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Precision Marshall shows steely resolve for 72 years

A highly visible staple of the Greater Washington business community has been sold. And the new owner isn’t about to remove that staple.

Precision Marshall is staying on Berry Road, staying in South Strabane Township, staying on the hill overlooking two interstates. The independent steelmaker is remaining true to its transplanted roots, three miles and 72 years removed from its original address.

Live Ventures Inc., a diversified holding company based in Las Vegas, bought Precision Industries Inc. for about $31.5 million in cash, according to a news release from the purchaser. Live Ventures announced the acquisition July 15.

“Precision Marshall is a real hometown success story,” Jon Isaac, president and chief executive officer of the holding company, said in a statement. “Precision Marshall is rooted in the community where it contributes to the local economy and serves as a responsible corporate neighbor.”

Isaac added the South Strabane firm’s “comprehensive network of independent distributors impressively blankets the country.”

Tom Sedlak, Precision Marshall’s newly minted CEO, said he is pleased Live Ventures does not buy and sell, but holds onto its acquired entities.

“They have a strategic plan for growth going forward,” he said.

Precision Industries, which does business as Precision Marshall, is the top supplier of pre-finished tool steels in the United States. The company purchases raw steel and uses machine applications to provide tool-and-die steels for the auto, appliance, aerospace and defense industries.

Until Friday, this was exclusively a Milhollan-run operation. Jack Milhollan, a Trinity High School basketball star in the 1960s, retired as president and chief executive officer Friday, 32 years after succeeding his late father, Thomas, in those positions. Thomas launched the business rather modestly July 1, 1948 – from the basement of his Washington home on May Avenue.

In a 2018 interview with the Observer-Reporter, Jack said his father’s “first office was our dining room table. My father said it was a myth that the company was founded on a shoestring. In fact, it was on a broken shoestring.”

The business, however, eventually gained a foothold and established a formidable footprint. Precision Marshall conducts business throughout the United States and in Canada and Mexico. Most of its 70 or so employees work here, although the firm has a national distribution center in Bolingbrook, Ill., and a warehouse in Anaheim, Calif.

All employees are being retained amid the sale.

“They’re keeping everybody on board. If it weren’t for COVID-19, we’d be hiring people right now,” said Sedlak, who most recently served as senior vice president.

Precision Marshall, on a prominence above Interstates 79 and 70, has not shut down during the pandemic. The company was deemed a life-sustaining business early on by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration. An April infusion of federal Paycheck Protection Program money helped – between $1 million and $2 million, according to an online listing.

“We used it to allow everybody to work,” Sedlak said. “We’ve worked a lot of overtime. We’ve put money back in workers’ pockets.”

He admitted “business is off probably 30%, but these are adverse times.”

Production diversification has been a company trademark throughout the decades, and will continue to be, Sedlak said.

“We’re looking to invest in some machinery and equipment and to expand our product line,” he said.

Precision Marshall has entered the war against COVID-19, producing items that are being used in parts “critical to COVID testing,” according to the CEO.

“We have to rush them out in one day in some instances,” he said.

Although he has not always been employed in the steel industry, Sedlak almost seemed destined to be there someday. He grew up in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh, near where his grandfather and great-grandfather worked at the Jones & Laughlin mill. He has a photo of the plant in his office, taken from his grandfather’s street.

Sedlak has been on the Precision Marshall payroll since 2008, initially as the controller. He said he has worked closely with Jack Milhollan, a man who assumed the reins from his father July 1, 1988 – 40 years to the day Thomas started the enterprise. For 72 years, the parent and son expressed an unwavering dedication to employees and customers.

“There are two things we do,” Jack said in that 2018 interview. “Have a belief in the potential of people and how to treat them, and make customers a priority of our business. Those go hand in hand. We pay a lot of attention to making sure people in the company are well trained. We try to make each person on the payroll the best they can be.

“My advice for any business is to take care of your customers and they will take care of you.”

Even under new leadership, and during a pandemic, Precision Marshall pledges to take care of business.

Be Local: Plenty of options for meat, dairy in region

Editor’s note: This is a weekly series focusing on the importance of buying local.

