For over two hundred years, Revere Copper Products, an employee-owned company, has taken a lead role in American manufacturing. While it remains a key player in the supply chain, the company, like so many American manufacturers, has suffered as a result of various trade agreements. Recently, we enjoyed a wide-ranging interview with Revere Copper Products’ Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Planning Amy O’Shaughnessy in Rome, New York. And when we say ‘wide-ranging,’ we are not exaggerating.
We covered over two hundred years of company history; the evolution of the copper industry and the role it plays in today’s high-technology sector; the antimicrobial properties of copper; the company’s adopted charities, and issues which have resulted in lost manufacturing jobs. But first, back to the beginning and Paul Revere.
Every American schoolchild knows about Paul Revere (1734-1818) and his April, 1775 midnight ride, which alerted the colonial militia to the approach of British forces before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. But before and after his role as American patriot, he was a silversmith, an engraver, and an industrialist by trade.
He was also the first American to roll sheets of copper that could be used as sheathing on naval vessels, including ‘Old Ironsides.’ In 1801, he opened North America’s first copper mill, south of Boston, and the sheet copper produced there covered the wooden dome of the Massachusetts State House.
Although copper is known for its use on iconic buildings and in cookware prized by chefs, it is an essential element for continuing the technological advancement that is shaping the twenty-first century.
“The core principle behind copper,” says O’Shaughnessy, “is that it is one of the best conductors of heat and electricity because it doesn’t change its natural state. If you think of how our world has been electrified and where we are now in this day and age of electrification, there is tremendous growth opportunity for copper.”
Copper is used in in the radiators and electronics of the cars most people still drive. “But that’s only one-third of the amount of copper that’s needed for an electric vehicle, so think about the growth of electric cars that’s expected to take place over the next fifty years. There will be three times as much copper needed,” explains O’Shaughnessy.
“Then think about our smartphones and the data in our computers and the documents and pictures we save that are stored in the cloud,” she says. “That ‘cloud’ is not up there in space – it’s in data center buildings, which contain a lot of copper. Those facilities have to be powered and kept at a constant temperature – to reduce condensation – so you have copper going into the cooling systems, power distribution, transformers, and back-up generators. The continued electrification of our world requires more copper,” says O’Shaughnessy.
“Copper is also used in the architectural market on roofing, wall panels, on façades, in gutters and rain-spouts. The general population may not understand this, but copper will last as long as the structure underneath it is good, which means copper can last a hundred years on a roof. If owners are ready for a new structure, they can demo the building, save the copper and bring it back to our plant or any other plant. We put it in a furnace, melt it down and start over. Copper can be recycled over and over, so it never needs to go into a landfill.”
Using copper is far more green than people realize. “People are quick to label something ‘bad’ if it’s mined, if you are taking something out of the earth,” O’Shaughnessy says. “Now that we’ve taken it out of the earth, we can’t put it back, but we can keep reusing it. Also, technology is changing, and we’re learning how to make hyper-conductive alloys that use fewer pounds of copper today than would have been used twenty or thirty years ago. That has happened in the (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) market, for example, where the copper can be a light gauge coil that goes into a cooling unit, and the amount customers require has been reduced as engineers have found ways to miniaturize.”
Copper has antimicrobial properties, something that has potential implications for healthcare and foodservice industries. “There’s science behind this,” O’Shaughnessy says, explaining that, “if you were to place different types of bacteria on a stainless steel sheet, it keeps growing until you clean it, but if you put it on a copper sheet, it dies almost instantly.” There have been government-funded research projects to demonstrate this.
She explains that, “Our industry has worked relentlessly for twenty years to get our government to promote this. The biggest challenge is because we are making a claim that copper kills bacteria, it’s become designated as a pesticide under the EPA.” There is a tremendous amount of regulation that impedes progress. Regarding why it is not being used in hospitals and restaurants, O’Shaughnessy states, “Our industry has been frustrated by the lack of momentum and support on promoting the use of copper in these settings. Science tell us that copper’s effect can help save lives, as countless people go to hospital for one reason and leave with (or possibly die from) a hospital-acquired infection. Copper can help prevent this from happening,” says O’Shaughnessy.
