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2020 Service Center Executive of the Year

Eddie Lehner, Ryerson

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MCN Editor Dan Markham Lehner embraces change on the way to transforming the industry’s oldest business into a model for the next 178 years.

Whether it’s through adopting digitalization or analytics, working through pandemics or under normal conditions, riding along in truck cabs or reciting off wristbands, all actions at Ryerson lead to a single endpoint that can be neared but never reached: creating the best possible customer experience.

Time and again since Eddie Lehner assumed the top position in 2015, the nation’s second-largest service center company has been chasing that objective, implanting strategies that have transformed one of America’s oldest continually operating businesses into a nimble, innovative organization poised to compete well into the future.

For his role in helping reshape Chicago-based Ryerson, Eddie Lehner has been named Metal Center News’ Service Center Executive of the Year in 2020.

Each year, MCN honors a leading executive whose career and business strategies serve as a model for the rest of the industry. Lehner becomes the 24th recipient of the highest honor in the metals distribution business.

Lehner’s passion for delivering great customer service is at the heart of everything the company does. It’s the drive behind the company’s mantra: “Say Yes, Figure it Out.” That five-word phrase originated after Lehner had spent several months listening to recorded sales calls as part of a sales coaching effort. By the time he got to the end of the year, having heard more than 500 calls, Lehner realized there were too many times a sales person answered “no.” Whether it was an end of the day call or an instance when a customer wanted five items and Ryerson only had two, far too often the customer was left, literally, wanting more.

We’ve got to change the culture, Lehner thought. There were too many denials, and too many times when Ryerson was accepting the first answer. Borrowing from a friend, he adopted Say Yes, Figure it Out, producing and sharing wristbands with that message across the company to drive the point home.

“It’s not a cult. You don’t have to wear the wristband,” he laughs. “But if I can get everyone to say ‘yes’ a little more, where does it lead? To the best customer experience.” And he’ll go wherever he can in pursuit of that aim. He regularly joins his truck drivers for a day on the road, traveling to make deliveries to customers. The ride-a-longs have several objectives. For starters, he learns a great deal about the customers, and the way they interact with Ryerson. On one of his first trips, he watched a forklift driver struggle to deliver a skid, cursing because the company had entered the incorrect skid weight limit and it had never been corrected. Lehner took that information back to the office to be fixed.

“When you do deliveries, you learn things you’re not going to learn in a spreadsheet. I got to talk to the owners and learn how we stack up to our competitors and what we can do better.” And, of course, there were the tacos and other treats in the food truck that trailed behind, leaving those valued customers with a good feeling about their supplier.

“We said, we want to create the best possible customer experience in the industry. And when we get done with that, we’ll create the best customer experience in business. There’s no top to that. It forces you to innovate,” he says.

Getting there also requires making sure the fundamentals are taken care of. “Your balance sheet has to be good; you have to watch expenses in this industry; you have to manage the volatility; you have to manage working capital; you have to be able to get your product to market,” he continues. “After that, you can ask, ‘How do you truly create the best customer experience with running water consistency?’”

That pursuit is getting recognized by those on the other end of the transaction. Mandy Pomella, vice president of supply chain for REV Group, says Ryerson stands out against many of her company’s other suppliers because of its unique commitment. “We started working putting together enterprise-wide packages, and one of the things that really made the difference with Ryerson was they took the time to find out what really was important to us.”

REV Group, which manufactures fire trucks, street sweepers and other specialty vehicles, also values the breadth of expertise across the company, claiming it considers all of its contacts at Ryerson among the best in the industry. “Consequently, we have continued to do more and more business with them,” she says.

The Road to Ryerson Lehner’s ride to the top of the service center industry is rather unconventional for an Executive of the Year recipient. He followed a winding path that didn’t land him in the business until earlier in the decade, but after years of building up valuable experience and working for some revolutionary business leaders.

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, and educated at the University of Cincinnati, Lehner abandoned engineering for accounting, starting his career at one of the top firms, Deloitte. In 1992, Nucor was looking for a CPA with some operational background, and brought Lehner in to work as a corporate analyst in the internal audit division. Back then, Nucor was an incubator of top industry talent, with Ken Iverson’s lean corporate culture allowing industrious employees to dabble in all aspects of the business.

“You were involved with everything,” Lehner says of his nine years at Nucor. “I sat in a room quietly and took notes, but I got to do work that mattered to the company. The culture was phenomenal.”

