Pent-up demand is often a driver in consumer markets, whether talking about automobiles or appliances. Years of foregoing a new purchase builds the need for replacements, particularly when dealing with goods that lose their appeal, and their effectiveness, over time.
The phenomenon also works as a tailwind in the industrial marketplace. Capital-intensive businesses often look to invest in new transportation equipment or machinery when they emerge from the down cycle, either because the old assets are no longer productive or to take advantage of the latest technologies.
This year, it seems that pent-up demand may be at play in the distribution business. After several years of muted activity on the mergers and activity front, large service center companies have entered 2018 with their checkbooks open.
To date, there have been at least 17 business acquisitions by service center companies, most of them involving the purchase of a smaller distributor. This far outstrips the pace of recent years, when that would have been closer to a full-year figure.
The most recent of these deals is also the largest. Early last month, Ryerson announced the acquisition of fellow Chicago company Central Steel and Wire, one of the most recognizable names in the North American metals supply chain. Founded in 1908, Central Steel & Wire was acquired by one of the few North American distributors with more anniversaries under its belt.
The June deal involving the acquisition of the 21st-largest service center by the second-biggest company was not the only instance where one of Metal Center News’ Top 50 found a new owner. Earlier this spring, Union Partners acquired No. 39 Contractors Steel, a Livonia, Mich.-based service center with five Midwestern locations.
Union Partners, in fact, has been the most active company on the M&A front, with four deals to date. Prior to this, its largest acquisition, the private equity company pulled Maksteel, Lamination Specialties and Heidtman Technology Center into its ever-widening orbit.
And expenditures haven’t been limited to these deals. Samuel, Sons & Co. has announced several major investments, most recently $18 million in its automotive processing facility in Brantville, Ontario. The company is also busy moving downstream as a leader in additive manufacturing. New facilities and expansions are also in various stages of completion by Union Partners and Steel Warehouse on the Big River campus, by Flack Global Metals in Athena, Ga., and from TSA Processing in Atlanta.
Much has been made, including in this magazine, of the effects of 232 on production restarts by mills such as U.S. Steel and Republic. But in a much quieter way, the service center industry has been jumping at the chance to grow through investment. Here’s hoping this willingness to spend is reflective of a well-founded faith in the future of the industrial economy.