Lewis Bolt & Nut Company (Lewis) of Minnesota, originally named Indian Bolt & Nut, was started in 1921 by the Northern Pacific Railroad to make bolts for the repair of railroad cars. In 1927 the company was sold to its steel supplier, Paper Calmenson & Company, owned by Joe, Meyer and Dave Paper. The company, renamed Lewis Bolt & Nut Company after the brothers’ father, Lewis Paper, was run by Paper Calmenson until 1937 when Meyer Paper and his brothers parted ways and Meyer, with the help of his sister Hattie Harris, took control of Lewis. Today Meyer’s son, Mark Paper, and Mark’s son, Tom Paper, are the sole owners of the company.
From its start the company sold both cold and hot-headed products. Cold-heading machines take coils of steel, 1/4” to 5/8” in diameter, cut the steel to length and form a head by pressing the cold steel between dies. In the hot-heading process, 12’ to 20’ rods of steel are sheared to length, heated red-hot in a furnace and then upset into the desired head shape, again by pressing the steel between dies. The cold-heading process is used generally to manufacture smaller bolts that are standard in nature. The hot-heading process is used to manufacture larger bolts, many special in nature.
In the 1930s Lewis patented, developed and sold many bolts with the help of the major railroads’ engineering departments. These products included one cold-headed part, the car bolt, as well as a host of hot-headed products: the Sealtite hook bolt, Sealtite washer head timber bolt, Sealtite guard rail bolt and Sealtite washer head lag screw. All of these products continue to be sold today.
In the 1940s Lewis was a supplier to the war effort and the Maritime Commission. In the 1950s Mark Paper joined his father in the business. Lewis was a manufacturer and also a distributor to a variety of customers including railroads, manufacturers, fastener specialists and wholesale hardware distributors. The company continued making both cold-headed and hot-headed products. In the 1960s Meyer retired and Mark became president.
As Imports and overcapacity impacted the United States fastener industry, Lewis opted not to invest in major capital expenditures and continued to serve a broad range of customers. During the 1960s Lewis began distributing a cold-headed product line instead of manufacturing the products. The focus of its marketing effort fell into two classes of customers: 1) railroads, for which the product was primarily manufactured by the hot-heading process, and 2) wholesale hardware distributors, for which the product was cold-headed by an overseas manufacturer, purchased by Lewis, repackaged and sold.
By the 1970s the company had become even more of a distributor and less of a manufacturer. Because of severe competition and dropping prices, the company chose not to compete in most of the hot-headed fastener business. The 1970s was a decade of significant growth in the company’s net worth based on the profits made during a period of high inflation. It was also a period of increasing debt based on an apparent need to carry high inventories.
The 1980s was the most difficult decade for the entire American fastener industry and approximately 50% of the country’s fastener manufactures went out of business. The industry decline was based on several factors: higher debt caused by equipment and/or real estate obligations, higher inventories, overcapacity, foreign domination of many markets, changing customer requirements and company management that neglected quality controls, information systems, preventative maintenance and customer lead times. Lewis reflected the effects of what was happening nationally. The company’s net worth dropped substantially, its customers and markets changed dramatically and its sales volume decreased. At the same time, its total debt was reduced substantially.
In 1990 Lewis completely withdrew from the wholesale hardware distribution business. The company began seeking new customers for its hot-headed product line outside of the rail industry. Major new markets being targeted included wood bridge builders, general contractors, landscapers and log home builders. In 1991 Tom Paper joined Lewis and soon became president in charge of operations. The financial outlook for the company had been weak for several years. The company was hampered by an outdated plant layout, restrictive work rules, excessive employee wages and the absence of adequate training, quality control, preventive maintenance and continuous improvement programs. Tom and Mark tried without success to devise a way to keep the manufacturing facility in Minneapolis and survive.
In 1992 they concluded that the only way the company could survive and prosper was to move its operations. After a six-month site search in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado, they decided to move the manufacturing operation to La Junta, Colorado. The risk was substantial, both for the few employees who stayed with the company and for the city of La Junta. La Junta assisted in the refinancing of the company debt and offered to construct a new building for the factory and lease it back to Lewis. The 32,000 sq. ft. building was completed in 90 days between September and November, 1992; the plant was fully functional in March, 1993. From 1993 to 1996 the company trained its young work force and implemented the systems and standards necessary to maintain a quality organization. Sales increased and improvements to all phases of the operation continued.
In 1997, Tom left Lewis and moved to the west coast where he subsequently formed his own consulting firm while remaining fully aware of Lewis’s progress. Mark became the president and the company operations were transferred to team management, currently Dave Barry, Vice-President of Sales, Cheryl McIntosh, Chief Financial Officer and Brett McIntosh, Plant Manager. In 1998 as the company continued to focus on efficiencies and system improvements, the city of La Junta invested in building an 18,000 sq. ft. addition to the factory to help fuel Lewis’s steady growth. From 1998 to 2004 the company’s sales doubled.
In 2005 once again Lewis needed to expand its operation as newly patented products like the Evergrip spike boosted the company’s market share of the railroad fastener industry. In addition, many companies suffered through a steel crisis as the domestic prices of steel nearly doubled in the U.S. during 2004-05. By accepting a lower margin on its sales, Lewis was able to take even more of the market away from its competitors. As a result, sales in 2004 and 2005 increased an average of 25% each year. Again the city of La Junta helped Lewis add a 22,500 sq. ft. shipping/inventory warehouse adjacent to the factory. By moving the shipping department to the new warehouse, the original building and the 1998 addition became exclusive manufacturing space.
In 2009, Lewis opened its rail anchor manufacturing plant in La Junta, 4 miles from its fastener manufacturing plant. In 2011, Lewis again expanded its capacity and work force to meet the expected continuing demand for its products.
In 2013 the city of La Junta completed the construction of 2 more buildings, adding another 50,000 sq. ft. for Lewis. Ideas from its customers have helped Lewis introduce new products, some patented. In 2016 a new patented Hook Bolt System was introduced.
Lewis continues to look for new opportunities to better serve customers, current or prospective.