Over the course of four decades, an Alabama service center has grown into an international distributor of weathering steel.
For many service centers trying to survive in a frequently low-margin world, there is a never-ending quest to offer more. Whether that’s a push into more downstream processing or an expansion of the product line, growing the business often involves a move into previously unfamiliar territory.
That’s not how they think at Central Steel Service. For 40 years now, the distributor based in Pelham, Ala., has thrived by staying the course.
Central Steel Service, which hit the four-decade mark in March, specializes in the distribution of high-strength weathering steel, often referred to as Cor-ten. The Cor-ten name, created by U.S. Steel for its trademark product, comes from a combination of its two noteworthy factors – corrosion resistance and tensile strength. The product was developed primarily for bridge fabrication, though it has since expanded into several other applications.
Launched as a sister company to a pollution control fabrication business, Process Equipment, Central Steel Service has evolved steadily into a nationwide distributor of the niche product.
“In the beginning, Process Equipment was our single customer. We’ve grown since that time,” says Keith Woods, CEO and owner of the company.
That growth is reflected in its relationship with Process Equipment. Once the sole customer for its products, the since-separated Process Equipment now represents only 1 percent of Central Steel’s business. “They’re still buying what they always had,” says Woods.
Weathering steel products, are found in a number of end uses beyond its original application in bridge construction. Transmission poles, ocean containers and industrial applications all find use for its strength and corrosion-resistant properties and its unique look.
Due to the chemical makeup of the product, after installation, the metal quickly develops a rust or orange-brown patina, which guards against future corrosion. It doesn’t need to be coated or painted, though some end users, such as ocean container builders, will paint it for aesthetics. “Once that paint begins to chip, the Cor-ten takes over and develops its patina to give the container a longer life cycle,” Woods says.
In recent years, architects have taken to the material for building facades and other aesthetic applications where steel is exposed. A prime example is Central Steel’s facility, which makes good use of the material to showcase its appeal.
The material is also popular in the Southwest, where the material blends nicely with the natural landscape. “It’s starting to be used in a lot in the transmission pole industry. In rural environments, it has a better appearance than a silvery galvanized pole,” he says.
But it’s also found its way to the ultimate urban environment, Brooklyn, N.Y. The entire Barclays Center is constructed with weathering steel, to mixed reviews. “A lot of people love it. A lot of people hate it. We like the people who love it,” Woods remarks.
Because weathering steel materials are a true niche product, Central Steel occupies a rare place in the market. There simply aren’t many companies that laser focus on weathering steel, particularly those who have been doing it for 40 years.
“Domestically, there aren’t a lot of service centers around that have a bunch of weathering steel sitting outside the warehouse,” Woods says.
That has allowed the company to expand its market beyond the Southern U.S. First, the company began selling across the U.S. Now, it even sells some material internationally.
Naturally, that isn’t a major source of business for the company. “We may ship 5,000 pounds to India or 1,000 to Dubai. It’s not a huge percentage of our business, but it is part of it. We don’t turn it away.”
Central Steel’s focus helps it stand out in a search engine world. Any would-be purchaser of weathering steel who is otherwise unfamiliar with weathering steel will quickly be directed the company’s way if they type weathering steel or Cor-ten into a search bar. That has helped the company broaden its market.
Along those lines, the company employs just one outside sales representative, who primarily handles the needs of Central Steel’s existing customers. Trying to go out on the road and pitch the product just wouldn’t make sense as the rejection rate would be too high to justify it, Woods says.
The company’s growth has come from the increased use of weathering steel, the buildout of its geographic reach and the expansion of its product line around the weathering steel family. Besides plate, Central Steel has long sold coil, angles, channels, rounds and squares.
In the last decade, the company has expanded that line to include pipe and tube products, plus a little abrasion-resistant plate. It is a significant supplier of material from SSAB, which operates a mill in Mobile, Ala.
Central Steel’s services include some plate burning – the company maintains three plasma burning tables – and a little saw cutting. “It’s not production sawing to any extent. We’re not punching holes or forming. We’re mainly cutting 40 foot to 20 foot or 20 foot to 10 foot,” Woods says.
The resulting growth has taken the company from its original 30,000 square feet to its current 125,000. Central Steel is occasionally tempted to expand its processing options downstream, but has typically backed away because of the desire not to step on its customers’ toes.
Company executives recognize there is immense value in the name they’ve built as a distributor in this particular niche.
“Our purpose and our selling point is being able to say, ‘This is what we do and we do it better than anyone else you’re going to deal within these products,’” Woods says. “We’ve just stuck to it. We know what we do and we stay out of everybody’s way.” ?Caption:Central Steel Service operates out of a single warehouse facility in Pelham, Ala.
(Photo courtesy of Central Steel Service)