue Springs has grown but has not changed. “We do the same things today as when I came here four years ago, ” he adds. “Our team is highly trained and jobs cover many disciplines, like warehouse workers, electricians, maintenance technicians and machine operators. A challenge for the company was finding skilled labor.” Back when Blue Springs started, automotive jobs common in Detroit were almost unknown in Mississippi.
“When we got here, the car industry was not strong, ” says Lewis. “It was coming along, growing and evolving. In those days, furniture manufacturing was the big thing.
“We had some trouble before in attracting, keeping, and training good people but it got much better over time. Our employee base is stronger and our training efforts are much better, ”
Overall, he notes that Mississippi manufacturing has been good for him. Lewis was not a complete stranger when moving below the Mason-Dixon Line. His mother is from Mobile, Alabama. He has family in Detroit, too, where he visits regularly. And he laughs, “I have adjusted to Southern summers quite well. I do not miss Michigan winters.”
As for the future, Blue Springs has capacity for expansion and looks ahead to the possibility of a new Toyota manufacturing center — at press time, still undecided and still an undisclosed location. “Usually, wherever the automobile plant site’s location is named, supply businesses soon follow at the same place or nearby, ” notes Lewis.
He is confident that for Blue Springs, with a global customer base, “nearby” is within reach, wherever nearby is.
Employees, customers and community alike know the company’s creed, emphasized in its website and throughout the plant: “The mission of Blue Springs Metals is to consistently deliver the highest quality steel products, both timely and efficiently, to all of our customers while also supporting our community and team members.”
The challengers are many but so are the fruits, even beyond making money. “It has been immensely rewarding, seeing our team members grow and develop is a rewarding aspect of this business, ” says Lewis. “I want to introduce young folks in the area to the automotive industry. It is a viable job and a good career path.”
Lewis tells employees, prospective employees and the community the same thing he told his friends and co-workers when he left Detroit, “There are good jobs and it’s a good life, making cars.”
text By EMMETT BURNETT // Photos by JOE DE SCIOSE