There are a myriad of lessons I’ve learned during my years in this business. It’s interesting to reflect back over this period, here in the sunset of my career, and think about what advice I might give to my younger self or to some new person.
Though the metals processing and distribution business has changed, I think the fundamentals of running a business like this are still pretty much the same. Find out what the customer needs, buy the steel and process the steel to fit those needs efficiently and quickly, and then do it again and again.
The basic question that every company first needs to answer is what they want to be, what do they want to provide to the market now and into the near- to mid-term future. This question should be asked whether you’re starting up a brand new company or starting to work for a company that’s well established. The answers will not only be a guide to the company and its employees, it will be the way that the market, i.e., the customers and the suppliers, end up perceiving the company.
There are a lot of possible answers with the possibility to blend several choices together. Some companies may want to focus on a specific product, others on a specific process or service. Some owners might want their company to be one of the biggest hot-rolled suppliers, or the cheapest guy in town, or the most precise/best quality slitter, or be able to provide a wide variety of products with small quantities, or a provider of the best customer service, etc. The list is long, though not infinite.
At Berlin Metals, over the last 30 years we chose to define ourselves and become well known as a precision light gauge slitting company focused primarily on two product lines: tin mill products and stainless steel strip. We also made it a defining focus to provide the best quality steel with the best service, in some months achieving 100 percent on-time delivery with over 1,000 individual orders. None of this came easy; there was a lot of hard work involved.
I know this will sound corny but nevertheless it’s true that the success we’ve had has come not just from the ownership saying we want this or that but by hiring smart, experienced and hard-working people to get the work done. I think the best decisions the company ever made were in hiring the good people that we did hire and the worst decisions were that we sometimes didn’t hire good people. The best people are smart, experienced, ethical, hard-working, thoughtful, friendly and have a desire to succeed. It’s not always easy to find all these characteristics in one person, but when you do, hire that person and keep them, they’ll be the foundation for all the future days.
Another equally important choice to make and equally important to success is the choice of the steel supplier. My grandfather was a hard-working immigrant who was fond of saying that “something bought well is half sold.” He didn’t make that up, he heard or read it somewhere, but that was his motto. It’s true that if you can buy steel at a lower cost than anyone else you can grow your business faster or often be more profitable. But our focus has been on first buying the best quality steel and then making sure we were buying it competitively; that is, that our competitors weren’t buying the same for less. That’s all we’ve ever asked for — the best quality steel at a price no higher than our competitors.
Though for some end-use applications it may be true that the quality of the steel isn’t so critical and for those customers achieving the lowest price is all that matters, that’s not the type of business we have focused on. We have sought out customers for whom high quality is necessary and critically important. And then, for these customers, it’s vital to provide them with the best quality steel. Buying high quality steel is vitally important, but the work doesn’t end there.
For the value-added processor, making sure you have the right equipment to process that material precisely and quickly is also extremely important. And so, a company with this focus has to continuously invest in their equipment to achieve the best results. There are a lot of details to manage in this business, a lot of stakeholders to satisfy – customers, suppliers, employees, owners, bankers, landlords and others are all involved. But at the end of the day, deciding what it is that your company will focus on, what it is you want your company to be known as, and being the best at that is what will drive success. And surrounding yourself with good people is probably the most important thing you can do.[Roy Berlin is the president of Hammond, Ind.-based Berlin Metals. In 2018, the company was acquired by Olympic Steel.]