As customers demand tighter tube tolerances, mills mustn’t lose sight of service
December 2013 - Maruichi Leavitt Pipe and Tube is a small company doing big business. In 2008, Japan’s largest steel tube maker, Osaka-based Maruichi Steel Tube Ltd., acquired and refocused Chicago-based Leavitt Tube Co. With the new parent company came the installation of new mills. With increasingly complex customer specifications comes the need to focus on both technology and training. Jim Erhart, sales and marketing representative, discusses how to keep an ever-evolving customer-service focused operation running fast and tight.
Modern Metals:How do you maintain a smooth tube and pipe operation while shifting to more sophisticated parts?
Jim Erhart: Customers are demanding tighter tolerances. We addressed this by investing in new equipment. Before, our mills were older—we had a 40-year-old mill and 35-year-old mill, and obviously a lot has changed technology-wise in the past 30 to 40 years. The first big thing is getting in the new equipment, which allows for manufacturing tubing with greater quality specs, tighter tolerances and whatnot for today’s more demanding applications. Since we installed a new W50 structural tube mill and a No. 8 mechanical tube mill in 2012, we’ve gone through a series of intense training exercises to equip our guys with expertise in how to produce tube with tighter tolerances. In some cases, we’ve hired outside consultants for more advanced training purposes. This has enabled us to get into more end-use tubing applications we couldn’t before, such as automotive grade tubing and higher-end agricultural equipment we couldn’t consistently manufacture in the past.
With new applications, there’s always a learning curve. You start a new project and you’re coming into it eagerly. You have a general idea, you know how to make tube, follow a print and produce the tube to what the print says. But then you send it off and more often than not, there’s always something the customer didn’t mention. Making a product the customer requires versus trying to just follow a specification introduces nuances that our staff, not just the machines, must accommodate. This is especially tough in a market where someone might be used to dealing with the same tube supplier for 20 years. Sure, they can provide you tube. We can do it better with our new equipment, even if there is a learning curve to get product perfect on our end.
MM: Aside from new equipment, where does a personal, customer service approach fit in?
JE: We aren’t doing this just to stay current with the market. Versus our competitors, what we give is a more consultative approach to things. In looking at developing new customers in the Midwest that require more demanding tubing, we have our sales reps and vice president of operations visit with them to discuss what they need and will need in the future. The more we talk with our customers, the more we find that our competitors are not offering that level of service.
As our employees get better with our new equipment, our level of service grows. Our sales reps in the office are easy to get ahold of and our reps in the field come on-site if there’s an issue that needs to be resolved. Our operations team is very mobile and willing to visit with customers to provide solutions to the issues they might be having.
MM: How does having a smaller business support the company’s knowledge base?
JE: We’re relatively small so we can react fast, and that translates to a faster knowledge base. Not having multiple layers of management here helps because you can get answers fast. That’s important to customers because most of the time, the first person to respond wins the business. Everyone is so busy now. Any time we can assist our customers and make their job more efficient, it helps us gain and then maintain their business. And hopefully grow it. MM