From there, he was recruited by former Nucor executive John Correnti to run Birmingham Steel in Seattle, where he was responsible for turning around the perception of the mill in a community that had long ago lost its love for manufacturing. But aided by the dotcom bust, Lehner did just that, building on Seattle’s passion for the environment by loudly proclaiming Birmingham Steel’s role as Washington State’s largest recycler. “Over two years, it was amazing how much the perception of our plant changed,” he says.

A brief stop at Harris Steel in Canada was followed by another stint with Correnti, this time as CFO at the newly built SeverCorr in Columbus, Mississippi. He followed that up with Carl Icahn’s PSC Metals before newly appointed Ryerson CEO Mike Arnold tabbed him to serve as CFO of the company, which was coming off a sluggish decade and needed a change in direction.

At Ryerson, Lehner was given the responsibility of overseeing supply chain, IT, HR and legal functions, while Arnold handled the commercial side, capital allocation and relationships with the board. “We were partners,” Lehner says of Arnold, who retired at the end of 2014, shortly after the company went public again.

After a five-month search for Arnold’s replacement, the board determined the best candidate was already in house, promoting Lehner to the position in May of 2015. Ryerson, of course, had plenty going for it. The company was the oldest in the steel distribution business. It ranked second only to Reliance as North America’s largest service center business. On the other hand, companies that age and size can be difficult to steer in a new direction.

That’s been managed in a variety of ways, others on his leadership team say. “Eddie has challenged us, and we’ve challenged our teams, to challenge the status quo in everything we do, whether it’s in terms of working capital management, operations management, speed to customer, analytics,” says Kevin Richardson, president of the South-East region.

“I’ve been with Ryerson for 29 years. My view is that Eddie has created a business that preserves the rich history of Ryerson, but also provides a modern relevance,” says Brian Seeley, general manager of Ryerson Advanced Processing “The backbone of Ryerson is that customer experience with exceptional service, but now it’s enhanced with digitalization tools and connectivity tools that are going to make for a better customer experience with regard to speed, precision and, ultimately, value for the customer.”

But it takes more than good ideas. “Somebody told me you can’t enact real change in an organization through force. People have to want to see it coming,” says Alan Singleton, general manager of the company’s Texas multi-market. “There is nobody in our organization, at any level, who doesn’t want to see Eddie coming. His passion is consistently around delivering a great customer experience and a great employee experience at the same time.”

In addition to his role at Ryerson, Lehner is currently serving as chairman of the Metals Service Center Institute. That position allows him to expound on one of his major causes, American manufacturing and the need to build. He’s seen firsthand what the deterioration of the industrial base can do.

“I lived through Youngstown when it was prosperous, and I lived through Youngstown when Bruce Springsteen was writing songs about it. And when he writes a song about your town, it’s not because things are going well,” he says.

He advocates for a major infrastructure build, but not just the kind that covers roads, bridges and waterways. He looks at investments in the infrastructure of mobility, in health and wellness and quality of life. But it all comes back to building. “Eisenhower built the interstate. He knew by doing it as a national security exercise he was also going to create the modern automobile industry. It’s OK to dream big, but you’ve got to build.”

Digitalize or Die
Of all the ways in which Ryerson has been transformed in the years since Lehner joined the organization, perhaps none is more meaningful than the way the company has been at the vanguard in the use of analytics, digitalization and eCommerce, among others. And the CEO has been the driving force.

“I’ve been the champion, but it wasn’t that hard to find acolytes and apostles,” he says.

Indeed, Ryerson’s sales staff crows about the opportunities available to them.

“One of the great things about working for Ryerson is all of the tools we have at our advantage,” says Amanda Seabaugh, director of emerging vertical markets.

Those tools include software such as Salesforce and Power BI or internally generated programs, all of which “put a lot of data at our fingertips,” says Jodi West, general manager, global accounts.

To Lehner, digitalization is merely the latest word that captures a trend that’s been going on since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. “I consider the digitalization issue a question you might have asked somebody 100 years ago: Are you going to take that horse or are you going to take that car. Are you going to use Wi-Fi or six-column paper? Or are you going to use fax or use the mail?

“Sometimes you just need to accelerate things.”

