Together We Are Stronger than Steel
By Brian Robbins | MidWest Materials
on Jan 8, 2020
When asked to share a message from my nearly 25 years of experience in the steel industry, I struggled, considering the many volatile and polarizing issues that seem to exist today. For as we turn the page on the calendar to a new year, it seems more like a time for resolutions, goals and hope. So, I thought about what I discuss when most people outside of our industry ask me about our business, and after the obligatory comments about the economy, inventory costs and tariffs, it usually turns to the people.
The economic changes, political climate, supply chain challenges and competition definitely keep our industry exciting, but I think many would agree it is the people we meet and the relationships we have developed that make it remarkable. I have had the unique opportunity to meet four generations of people working throughout our industry over the years, some pioneers and some just starting. As I am sure many of you know, steel “folk” are some of the most fascinating people and best storytellers you are likely to encounter. I know that iPhones and emails are a mainstay in our lives today, but nothing beats having dinner with a steel veteran where not only may you make a deal on a napkin, but the conversation will likely turn to someone’s first sale. Or their biggest buy, or an infamous character from the good old days, or the time someone played Augusta, or met the Rat Pack, or was at “that” game. Dave Lerman recently commented that you should “Shake hands with your competitors. Remember they’re not enemies – just good guys on the other side of the field!” He is exactly right. Our competitors make us better (even when we are frustrated with them). And when you get to know them, you are likely to learn something or hear a good story. I am lucky to have worked with many competitors through involvement in different associations, and I am honored to call many of them my best friends. Sure, we are all in business to make a profit, but I suspect many stay in this business, survive in it and even thrive in it because of their relationships with the people in it.
Despite our industry’s secret sauce, we struggle to attract younger people to join our businesses. And I am reminded of remarks I made five years ago when I was installed as president of Association of Steel Distributors. I think they still apply today, and I would share them here.
I am really proud to be a part of such an amazing community. The steel community has been vibrant, to say the least, for a long time. In its heyday, a job offer to a corporate steel sales training program was one of the most sought after. Steel was cool. The industry was respected. There was travel, and company golf courses, interesting people and great relationships. Industry was growing, and thus steel was needed. Steel executives, even steel salespeople, were celebrities in their communities.
Back when big steel was a thriving, sexy industry, the national, and international, community viewed it as a viable means of employment and stability. Then there were some dark days, with oversupply, dumping, market crashes, offshoring and bankruptcies. (Of course, that is when I joined…) Job seekers wanted to work at the new sexy companies such as Google and Apple and other dot-coms; steel companies became relatively anonymous. And jobs in the steel industry became, well, undesirable.
But with difficult years behind us for now, and the return of success at many levels of the steel chain, it is time to revive the old mindset, to encourage those with intellect, an entrepreneurial spirit and ambition to join our ranks.
We are a close-knit group of industry experts who understand the importance of steel within the U.S. More importantly, we understand what a great community we work in and the amazing opportunities it provides us. However, how do we get others to view the steel industry with the same passion?
First, recruit. We need to attract young women and men directly. And we need to invest in technology and our office spaces. But more importantly: Get Involved. Be a leader and set an example. Donate your time or money to an inspiring cause. Organize a steel group for your local breast cancer walk. Coach your child’s school sports team and sponsor them with steel company T-shirts. Engage in policy and political discussions. Join a civic or philanthropic committee or board. By getting involved in your local community, being visible and sharing your success, you reflect the integrity and achievement of our industry.
Participate, innovate and advocate in and for the steel industry. Be a storyteller. Communicating the strength of steel to our communities is as easy as engaging with individuals and being generous with our successes. As a strong community, we are in the perfect position to educate and advocate for steel. Individually we each can be an ambassador and make a difference, and as is the motto at MidWest Materials, “Together We Are Stronger Than Steel!”