For more than two years, the business plan was to find the best way for the Marchezak family to take the milk from the family farm and its Twin Brook Dairy business into its own hands and then to the market.

Along came a pandemic early this year and all of a sudden, the plan – albeit with some rapid modification – was in play.

“Our situation is a little unique,” said Randi Marchezak, who is relatively new to the dairy industry as she steers the way for Twin Brook Dairy in Bentleyville.

“We spent the last two years planning and strategizing how to market our milk ourselves. We wanted to take our milk into our own hands. We felt if we could do that, the prospects were good we could do very well.”

Another dairy farm, which directly feeds the SpringHouse on Route 136 in Eighty Four, also reports good news and sales.

It also offers fresh farm milk. As they like to say there, they “raise the cows, milk the cows and bottle the milk.”

“Our customers have been amazing (throughout the pandemic) supporting local family farms,” said Marcia Opp, a second-generation owner of the farm and SpringHouse. “We want to help people and had some special prices on the milk.

“The customers have been wonderful in buying suppers, salads, cookies and pies. We’ve been really blessed.”

Neither Twin Brook Dairy nor SpringHouse had to dump as much milk as others in the industry did around the country.

Opp said SpringHouse was fortunate to sell as much milk as people needed and also became involved in projects with food banks and food pantries.

SpringHouse has long produced and sold its own milk.

“We just are very thankful to our customers streaming through the front door,” Opp said.

The local meat packers also have seen a change in business and some operations since March.

Local farmers have seen some benefits from the way consumers make their choices during the pandemic.

In many cases, consumers stay away from supermarkets and grocery stores and move toward local farmers – both meat and dairy.

Eighty Four Packing Co., also located on Route 136, is surviving what owner Gary Gregg said “has been a very trying time.”

The company, which is a supplier of retail, wholesale and deli meats, is a USDA slaughter house.

“Early on (in the pandemic) we had product that others didn’t,” Gregg said. “The customer response has been tremendous, overwhelming.

“We went to six or seven days as opposed to usually working five days – Tuesday through Saturday. Now, we’re going Monday through Saturday. There were times we went seven days a week to cut, slaughter and package.”

Gregg said the retail businesses gross income is up 40%.

“We’ve got a lot of new customers through this and they have been really loyal,” he said. “Some of these people are coming from some distance.

“A lot of buying patterns changed. People who bought three-to-five pounds of ground meat were now buying 20 or more pounds of it.”

Gregg lamented while it’s easy to find meat cutters, it’s difficult to find a true butcher.

“Finding a true butcher is not an easy thing to do these days,” he said.

Cheplic Packing Inc. in Finleyville has adjusted its operations and hours along with the changes in phases of the pandemic.

“With the COVID-19, we put a new system in almost immediately,” said Jason Cheplic, owner of the company. “Instead of people coming into the store, customers would place their orders, wait in their cars and have the products brought to them.

“The system was a little difficult to get in place,” he added. “ But once it got going, everyone felt safe. Now, we allow three customers at a time and we are texting others in their cars as to when they are next in line. We’re using technology. It’s easier for some than others, but it’s working out pretty well.”

Cheplic said he works with three suppliers. He said if the pandemic spikes, the company is prepared to immediately adjust.

He added the earliest stages of the pandemic challenged everyone and everything.

“That was a bad time,” Cheplic said. “Things are getting a little better now. It’s been tough.”

Marchezak knows how tough it can be. She was intent in helping her family’s failing farm and her plans – which included a deal with Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, which is a huge hit in the Pittsburgh area – had Twin Brook Dairy in line for a big change.

John Marchezak, Randi’s father, said the dairy industry “is tough and has been tough the last five or six years.”

“The price to sell dairy cattle is ridiculously low,” he said. “Dairy farming is a tough industry to get in and tough to get out.”

The arrangement with Millie’s evolved over a two-year period.

Twin Brook delivers its milk to Millie’s Homestead-based production headquarters where the milk is used to produce ice cream. They share the space so the Marchezaks can pasteurize and bottle milk there for their own distribution.