And acceleration is central to Ryerson’s approach to business, whether it’s speed to turn around a quote or speed to deliver a product to the customer. “Could we do it fast?” North-West Region President Mike Burbach asks. “And if we’re doing it fast, can we do it faster?”

Ryerson has also embraced e-commerce, which has renewed relevance in the market after a shaky start more than a decade ago. Its role in the supply chain became more obvious during the height of the pandemic, when a digital transaction suddenly seemed a lot more attractive.

“For Ryerson and the industry in general, you have people who are working differently than before. e-commerce is one of the ways of meeting our customers’ needs and helping them feel connected,” says Stacey Smith, eCommerce manager.

And Ryerson stresses that a sale being made digitally carries all of the hallmarks of the traditional transaction. “The fundamentals are still the same,” she says. “We find out what their concerns are, the pain points the customer is having and how we can utilize this tool to help them.”

The industry beyond the Ryerson walls has taken notice. Steel Dynamics President and CEO Mark Millett, who matriculated in the same 20th century Nucor steelmaking school as Lehner, says his former colleague is ahead of the industry when it comes to utilizing the newest tech tools. “For sure, Eddie’s mind is going a million miles an hour. He’s experimenting with new and progressive supply chain options in the marketplace.”

Millett admits that he’s not nearly as comfortable with these tools, and cautions that they need to be used pragmatically. “From my experience, Ryerson is certainly creative and innovative, but there’s a practical approach to what they’re doing.”

Building a Better Workforce
As much as Ryerson is at the cutting edge of digitalization and analytics, the company does not do that at the expense of human capital. Lehner says the frequent presentation of technology or relationships is a false binary. “There’s no conflict. They’re in perfect harmony. If you digitalize correctly, you have more time to develop relations because you’re not doing so much of the shovel and pail work that really is obsolete admin,” he says.

Ryerson has made great strides in diversifying its workforce, which is particularly evident with its next generation of leaders. The company is growing beyond the old, white male demographic that has characterized the industry for too long.

Diversity is beneficial, not just because a company wants to be on “the right side of history,”  he says. “It doesn’t just serve the purpose of doing the right thing, it also serves the purpose of building shareholder value. If you purposely recruit and develop a diverse workforce, you are going to be better as an organization.”

Developing that talent has become a chief aim of Ryerson since the current leadership team took over. One of its innovative features is the creation of the Ryerson Academy, which delivers a yearlong primer on the industry and sales to any sales team member who wants to take part. The first half of the program, the Ryerson Training Academy instructs employees on the company and the industry, covering topics as diverse as the products Ryerson sells to the systems the corporation employs.

The second half of the program is Ryerson Sales Academy, where the employees are given a small book of business, while learning the entire customer service experience.

Anthony Freeman is the customer service experience supervisor for Ryerson Academy, and believes the training is invaluable for all employees, even though it’s geared toward sales. “On the desk, we deal with credit, with procurement, operations, shipping, hitting metrics. It’s a sales training program, but it doesn’t mean you can’t go into some other field. I’ve seen multiple people come through the academy, go back to the desk for a year and then make a name for themselves in HR, in procurement, in credit.”

This training, coupled with the increasingly diverse workforce, has resulted in the loss of a few employees, particularly those young ones on their first jobs who want to see what else might be out there. “We have trained and raised up a lot of people who have parlayed their Ryerson experience into something else they wanted to do, but I know we’re on the right track,” says Lehner, who notes that if Ryerson manages to keep its employees past the seven-year mark, they tend to stay with the company.

While the company wants to encourage internal advancement, it’s also not averse to looking beyond the boundaries of the metal distribution industry to locate talent, which is not a trait of the overall industry. Jorge Beristain is the CFO of Central Steel & Wire, a 2018 Ryerson acquisition. He came to the company following a 20-year career on Wall Street, where he covered the metals and mining business. “As a student of the industry, what always bothered me was how insular it was. I always questioned why the industry doesn’t bring in outsiders from pharma, from retail, from any other industries to shake it up a little. I think it shows a lot of foresight from Eddie to bring in outside people and respect their opinions.”

Lehner says he isn’t specifically looking for outsiders, but “I’m not afraid if they come from outside. I want playmakers.”

Embracing change, from wherever it may come, is at the hub of Lehner’s management philosophy. It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely necessary.

“Changing an organization is difficult. The status quo and inertia put up a hell of a fight,” he says. “The good news about Ryerson is we have people in the organization who understand that.”