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Coal

A coal train approaches the Black Thunder mine outside Wright on March 29. 

SHERIDAN — Wyoming’s reliance on the mercurial coal market has led to ongoing discussions about diversifying the state’s economy. The challenges facing Wyoming, though, exist on a smaller scale as well, with individual businesses that have relied on the coal industry having to adapt.

Marva Craft, co-owner of Craftco, estimated that 75 to 80 percent of her company’s clients were firms in the coal industry. Therefore, when coal markets declined in 2013 and 2014, Craftco found its business declining also. That forced the company to adapt. “We started working back then on diversification,” Craft said.

That downturn cost the state about 17,000 jobs between 2015 and 2017, according to a report released by Wyoming Department of Administration and Information’s Economic Analysis Division earlier this year. Though the industry has experienced modest recovery in recent years, it has not returned to pre-downturn levels of employment.

Sheridan County, as a whole, was less affected by the population and workforce loss and actually saw a slight population increase between 2016 and 2017 as it has less direct ties to the energy sector than some other counties. But for companies whose business relies on energy companies, the client pool has shrunk considerably.

Craftco’s services were not directly tied to coal extraction or manufacturing, it mostly assisted coal firms with machining and fabrication, but preparing to service new industries required Craftco to change how it operated.

“We definitely had to tool up to accommodate new customers,” Craft said. “And that has been a process.”

That process involved selling machines and equipment, and buying new equipment to meet the needs of clients in different industries.

The company’s shift was also accompanied by a new marketing campaign and a new logo to signal that Craftco, which had developed a reputation as a company that primarily worked in the coal industry, was branching out.

“We earned a reputation as problem-solvers in the coal industry,” Craft said. “…And we developed new machining products to develop new products for coal companies.”

The change in focus and messaging has allowed Craftco to expand into an operation that does more generalized manufacturing work and that is looking to grow its client base on a national scale.

Craft stressed, though, that her company has maintained vital contracts with coal companies and as coal markets rebounded in recent years, those companies are again contributing to Craftco’s business.

“They’re our customers, and we value them, but we’ve also kind of spread our wings,” Craft said.

Another local business, Ramaco, also transformed its operations in response to volatility in the coal industry.

Ramaco has a public company that operates in the eastern U.S. called Ramaco Resources, which mines coal and uses it to produce metals, primarily steel. Ramaco purchased property in Sheridan in 2011 with the intention of using it for thermal coal work, similar to what the company does with Ramaco Resources, but noticed a change in the markets around 2013 and 2014 as well.

“The coal markets, certainly the thermal markets, have changed pretty dramatically in the sense that a lot of the traditional utility customers have either changed their feedstock blend to focus more on natural gas and there certainly have been a number of retirements of older coal-fired plants,” said Ramaco CEO and Chairman Randall Atkins. “So we were faced with a decision.”

The company decided that trying to find new uses for coal would be a higher-value proposition than relying on traditional coal processes. Ramaco aims to use carbon from coal to manufacture a variety of products, from building materials to medical sensors and carbon fibers.

Ramaco recently installed 3-D printers in a facility located in Sheridan and is producing prototypes of small products, such as components for breakaway roping and horse tack. The printers are currently using traditional resins, but the company’s long-term goal is to develop a process that will allow it to create 3-D printing resins from coal.

The bulk of Ramaco’s work is expected take place at manufacturing and research facilities on property located north of town, where it plans to use carbon in more traditional light manufacturing work.

Construction has not started on that facility.

As the state continues to adjust to a new reality for coal, Craftco and Ramaco offer examples of the ways companies are trying to adapt, as well.

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