For John H. Odle, the completion of nearly 40 years in the titanium and specialty metals industries was marked by a certain symmetry.
In his nearly 35 years at RTI International Metals Inc. and its predecessor, RMI Titanium Co. (now a subsidiary of RTI), Odle's responsibilities ranged widely, covering operations, marketing and management, including the company's former sponge plant in Ashtabula, Ohio, which was shut down in 1992. Since then, Niles, Ohio-based RTI has purchased the sponge it uses.
But just before Odle's retirement as executive vice president in late September (he continues as a consultant to the company on defense and legislative matters), RTI announced it would spend $300 million to build a greenfield sponge plant and related operations in Hamilton, Miss., that will start up in 2010 and eventually result in total output of up to 20 million pounds a year.
"I've run one, closed one and now we're going to be opening one," Odle said of RTI's sponge operations as he prepared to retire at the mandatory age of 65. He was the second well-known titanium executive to take the gold watch in 2007. In April, John P. Monahan, president of the VSMPO-Tirus unit in Golden, Colo., of Russia's VSMPO-Avisma Corp., who previously was instrumental in sales and marketing at Titanium Metals Corp., also retired.
Any recollection of a career in titanium inevitably reflects the volatile, up-and-down history of the industry and its markets, and Odle's remembrances are no exception.
"One of the high points was when the industry took itself public in the early 1990s," he said, explaining that this brought producers out of the "mom-and-pop" era and into a wave of initial public offerings, mergers and acquisitions. But then the bottom fell out. "Before we could catch our breath, the carpet was pulled out from underneath."
The combination of an economic recession that cut commercial aircraft demand into the late 1990s, the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union—unleashing unprecedented amounts of low-cost sponge and other basic titanium products on the global market—resulted in one of the industry's worst slumps. But while U.S. mill product shipments fell to a low of 34.4 million tons twice during the first half of the decade, demand recovered in the late 1990s to reach a record before slumping once again following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Now, the upcycle is in full bloom and industry shipments in 2007 appeared likely to match or exceed the previous year's 66.1 million pounds.
Odle, generally regarded as one of industry's best-liked producer executives, started with RMI Titanium in 1968. After about four years he left to join Teledyne Allvac (now part of Allegheny Technologies Inc.) on the West Coast, returning to Niles in 1978. For a time in the late 1990s, he and RTI's then-chief financial officer, Timothy G. Rupert, were considered contenders for the chief executive officer's post. After Rupert was named chief executive officer in 1999, Odle stayed on and, by most reports, he and Rupert continued to work well together. Rupert noted before his own retirement earlier this year that the two executives worked as "partners" for the remainder of their careers at RTI.
Odle said he had "a wonderful ride" in the industry, which today, in addition to enjoying one of the strongest commercial aerospace recoveries in history with the apparent success of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other aircraft, is seeing strong demand from the defense industry and is now also at the cutting edge of such non-aerospace markets as oil and gas drilling. Moreover, he pointed out, it is now truly a global industry, with the Russians, Japanese and Chinese as major players.
"But you sure can get whipsawed," he said.