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Elkem around the world: York, USA

Plant manager at Elkem York, Al Chatham, has been with predecessor companies for 34 years and joined the silicones industry in 1997. Coming from a surfactants manufacturing facility, the wide variety of silicone products and applications was new and very interesting. Chatham accepted the opportunity to change positions and moved from a process safety management role into an operations role.  

Elkem around the world 24.11.2022

“I enjoy the challenge of bringing people together to create a vision, collaborate, drive and deliver results, see improvement, and watch our employees grow.  It is very fulfilling to see developmental improvement in my team and in the organisation and to be presented with new challenges by the business that helps me develop as a leader”, Chatham said when asked about positive aspects of being a plant manager.  

When asked about the most important parts of the role as plant manager, Chatham mentioned several things.  With being allowed to operate the York facility in the community, the attention to detail around safety and their commitment to being environmentally responsible, is the highest on the list of priorities. Moving the site forward is another priority.  The site is committed to using Elkem Business Systems as the foundation for driving continuous improvement, as well as ensuring the alignment of operations with the other functions.  Chatham mentioned the importance of coordinating activities with the Research and Technology team as new products are developed and require scale up on plant assets.  

Chatham also mentioned that the York team is committed to helping Elkem deliver significant growth in their region and ensuring that they are successful in onboarding new customers. The significant growth that the AMS region is experiencing has led to two additional challenges. The Operations Team is currently working with the HR department to recruit and fill a significant number of vacant operator positions as well as the site is in the process of switching several of their workshops to a 24hr and 7 day operation.  As for the latter, Chatham stated that his Operations Team is working closely with the affected employees and trying to minimize the impact the change in schedule will have on their employees’ work/life balance.  “We realize this is a significant change for them”, Chatham added. 

“It´s amazing the numbers of products we manufacture and the different industries they go into”

What today is the York plant used to be two small plants; one that operated in Ventura, CA and the other just down the road in Rock Hill, SC. They moved to the York location 10 years ago and brought manufacturing activities under one roof.  Today, the York plant consists of approximately 200 employees and includes the support functions of EHS&S, HR, Finance, IT, Quality, Compliance, Purchasing, Supply Chain, Manufacturing, Maintenance, Instrumentation & Electrical, Logistics and Research & Technology.  Production activities start from cyclic silicone intermediates before formulating into hundreds of specialty silicone products. The site also provides intermediate raw materials to other Elkem facilities located around the globe.  Finished products produced at the York facility are sold into many markets including healthcare, sealing and bonding, the manufacture of electrical vehicles and textile coatings in automotive airbags, to silicone inks and beauty and wellness products.  

For the last ten years, the production volumes at York have grown by 300%. What in 2012 was a facility with a lot of spare space, is now filled with materials.  “It’s a kind of a good news, bad news situation.  The good news is that we have had all this growth, the bad news is that we have run out of space”.  Chatham said that they now are looking to prepare their site through development of a new project called Ambition 2, which will allow them to build additional facilities in York and expand the campus to support their business growth over the next 10 years. 

“Trust goes in both directions and is a really big thing for us and what we do”. 

With approximately 200 employees, fostering an open culture of trust, believing in the employees and employees having trust in their leaders, is a priority.  “Knowing what is right, doing what is right, and employees trusting that management is acting in their best interest is what we strive to achieve,” says Chatham.  Trying to maintain a “family feeling” at the site in York is also important, but difficult.  “As we continue to grow our business, it becomes more challenging to hold onto the entrepreneurial spirit and close-knit team mentality that has helped shape our company and build success.”   

When asked about Elkem’s interactions with the local community around the York plant, Chatham mentioned the plant´s involvement with the Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center affiliated with York High School.  Since starting the York facility, the plant has been involved in creating programs, directing, and educating students to prepare seniors in high school who are getting ready to graduate and wanting to enter the work force.  Personally, Chatham is on a couple of boards and highlighted the Catawba Region Work Force Development Board. This board is comprised of representatives from local businesses as well as service providers. The purpose of this group is to manage decisions that are being taken on behalf of dislocated workers who are trying to re-enter the work place after having lost their job due to a plant closing, violation of the law, or other life struggles.  The goals are to work with these employees, help them develop marketable skills, and make them attractive for rehire. 

“Thanks to Elkem’s high standards related to our commitment to environment, safety, and health of employees,” Chatham said, “there have been no difficulties related to operating the York facility in the local community.”  Chatham added that making sure they focus on the right things, bringing good results not only for the employees but also for Elkem and the local York community, is a priority. 

The York plant has several specific measures they take to reduce the plants environmental impact and to further develop good sustainability standards. These include the site’s certification to ISO 9001, a global standard for managing quality.  Similarly, the site is certified to RCMS 14001, a EHS&S standard that is recognized by the American Chemistry Council.  With this certification, the focus is on health, safety, environment, security and how they are managing the activities on the site to bring good results.  At York, they also have an HSE Manager working closely with members of the leadership team to establish goals and targets at the start of each year around injuries, environmental releases, and process safety management.  With the fact that the site handles hazardous materials and has some reactive chemistry, managing these risks and ensuring safe operations of their processes is very important.  Minimizing the potential for significant and unwanted events, such as fires and explosions that would impact not only the facility, but also their neighbors is critical.  

Employees, motivation, and ambitions 

Elkem is an attractive employer in the local community of York thanks to a good reputation and an attractive compensation package.  Chatham said that treating employees with respect and giving them an opportunity to provide their input is essential to keep employees motivated.  

“I heard this comment from a senior Elkem leader... Our employees are the only assets within Elkem that are appreciating as opposed to depreciating”, Chatham said.  “Elkem Business Systems refers to the employee as “The Linchpin”…a pin that holds a wheel in place or, in our case, a person vital to an enterprise or organization.”  Chatham is a firm believer that the employees are critical to Elkem’s success and the importance of engaging them in their problem-solving activities.  

Al Chatham is an ambitions leader. His vision is to see the York site continue to grow, providing employment opportunities for the local community of York, SC.  Chatham and the York plant are delivering results.  As they started with a 227,000 ft2 building that they have now outgrown, site leaders are now working to gain approval for additional investments in the site. Chatham expects great things for Elkem in York with expansion of the plant in the next two years that will support their growth over the next 10 years. The ambition is to more than double the business in the Americas over the next five years.