By DAVID DRUDGE, Californian staff writer e-mail: email@example.com
Despite budget constraints threatening a variety of aerospace and defense industry projects, a local steel fabrication company with contracts that support several space and military projects will survive and thrive. Lortz Manufacturing Co., a general engineering contractor specializing in metal forming, precision machining and welding, has been in business in Bakersfield for more than 50 years. Although contracts are usually finalized months in advance, it's not uncommon for a customer to place a last-minute order to shape a slab of steel into duct work used in air conditioning, or templates used in building a military jet. If it's made from carbon and stainless steel or aluminum and titanium, Lortz employees can fabricate it all, said Stephen P. Simmons, the company's vice president and general manager. "It is our diversity in customers that helps us survive in today's unpredictable economy," Simmons said. "We decided long ago not to pin all of our efforts on just one industry or type of client." Lortz customers come from a wide range of industries that include companies like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, United Airlines, the Frito-Lay plant east of Buttonwillow, Northwest Pipe, Texaco, and numerous other industries such as cement plants, agriculture companies, co-generation facilities, roller coaster manufactures and hospitals. Recent comments and decisions made by the Bush administration and NASA about continued funding for aerospace programs were of particular interest to Lortz executives. Lortz limits its aerospace-related contracts to not more than 15 percent of the total work load. Currently, aerospace and defense industry contracts make up about 5 percent of Lortz work. On March 1, NASA officials announced they would not continue to fund the X-33 program -- the space agency's next-generation space shuttle -- after March 31. The agency said the decision not to fund the X-33 was necessary because the x-vehicle "did not warrant the magnitude of government investment required" and that spending should be "applied to higher priority needs" such as work on the International Space Station. Much like the current space shuttle, the X-33 was designed to take off from a vertical position. Lortz built the X-33's launch structure at Edwards Air Force Base. The launch structure now stands as a mute reminder to contracts that could have been, Simmons said. "It's sad to see this one end," he said. "Had the project went on I'm sure (Lortz) would have continued to support the program in various ways." Another aerospace development program that may wind up on the budgetary chopping block is the Navy's F-18 Super Hornet. Lortz is providing the Navy with tooling used in the construction of the F-18. On March 13 President Bush said the nation may not be able to afford the three jet fighters currently under development including the $46 billion F-18 program. The other two programs are the Air Force's $62 billion F-22 stealth fighter which is now undergoing flight tests at Edwards Air Force Base, and the $200 billion Joint Strike Fighter fleet for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. "It would be unfortunate for the (F-18) program to end, but again we would not be impacted that much because of our diversity," Simmons said. The end of X-33 and possible end of F-18 is not the first time in company history that tightening budgets have been felt at Lortz, Simmons said. Beginning in the late 1980s and into the 1990s the reduction in the Air Force's B-2 stealth bomber fleet deflated expectations by Lortz of supporting a much larger armada of B-2 aircraft than was eventually built. "Right now we're supporting the on-going maintenance needs of the B-2 fleet," Simmons said. "We're not manufacturing tooling anymore to make the aircraft, because the B-2 program was stopped at 21 aircraft." Simmons warns that the nation's shaky economy and budget cuts will likely continue to stall some defense and aerospace projects. "It would be nice to see growth in aerospace, and it's sad to see it declining, but Lortz will continue on." While high-profile, nationally known customers are good to have, Simmons added, it's the company's contracts with longtime local customers that are Lortz's lifeblood. "Our customers -- some of which have very small requirements -- mean just as much to our survival as our major industrial customers do," he said. "We simply do not discriminate." Charles Lortz Sr., started the steel fabrication company in 1947 when he purchased Wilson Sheet Metal from a former Bakersfield Mayor George Wilson. Business at Lortz steadily grew throughout the 1950s and early 1960s by specializing in fabricating heating and cooling ducting and agriculture applications. At that time the company had about 35 employees. However, because of its specialization in customers, by 1973 the company had only four employees remaining: Lortz, his son Charles Lortz Jr., and two others. Today, the company employees 90 workers at its 70,000-square-foot fabrication facility on Patton Way in northwest Bakersfield. Charles Lortz Sr. retired about 28 years ago, leaving the business to his son. After retiring, Charles Lortz Sr. moved to Idaho. He died in March 1998 at age 83. Simmons has been with Lortz since 1993.