“Partnering with Millie’s was helpful and is still helpful,” Randi Marchezak said. “Before the pandemic we estimated selling about 400 gallons of milk per week to them. After the pandemic, it was about 100 gallons a week and now it is slowly ticking up to 200 gallons a week.”

She admits, her family business has benefited from customers turning to local farms during the pandemic.

Randi Marchezak hopes that trend will continue.

“I feel guilty about benefiting while others struggle,” she said. “I do hope a more positive light has been shined on dairy farming and that people will continue to care more about supporting local farms.”

Those interested in joining the Be Local Network can contact Chris Slota at 724-225-1326 or by email at Discount cards are available at the Observer-Reporter and Almanac office, 122 S. Main St., Washington.

Liz Weston: Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money

A reader recently reached out after his elderly mother died, asking how soon he could distribute the $10,000 she had earmarked in her will for each of her two grandchildren.

Because she lived in California, I had to break the bad news: He won’t be able to hand over the money any time soon.

Probate is the court process to distribute someone’s estate after their death, even if there is a will, and is notoriously slow in California. A typical probate takes nine to 12 months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 mean the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive in California: By law, an attorney could charge $11,000 in fees to handle the woman’s $400,000 estate.

Probate tends to be less onerous in most other states, but the process still costs money and delays when beneficiaries can receive their inheritance.

Avoiding probate, however, also requires time or money and sometimes both. If you’re trying to decide whether to make the investment to spare your heirs the expense and hassle of probate, here’s what to keep in mind:

When probate makes sense

If you die with a lot of debt, probate can help by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make claims against your estate, says attorney Betsy Simmons Hannibal, a writer and editor at self-help legal site Nolo. If there isn’t enough to pay all your creditors, the probate court decides how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface after your assets have been distributed and sue your heirs or the person who divided up your estate, she says.

Probate also provides court supervision, which can be helpful if you worry your wishes won’t be carried out. Your will and the details of your estate are made public, which is bad for the publicity-shy but also for greedy or contentious heirs who might otherwise disregard your will. All the assets, debts and costs paid by the estate have to be disclosed, and the court has to approve the distributions to beneficiaries.

“There’s going to be much more oversight, which can be useful in some situations,” Hannibal says.

Some probate alternatives

States have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce how long probate takes and its cost. What’s considered “small,” though, varies by state. In Delaware, it’s estates worth no more than $30,000. In Oregon, it’s estates $275,000 or less. (Nolo’s article “ Small estate probate shortcuts ” has links to each state’s rules.)

Those limits don’t include assets that can go directly to heirs, such as jointly held property and accounts that have a beneficiary. Retirement funds and life insurance usually require you to name a beneficiary, and you can also name beneficiaries for bank and brokerage accounts. (You need to name specific people or organizations, however. If you name your estate as your beneficiary, the assets typically must go through probate.)

Many states have “transfer on death” deeds for real estate, and some allow people to register their cars with a form that names a beneficiary. Both methods allow a property transfer without probate.

The other way to avoid probate

You may not be able to divide your estate the way you want to simply by using beneficiary designations and “transfer on death” forms. Or you may want a more comprehensive solution, especially if you have a lot of assets or complicated finances.

Living trusts are the other way to avoid probate. Living trusts are legal documents that, like wills, allow you to detail how you want your property divided and who should care for any minor children. Unlike wills, living trusts take effect while you’re still alive. Once a living trust is created, you must transfer ownership of your property to the trust, which requires changing titles and deeds, to avoid probate. These trusts are revocable – you can change them at any time. You will be the trustee, so you continue to have control over your property, and you’ll name a successor trustee or trustees to take over if you become incapacitated or die.

Living trusts typically aren’t cheap to create, however. Lawyers usually charge $1,000 to $2,500, Hannibal notes.

You can create a living trust without an attorney using software or do-it-yourself legal sites, but consider consulting one if you have a large estate or foresee problems such as spendthrift heirs or people who might challenge your estate plan.

“If that’s your situation, your best bet is to go to a lawyer and say, ‘I anticipate trouble. How can you help me?’” Hannibal says.

This column was provided to the Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.

Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and the author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: Twitter: @lizweston.