Sheffield Bronze’s Founder: from Printer to Paint-Powder Distributor, Car Salesman, Auto Lessor, and finally Paint Manufacturer by 1927
Mel Hart, president of Sheffield Bronze Paint Corp., 17814 S. Waterloo Rd., Cleveland, is a self-made man with captivating stories to tell about the history of Cleveland and of his family, especially his grandfather, Abe Gross, the founder of Sheffield Bronze.
In the 1920s, Hart’s grandfather worked for Star Printing as an apprentice printer and lived with his parents and siblings in a rooming house on Scovill Ave. When Star Printing’s owner died, Gross was only a teenager. But, he bought the company from the owner’s wife by making payments over time. Star Printing was a prominent printer that made laundry tickets, Hanna parking garage tickets, and labels, among other items. One of the jobs Star Printing took, on a handshake, was to print labels for bronze powder, used to make copper, gold, brass and silver paint.
When he went to collect the payment for the labels, the owner of the company admitted that he was going out of business. To pay for the labels, he turned over the labels, cans and powder to Gross. A business was born in 1927. The bronze powder sold well; so, he bought more powder from England to package and resell, while continuing to run his printing business. He decided that he wanted to sell aluminum powder (pulverized aluminum scrap that is used to make aluminum paint) and contacted Alcoa. This powder was used to make paint for the World War II effort and for many purposes, including pipes, window and door screens that were painted aluminum.
At this time, fine steel was being produced in Sheffield, England, to make Sheffield knives and other steel items. The name “Sheffield” became synonymous with fine steel then, eventually, came to encompass all fine metal. Gross took the name for his paint-manufacturing company, and Sheffield Bronze Paint Corp. was born.
The company was moved from the original location of Star Printing on E. 55th to another location at E. 55th and Woodland Ave. It moved again to Lakeview Rd. and Euclid Ave. In 1949, Gross bought the land where the company still is located in Collinwood because it was inexpensive due to being next to the railroad tracks but convenient for the company since it would receive shipments of paint cans by train.
Unfortunately, one year later, he passed away, and his two sons took over. One year later, on the same day, their sister, Hart’s mother, passed away when he was 13 years old. Hart had worked with her after school in the restaurant that she owned, Hickory House, 7804 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland. He moved in with his father (his parents had divorced when he was two) who sold cars and began to work with him. They sold the restaurant to The Lancer Steakhouse. The building was lost in a fire and torn down in 2009.
Hart’s uncle, Sanford Gross, said to him, “If you can sell cars, you can sell paint” and asked Hart to work for him. Hart took a chance and hoped for a future. When each of his uncles passed away in 1998 and 2008, he bought out their shares from his aunts. Through the years, he had worked his way up in the company from selling paint, to running the plant, to purchasing, to general manager to sales manager and, finally, to president. Hart says, “I have to know how to do everything in order to train people.”
Sheffield Bronze employs 14-20 people. It produces decorative metallic paints (gold, silver, bronze, copper) that are sold to paint manufacturers and through paint distributors to hardware stores and paint stores, including Ace, True Value, ALLPRO and Sherwin-Williams. The paints are purchased by home owners, contractors, architects, and interior designers for use in touching up porcelain and cast-iron stoves, chalkboard paint on walls for children, paint tints, on church domes, such as St. Theodosius in Tremont, roof canopies, carousels (Euclid Beach Park Grand Carousel housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society), and ornate ceilings and trim, including the theaters in Playhouse Square.
A lab technician, fillers, labelers, packagers, and shipping, receiving and office staff work for Sheffield Bronze. The raw materials come in to Receiving, are taken by elevator upstairs where they are manufactured. The pigments come down through gravity feed tubes into mixers that grind the pigment to fine, uniform dust, which is then used to make the paint. Hart has purchased some of his equipment, including a heat sealer, paint tanks and filling equipment, locally, from HGR Industrial Surplus.
Hart says, “My biggest challenge is finding the right customers that are quality, like Sherwin-Williams. They are human, understanding and make a great team.” To be a successful manufacturer, he says Sheffield Bronze takes in an order today and gets it out tomorrow. It handles small volume that other manufacturers don’t want to handle. He continues to keep the company at its current size so that he has a niche market that other larger companies cannot duplicate.
Through the years, he’s had to change his business model. The company used to call on small hardware and paint stores and had reps throughout the country. He shifted to a distributor model; therefore, the company no longer sells direct to consumers. He shares other industry challenges: “It’s a problem for the little guy because there are less and less people to sell to. The big guys get bigger, and the small guys are out of business. So, I need to be a help to the big guys, not a competitor or a hindrance.” He also says that salaries are up, and he can’t hire someone to do his job at what he makes; so, he may end up having to sell the business when it’s time to retire in a few years.
Outside of work, when he was younger, Hart loved boating and motorcycling. He used to ride his motorcycle through the Cleveland Metroparks from Chagrin Falls to Valley View with only two traffic lights then take the old trail to Peninsula and have lunch. He also used to horseback ride around Shaker Lakes and groom horses at the 107th Cavalry Regiment’s stables, as well as at Sleepy Hollow Stable in the “country” on SOM Center Road and the Cleveland Police Mounted Unit.
Gina M. Tabasso, marketing communications specialist, HGR Industrial Surplus, www.hgrinc.com