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Tuesday | 15 July, 2014 | 2:49 pm

The Ambassadors

By Corinna Petry

Lifelong relationship building is the key to ASD remaining true to its cultural mission.

July 2014 - Members of the Association of Steel Distributors are typically family-owned businesses with multigenerational involvement, mostly private and therefore free from an overly corporate culture and the demands of outside shareholders.

This independence allows member companies to steer their own futures, advise and assist one another even when they compete, and serve as ambassadors for the steel industry at large.

Networking and relationship building have been key to the Chicago-based organization’s success over the past 70 years, according to president Brian Robbins and executive director Marc Saracco. ASD offers members an incalculable amount of camaraderie, accessibility and plainspoken experience.

“Contacts made through ASD have allowed individual members to advocate on their own behalf or on behalf of the steel industry with government representatives, industry executives and the press,” says Robbins, chief executive officer of MidWest Materials Inc., Perry, Ohio.

“The ASD isn’t just the Association of Steel Distributors, but rather we are the Ambassadors of Steel Distribution,” he says, adding, “Everything our members put into the association will be given back tenfold.”

ASD initiatives such as scholarship programming, forums and mentoring allow the next generation to build upon the knowledge of current executives so they are well equipped to lead member companies and the organization through the 21st century.

Scholarship program

The group is reaching out to the next generations of workers. To help students develop potential careers in the steel industry, ASD launched the ASD/Keith Busse Scholarship Program. Students who are academically qualified and need financial support to complete their studies may be awarded up to $2,000 each.

Busse, co-founder, executive chairman and past CEO of Steel Dynamics Inc., Fort Wayne, Indiana, has agreed to match the funds raised for the program, says Saracco. “We have had great success in raising money for the scholarship, an initiative that will create goodwill by enriching the lives of students attached to member companies.”

For those already in the industry’s workforce, ASD has launched a Future Leaders Forum. “This group comprises individuals who are new to the industry but represent the future of our association as well as the industry,” says Saracco. “Our goal is to arm this group with the tools necessary to compete and excel in their jobs.” 

The forum met most recently to learn about digital marketing. “We believe it’s this type of training and education that will be the basis for the long-term personal and professional relationships that ASD provides,” Saracco adds.

As individual members of a group like ASD begin to retire, it may be hard to sustain optimal membership numbers if the next generation fails to find the value.

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“With the Future Leaders Forum, we want to renew focus on the technical side of the industry. This group has stated that this is what they’d like to gain from the ASD, and it’s up to us to deliver,” he says.

“As president of MidWest Materials as well as of ASD, I try to promote the sexy side of steel and work to attract the younger generation to our industry,” Robbins says. “We hope to provide knowledge and tools to help transition to the next generation, and generate buzz about it via social media, for example, so we attract millennials to the many differing opportunities in our industry.”

Hot button issues

For five to six regional meetings per year, plus two nationwide conferences, ASD invites speakers to address such topics as current industry issues, steel education, investment banking, lending and credit insurance, employee management and more. “We bring in speakers that address a hot-button issue,” says Saracco.

At a recent meeting, for example, ASD had an investment banker discuss company valuation and succession planning. The presentation focused on transfer of ownership best practices, including transfer of ownership to family, as well as non-family employees.

Regarding long-term planning decisions that owner-operators must each make about his or her company’s futures, “nothing could provide more guidance than one-on-one discussion with those who are in the same boat or who have gone through similar experiences,” Robbins says. 

“We also have smaller meetings for CEOs a few times a year that focus on topics relevant to executives and owners. These have been extremely valuable in providing information on succession planning, valuation, insurance, etc.,” he adds. 

Tricks of the trade

Based on the relationships and strong friendships they’ve built by participating in meetings, individual members feel comfortable enough to approach one another for practical advice like selecting the right coil processing or sawing equipment or the best software for inventory management and order fulfillment.

“We provide the atmosphere for these types of conversations to occur. Members have the opportunity to connect face to face seven to eight times a year. At conferences and meetings are where these ‘tricks of the trade’ are shared,” Saracco says, adding, “The beauty of the ASD is that the older, established generation is so willing to impart their knowledge onto the newcomers.”

According to Robbins, “Not only are equipment manufacturers and software developers regular participants at meetings—thus creating the environment for gathering information and furthering relationships—but members are the most valuable resource to provide information and experience in response to specific inquiries, especially when it comes to more costly capital investments.

“Although we’re in the same industry—some of us are direct competitors—it is rare that an owner of a member company would not impart candid and personal information relative to products,” he says.

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“Participating, networking and developing relationships and friendships goes a lot further than just trying to sell steel one transaction at a time,” says Saracco. “ASD is unique in the cooperative spirit among its participating members, and by offering that genuine feeling of being a community.”

Robbins agrees. “These relationships turn to friendships. Members get the information and assistance they need by attending [events] immediately while also creating a network of resources from whom they can get individualized information and assistance in the future.”

With any association, a member can get the most benefit from participation, he says. “The more one attends meetings and utilizes the resources, the more value one can realize.” 

Accessibility

Because of its affordable dues and meeting fees, ASD could be viewed as rather democratic. The organization provides an opportunity for all sized companies, says Robbins. “Participation tends to include salespeople, purchasing and operations people and even support personnel. That is a little more inclusive than some other organizations.”

Non-owners attending meetings gain access to higher level executives within and outside their own companies. They have access to the expert speakers, too, for real conversations, forging relationships with people they normally may not be able to meet in their regular jobs.

Such access can benefit a rank-and-file employee by providing opportunities for dialogue at multiple levels that often aren’t available or as candid when the group is more homogenous, Robbins says.

The group readily tackles advocacy, too. “The ASD hosted a sit-down meeting with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the leaders of eight member companies from the state of Ohio last year. This meeting represented a unique setting and provided tremendous access,” says Saracco. 

It is impossible to overemphasize the familial relationships aspect of the group. When Robbins accepted the presidency during ASD’s annual meeting this past spring, he mentioned the family ties between members that go back generations.

Robbins’ grandfather, Joseph Koppelman, served as ASD president 45 years ago. His mother, Noreen Koppelman Goldstein, MidWest Materials’ current president, recently reminded Robbins that “her dad brought her to conferences since 1958. It is a tradition I suggest we all follow, as our relationships can be a great model to our children and grandchildren,” he says.

Such relationships cannot be bought. They imbue members with a sense of history, a sense of a social compact with their employees, and the honesty and integrity that is required to build a respected business for the long haul. MM

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