Pemco heads south after 85 years in city


The city is losing a historic manufacturer as Pemco International, which was started in Baltimore nearly 100 years ago as a family business and grew to be a multinational corporation, pulls up stakes and heads south.

The company, which makes porcelain enamel coatings for kitchen and bathroom appliances, barbecue grills and floor tiles, announced yesterday that it is consolidating operations at its plant in Leesburg, Ala. It marks the end of a Baltimore pioneer that gave Howard Johnson hotels and restaurants their distinctive orange-colored roofing.

Many of Pemco's 90 employees in Baltimore will be offered jobs in Alabama, and all will be offered bonuses and severance packages to stay on through the yearlong transition.

Pemco President Jack McMahon said the company had been considering the move for some time, as the North American market for its product declined. Consumer tastes have shifted from porcelain to stainless steel, he said, and Pemco's customers - manufacturers that paint their products with Pemco's coatings - have either closed or moved to Mexico.

McMahon said the Leesburg plant, which Pemco bought in 2000, is newer and has room for expansion. It's also closer to customers in Mexico. About 50 people work there now, he said.

"This made the most business sense," McMahon said yesterday afternoon, shortly after notifying second-shift employees about the East Baltimore plant's closure.

"We've been very open with employees in the past year about where the industry has been going," McMahon said.

Founded in 1911 as the Porcelain Enamel Manufacturing Corporation, the company has 600 employees worldwide and plants in Argentina, Belgium, Italy and Spain. Founder Karl Turk Sr., a German immigrant, was considered the "father of the porcelain enameling industry," after inventing the process that converted porcelain to a wet form that could coat iron, according to articles published in The Sun.

Turk also introduced color to porcelain coatings, including the orange-colored roof on Howard Johnson hotels and restaurants. At a 1926 Gas Association conference, wives of the attendees reportedly swarmed a Pemco display of kitchen stoves in various colors, which went largely unnoticed by their husbands.

The company's $750,000 research lab, which opened in 1962, was named for Turk, who was Pemco's chairman when he died in 1954. His sons and grandsons followed him through the company's ranks.

Pemco was also the first Baltimore business to have its own heliport. Opened on Sept. 17, 1958, it was built in one day for $3,000. Officials wanted a faster way to get its executives and products to Friendship International Airport, now called Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and to Pier 4 on Pratt Street. The helicopter flight to Friendship airport took only eight minutes, officials said, as opposed to 25 minutes through Harbor Tunnel traffic.

The company did not always have a good relationship with its East Baltimore neighbors. In 1979, city officials called on the company to clean up lead contamination on the Eastern Avenue property. A year earlier, the company was required to install devices that monitored fluoride emissions. In 1980, Pemco's then-owner, Mobay Chemical Corp., paid a $10,000 government fine for excessive fluoride emissions.

McMahon said he will work with the city to make sure Pemco's two buildings on Eastern Avenue, across from the Johns Hopkins University's Bayview campus, are redeveloped rather than abandoned.

McMahon said that he plans to stay through the yearlong transition but that he isn't sure about his plans afterward.

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