When people ask what I do, and I tell them I run a stainless steel service center, they inevitably ask me some form of the question: “Do you concentrate more on the stainless or the service?”
And after 41 years in the business, my answer is always the same: “Yes.”
As our industry has evolved over the last several decades, those companies who have weathered bad times and still prosper today are the ones that understand that simple yet complex proposition.
You can sell the best material in the world, but if you can’t process and deliver in a timely manner and in the forms that best serve the ultimate users – you aren’t going to be doing it long. And at the same time, if your service to customers is spectacular in every way but the quality of what you sell doesn’t match that – you’ll soon be moving to a new position.
That’s the delicate dance stainless steel service centers must perform today, making sure their moves regarding material are in full sync with their partners on the service side. It sounds simple, but one misstep can ruin the whole production number and get you that dreaded low score from the judges.
When we founded Atlantic Stainless in 1983, life was simpler. You brought in material, maybe you cut it, and then you shipped it. You sent the packing slip and certifications, and moved on to the next order.
Today the process is a bit more complex. The value-added aspect is more important than ever. Maybe we shear the material, or perhaps it has to be cut to computerized drawings with our high-definition, water-injected plasma machine. Sometimes the customer requires waterjet cut metal for even closer tolerances. We might be cutting round bars on one of our automatic band saws, or perhaps some flat-rolled product has to be stripped on a plate saw.
The tolerances get tighter, the specifications more complex, and even the finishes become the responsibility of the service center rather than an after-purchase process handled by the end user. Today our Massachusetts plant has several polishing machines and stations – something we never would have considered back almost four decades ago.
And the increased demands on the quality-assurance side are equally daunting. Meeting the various quality needs of a wide range of customers is one of the biggest challenges to stainless service centers today. The wider range of products you offer, the wider the array of quality issues you must address.
Specialization is the key for many service centers. The “one-stop service center” may well be the exception rather than the norm these days. Pipe and tubing, or flat-rolled, or hardware, or bar products – many companies find it easier and more efficient to concentrate on only one area.
Those like Atlantic Stainless who choose to deal in all those products and more increasingly turn to technology to help. Custom software systems and new modern equipment certainly aid those firms in keeping up with the demands of staying on top of a more varied and complex inventory.
In the end, despite all the automation and technology, today’s metal service centers are still only as good as the people who work within them. From the leadership on down to the shipping floor, from the sales staff to the accounting department and the equipment operators, the biggest key to success is hiring and keeping dedicated employees who reflect your goals, methods and dedication to your customers.
They are the ones who allow us to concentrate on both the stainless and the service.
"As our industry has evolved over the last several decades, those companies who have weathered bad times and still prosper today are the ones that understand that simple yet complex proposition."Bill Gouveia is vice president of Atlantic Stainless Co., Inc., a stainless steel service center in Massachusetts he co-founded in 1983.