“Antimicrobial copper has not gained the momentum we thought it would,” she says, “and so Revere needs to focus on what we can control and on the markets that are growing. We don’t make a single product that you will find on your local store shelves. Everything we produce has to be further fabricated by someone else. If it’s going on a roof, the contractor is going to do some work on it; if in a vehicle, we send it to a service center to slit and cut to length. It might be plated with tin or gold and then sold to another manufacturer who will stamp, punch, cut, bend, and/or weld it into something else. Our customers are part of the downstream manufacturing chain that further fabricates the copper products we make.” This makes Revere the start of a supply chain for a huge number of manufacturing industries and potentially provides it with a huge customer base.
In the heyday of American manufacturing, Revere Copper Products (formerly known as Revere Copper and Brass until the late 1980s, a public company) employed thousands of people, including four generations of O’Shaughnessy’s family. Her father Bruce Small worked his way through university there with summer jobs; her grandfather Rex, an electrician, and her great-grandfather, Rexford, a machine operator, made it a lifelong career.
She says it is not uncommon today to find others employed there who have similar histories; in fact, a direct descendent of Paul Revere worked for the company into the 1980s, and another descendant, a Boston attorney, represents the firm in some matters.
“When I started in 1999 at age twenty-one, we still had two plants, with 550 employees in this plant and another one hundred at the Massachusetts plant. Even then, we were struggling, because we’d already gone through the massive shift of manufacturing leaving the United States of America. How can that be good for our country, when our states lose their local base of good-paying jobs that support families and the surrounding community?”
Today the company maintains just one plant with 320 employees, which includes people in a variety of skilled trades and a large engineering staff – electrical, mechanical, metallurgical, and environmental. So while those employees are able to support their families, it is frustrating for company executives to consider how many more people Revere and other manufacturers could be employing.
“Free trade sounds great. Who wouldn’t want something that is free and works smoothly and where everyone operates with similar cost structure, similar benefits, transparency, honesty, and integrity in the supply chain? But then you find not everyone is good and works under the same principles, although the vast majority do. Then China entered the WTO and that, along with NAFTA, was the beginning of the decline of manufacturing in America. We just opened the doors for manufacturers to leave. We had customers leaving in droves, and that is why we closed down plants, and only one now exists. Our competitors were in the same position. They had to close plants left and right when their customers left for China, other parts of Asia, and Mexico,” says O’Shaughnessy.
“And when your customers leave, you have to make some hard choices to stay alive. Revere has little ability to supply our copper to companies outside of North America. There is not a level playing field. Aside from currency misalignment, unfair dumping, and differing regulations, many other countries have a V.A.T tax. This makes our product uncompetitive with prices from suppliers in their local market,” she explains.
“I can give you an example with an EU member country. Germany ships into our market over forty million pounds per year of the specific copper products Revere produces. U.S. copper mills ship virtually none of these reciprocal products into Germany. Because of the reasons I just spoke about, we are not price-competitive in their country, and are shut out,” says O’Shaughnessy.
“Revere is not a multi-national corporation; we are a true American manufacturer who cares about the community and the people here and doing right by them,” she says. “It’s people like us who have been left behind until Trump came into office. We would never have thought that he would be the one to have our backs, but he’s the first leader who actually showed he cared about American manufacturers,” says O’Shaughnessy.
“Lower corporate tax rates which stimulate growth, deregulation, and his focus on creating fair trade are critical to the sustainability and success of manufacturing in America, particularly for companies like Revere that are not multinationals.” Revere, in the meantime, has been proactive and is part of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which advocates for changes in trade and tax policies.
In addition to wanting to support its workers, Revere supports two national charities: the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women. It also assists several local charities that focus on the homeless, veterans, youth, and the elderly.
“We are passionate about doing what is right by Americans,” she says. “About ten years ago, we modified our mission statement and added one final line: “Our future will consider equally our employees, our shareholders, our customers, and our country.” Founder Paul Revere would be proud.