The Kerola family has spent the last 72 years running PI&I Motor Freight, largely serving the steel industry. Now, the family has extended its reach into another aspect of the steel industry – steel processing – with the purchase of United Steel Services of Brookfield, which has been rebranded by the company’s nickname, Uniserv.

Uniserv, which was founded in 1968 by Morris Friedman, takes in coils of steel, titanium and aluminum and runs them through slitters that cut the coils into narrower widths.

Joe Kerola Sr., president and CEO of PI&I, Masury, and grandson of the company founder, said he has known the Friedman family for years. He said he knew that Steven, son of the founder, who died in 2017, was looking to divest Uniserv, and they began a lengthy set of conversations.

“This came about because United was a toll processing company, which means they don’t buy and sell any steel,” Kerola said. “They just work for other people, the same as PI&I. I felt there were some synergies there, vertical integration of what we can offer our customers.”

PI&I and Uniserv serve many of the same customers, Kerola said.

Had Friedman sold to “one of the major processing companies,” Kerola said, “more than likely they would have shut it down and taken it to their facilities that are, honestly, newer.”

“We wanted to keep the 90 to 100 people working in Brookfield,” he said.

Uniserv President Charlie Pitts is staying on, and that was a key factor in the Kerolas going through with the purchase, Kerola said. Pitts has a great relationship with his employees and his customers, Kerola said.

“He has one of his sons involved, which, to me, if you’re willing to bring your family in, you must have faith in the operation,” said Kerola, whose sons Joe Jr. and Jeremy and daughter Maggie Cox-Kerola all work for PI&I. Jeremy has taken on a major role at Uniserv on behalf of the family.

“You sure don’t want to put your kids in a situation that isn’t gonna be a good one,” Kerola said.

promoThe initial response to the purchase, which closed April 17, has been positive, Kerola said. Only one employee has left, and customers seem to be happy that Uniserv will be a stable company, he said.

“I think this is an extension of what we believe is customer service,” Kerola said.

The Kerolas are cleaning and updating the Uniserv plant and its office on Parkway Drive to make a better environment for the employees, he said.

“Just to make it the safest, best environment for the workers is what we’re trying to invest in now,” Kerola said. “Retention, treating people right, we want to make sure we do that, so that we can grow.”

The company has heard from customers who would like to see Uniserv offer different services, and those will be evaluated, along with the condition of current equipment, Kerola said.

“New equipment, that’s a down the road to what we could do,” he said. “To even look at new equipment, if we can get it, is a year or more, as we’ve been told.”

Uniserv’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the years, and the Kerolas want to build it back up.

“At one time, the toll processing operation was almost twice as big as it is today,” Kerola said. 

To that end, Uniserv is hiring. While working a slitter is a skilled trade, it is largely taught by the companies that operate them. Employees start as laborers and are taught slitter operation over a number of years.

“What we’re looking for is good work ethic, hard working and, really, younger people that understand they have to learn,” Kerola said. “Someone that is conscientious and is willing to learn and invest the time into learning the trade and, again, becoming a skilled trade and then make a good bit more money.”